Saturday, June 19, 2010

Toy Story 3 and the Afterlife

Don't read this if you haven't seen the movie. This is SPOILERIFIC. Go see the movie now. It is awesome. Then come back and read this.

Pixar's latest film is an astoundingly good meditation on death and the afterlife... with toys. Through the course of the movie the protagonists confront or consider a variety of possible scenarios for what fate awaits them. Most interestingly the movie has a clear hierarchy for which possibilities are the best and worst.

At the beginning of the movie we know already that Andy, the owner of Buzz and Woody and friends is going to college. The toys make a last ditch attempt to get him to play with them, but when it fails they resign themselves to the fact that their life as Andy's toys is over. This is death. The movie takes it for granted from the get go. There is no question whether the toys will "die". The question is what awaits them afterward. We are presented with 5 options in order from the worst to the best:

#5 - Annihilation. The worst possible fate awaiting the toys after the end of their life with Andy is total annihilation according to Pixar. At the genuinely terrifying climax of the movie the toys are in the furnace at the landfill unable to escape and on the absolute brink of being melted down. The scene is presented in such a bleak way that I was actually convinced Disney would allow children to watch their favorite animated toys get obliterated against all meta-film logic. Amazing storytelling and a sublime example of eucatastrophe let you know that this is not the option the writers choose for their characters. Beyond the furnace there is nothing. They could have chosen to show melted plastic being recycled and include reincarnation among their possible afterlifes but in the film the fire is just a full stop. It is fascinating that this was the worst fate in the writer's minds because it is one that a growing number of atheists are perfectly comfortable with.

#4 - Hell. Not as extreme as annihilation, but almost as bad is Hell, which in this case takes the shape of a daycare/gulag run by an evil pink teddy bear. The toys are imprisoned and tortured by having their joys turned into nightmares and their identities robbed (in the case of Buzz Lightyear). Interestingly, hell itself offers a choice of destinations. The destiny of most toys in hell is to become trash and be annihilated. The only way to avoid ending up at number 5 is to become the jailers and imprison and torture other toys. Staying in hell means becoming Satan.

#3 - Purgatory. Initially the toys were going to be put in a box in the attic awaiting an unknown future. There is some hope, "Andy might have kids of his own one day," but no certainty - they could still end up getting sent to hell (donated) or annihilated (thrown away). Purgatory is not as good as life, even Woody who gets to go to the nice purgatory (college) has to leave his friends, and none of them get to do what they feel is their purpose: be played with by Andy. After facing Hell and Annihilation the toys decide that purgatory looks like an acceptable fate, because they can't imagine better... yet.

#2 - Heaven. The evil pink teddy bear steps over the line and is tossed out of Hell by his own lackeys. What happens then is pretty profound - Sunnyside Daycare become the Toy Story version of Heaven. This is a place toys go when they die, but instead of a gulag where they are tortured, it is a place where they are cared for and made whole. According to Pixar heaven and hell are the same place and even all the people are the same. The only difference? How they treat each other. As good as heaven is though, this is not the fate that the writer's chose for their characters. Woody envisions something even better...

#1 Resurrection. The toys end up handed down, by Andy to a young girl who he trusts to take good care of them. Andy hands each of them over, relinquishing ownership by telling their story one by one to the girl who takes them with gratitude. The difference between this and heaven is that it is not an escape from the world. The toys remain in the world for which they were created, to be owned and loved by a kid. Escape from this world isn't desirable, even to go to a nice-seeming place like heaven, because this is the world God created and loved. The toys wave goodbye to Andy who is moving on to a new life of his own while Woody, Buzz, and the gang look astounded at having been given a fresh beginning. The best of all possibilities for life after death, according to Pixar, is to rise again; to be gifted a first day, after our last.


Doug Hagler said...

This is kind of brilliant; I really like it. It's very interesting that the two poles are annihilation and resurrection, with Hell and Heaven sandwiched between them.

Though I might disagree, and put Hell as the worst option. The reason I say this is that the toys are more than willing to risk annihilation to escape Hell. Even fear of annihilation does not convince them to remain in Hell.

Aric Clark said...

I can see that argument and that is how I would order the options if it were according to own beliefs. The reason I put it the way I did though is because Pixar put the furnace at the low-point of the movie and really dramatized it as something awful. I think the toys might have accepted going back to hell at that moment if the choice were presented to them. Maybe not.

Doug Hagler said...

I also loved the eucatastrophe. They really encouraged us to forget about the little aliens, but of course, the moment the claw appeared, it was a thrill. I was also really at the point of, like, they're going to burn the toys? Holy crap.

Shakespeare87 said...

Well I would say U shouldn't use the word don't read this... because the word don't will trigger my interest... probably should say... watch the movie first before u read this.... :p

hanum said...

really great animation film ^^

Jodie said...

I thought it was a euphemism for what happens to pets when kids go off to college.

Or Puff, the magic dragon.

Or characters in a play, when they are not on stage.

Is existentialism about the after life? Or is it more about who we are and what is our purpose in life? Does life even have a purpose?

Are we apart from what we are for? What is the true nature and purpose of man? Are we the play things of the gods, or do we have a will of our own? What happens when we are given our "freedom?" Do we turn to evil? Is evil about nature or nurture? What is the role of loyalty and faithfulness?

Maybe its all about mid life crisis.

Doug Hagler said...

@ Jodie

I'd say that existentialism is often about death, once you get right down to it. At the very least, without death, there is no urgency as to the meaning of our existence.

Mid-life crises are definitely about death.

Kids going off to college is definitely about loss, of which death is a subset.

We do have a will of our own - or at least, life is only meaningful if we act as if we do. We use our freedom for both evil and good - probably no unmitigated evil, probably no good without any evil in it. Evil is about nature and nurture - it is there both in the structure of the world and in the choices we make.

All that being said, I still think that Toy Story 3 is about death and what comes after...among other things.

Aric Clark said...

Doug got to it before me. Ditto.

Jodie said...

Yes, but the difference I think is whether death is something we look through to see the other side, or whether death reflects back to us our current life.

Its a big difference.

I think this story is about loss and how loss can cause you to reinvent your present life.

Doug Hagler said...

I don't feel compelled to make the hard distinction between the two. Death is something that 80& of us or so look through to something else, and it is also something that reflects back on our life. Yes and yes.

Mr. Fitz said...

I found the movie daring-- and incredibly moving is some way I couldn't quite define. When Andy hands the toys over to the Bonnie, I just started crying both times I saw the movie. We all joked that Pixar made us cry over plastic-- but I think they really made us cry over a lot of things.

I think the movie also touches on nihilism. Lotso says toys were made to be thrown in the trash in the end. The message of the movie, though is that none of us are. I hadn't thought of Bonnie's house as resurrection rather than heaven as it is commonly understood-- I really like that analogy.

Of course, the metaphors only work so far-- what happens when Bonnie grows up? But on the whole, I think it really affirmed that life does have meaning.

Aric Clark said...

Mr. Fitz,

Pleasure to make your acquaintance - from your google profile it looks like you are an interesting guy.

For me the first test of art is whether it has the power to move people. Pixar clearly passes this test time and again and did so with great success in this movie. The second test is whether it is productive for mining of meaning. If you can go back to a film or painting or poem again and again and get new layers of depth and meaning from it then it is art. I think this film meets that criterion too.

You're right that the metaphors only go so far, but that's the very nature of a metaphor - it helps us reach into the transcendent, but it is still just a facsimile, an approximation. The truly transcendent remains out of reach and so we need cascades of metaphors to keep lifting us to the brink.

Mr. Fitz said...

Pleasure to make yours, as well.

My test for what is art is very similar to yours-- if not identitical. One of things I like about teaching the same book or play multiple times is that I always find something new-- or else the students point out something I hadn't noticed even on multiple readings.

I realize that in that regard, Toy Story 3 could be "read" from an atheist perspective, that the three-eyed aliens aren't deities, and so ultimately we have to "save ourselves." That said, I supposed it's going a little too far to note that there are three of them, each with three eyes... hmmm... a little bit of trinitarian thinking going on there?

Of course, I once spent a car ride home from "The Rescuers Down Under" dissecting the character development of Bernard and Bianca with a friend, and his wife said "Guys-- they're MICE!"

So I remind myself... David, they're TOYS. But then I think-- yes, but aren't we all?

Nick.Larson said...

(I just saw the movie last night so I could finally read through the post/comments)

I absolutely love your framework Aric, and everyone has developed it nicely here. I love your challenge of loss as a form of transformation Jodie. There is a really interesting woman in the bay area working on/with grief...can't think of her name at the moment by her theory is called Degriefing. She talks about how grief is an untapped resource for change and that while loss maybe never goes away we can transform our relationship to it. Reminds me very much about what you were talking about Jodie.

For me the mirror of heaven/hell reminds me of Mirosalv Volf "Exclusion and Embrace." Until we except those different from ourselves we are infact excluding ourselves from "heaven." I think this is excellently protrayed in Toy Story 3 with Ken (who was probably my favorite character). He had to discover a way through hell by embracing relationship with another (Barbie) and then manages through that relationship to help redeem those around him. I think his role shouldn't be overlooked in the transformation of hell into heaven. For me is is also shown in Woody's choice to stay with the others and be reborn rather than stay with Andy and be in limbo.

But yes. Mr. Fritz they are just toys. As much as anything can be JUST something.

Mr. Fitz said...

Point taken. If there's one thing I have decided is worth fighting lately, it's reductionism-- the idea that things are "just" something.

Has anyone read the C.S. Lewis essay "Meditation in a Toolshed"? He talks about looking "at" a child playing with a doll from the outside. She is lavishing affection on a piece of plastic. When you get inside her experience, though, (Lewis calls it "looking along" the experience) the doll is not just a piece of plastic-- it really means something to that child, and that child almost imbues it with life.

Perhaps that's something to take away from the whole Toy Story trilogy-- that Toys aren't just toys. Like anything, they are what we make them.


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Anonymous said...

I think toys are idols = representations of gods. Andy is actually not just a boy but "people". People believe & play with gods just like children believe & play with toys.

Andy Davis (=Man of David's family) is a good one, Sid Philips (=Seth (=Satan) Horserider (=Horsemen of Apocalypse), says he wants to ride a pony (in his sleep)) is a bad one.

Woody is Christ (The Sheppard) - a wise leader of more primitive gods. Buzz is same figure, but just more modern. They personify faith(love) & technology(science). They fight and than discover that they are a good team. All the other characters are also allusions to different cults.

The whole story is basically a "God Story", about gods fighting for people love & faith.