Pixar Studios have that sadistic knack for wielding genuine, heartfelt emotion as if it were a lightweight magic axe. It looks effortless, but then it’s hard to tell, since your head’s been lopped off and landed somewhere near your eight-year-old self. The angle is awkward, the view impaired, and your own eight-year-old cries ring in your ears. Your adult hands desperately crack away at the keys, to herald the rule of the digital kings. How do these toys (or, for that matter, those fish, those rats, those monsters and those superheroes) manage to take our inner child hostage?
This is my guess, and it relies a little bit on something called “object-relations theory”. Because I think it’s significant that the first big-budget CGI film centres around toys, whose sole reason for being is to foster the imaginings and development of a child.
The third film opens in a panoramic, Old-West style sequence, in which Woody (Tom Hanks) and Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) outwit the kingpins of their rogue’s gallery. The whole sequence is overblown, gratuitous, and extremely effective, in its call-backs to the preceding films and transition to home video footage of Andy himself pulling the strings as a hyperactive, imaginative young boy.
If Toy Story 3 makes one thing clear, it’s that the heroes of the trilogy, despite their self-awareness, have always owed their existence and identities to this kid. Contrast their identities at “playtime” with their “real” ones – heroic Woody becomes a well-rounded leader, professional Buzz is kind of a stickler, arch-villains Potato Head and Hamm are, well, kind of douchebags. The thing about these films has never been that toys ‘have a life of their own’. It’s that, without their kid, they don’t, and neither do we without them.
A psychoanalyst of the mid-20th century named DW Winnicott had a few things to say on the role of fantasy and play. Having been babies, you’ll all no doubt remember those confusing years before inner and outer, me and not-me, subject and object were clearly separated. You no doubt relied, Winnicott would say, on “intermediate areas of experience”, sucking on a blanket to pretend it was a breast etc. That blanket, or teddy, or cowboy doll is called a “transitional object”, because through play the child is able to mediate his inner and outer realities.
The key lesson for us crying, shitting babies to learn is that the “the world is something outside [our] omnipotent control but is also something shareable” – in short, the social and cognitive foundations of our own minds are lain by participating in play. Later, when the basics are more or less covered, we rely less and less on imaginative play, but we never forget its deep appeal. It re-emerges in cinema, particularly animated cinema, particularly Pixar animated cinema revolving around toys at playtime.
So the large-scale ‘playtime’ that occurs in the 2nd and 3rd acts of Toy Story 3 – from that of the paranoid-schizophrenic toddlers in Sunnyside Daycare, to the perfectly-pitched exchange between Andy and adorable Bonnie, to the ‘hands-free’ playtime of Pixar technicians in between – we are treated over and over to the simple pleasures of artistic play. You could say this drives the narratives of The Incredibles, Monsters Inc, Wall-E and the sum of Pixar’s short films – the sheer thrill of moving figures in imaginary spaces, imagining what can happen and marvelling when it does.