Toy Story 3: Individualism, Community and a Happy Ending

Reduce, reuse and recycle” seems to be at the heart of Toy Story 3‘s “environmental” theme. This is the third of 3 posts that considers how this theme is worked out in the third of the Toy Story saga.

To recap on the Toy Story 3 interpretation so far . . . Lotso can be seen as a metaphor for capitalist systems of production and consumption, and he is coded as the bad guy. Woody and Buzz refer to the American frontier (wilderness and space) and the American values tied to it, which encodes them the good guys. However, the frontier they stand for is all used up, and the values upon which it rests, like the characters themselves, are threatened under Lotso’s over-bear-ing claw.

These strands come together in the climatic incinerator scene. After arriving at the quintessential symbol for the used-up-ness of resources, the rubbish tip, the characters are bundled into the incinerator chute. Reading this progression metaphorically, I think the imagery of their movement from a landscape piled high with trash, followed by their entrapment on a conveyor belt that is moving inextricably towards a fiery furnace is suggestive of the following trajectory: excessive waste and pollution to global warming to uninhabitable climates for humans. Initially, I was disappointed by the film’s ending. In an undeniably clever deus ex machina, the alien toys use their UFO Catcher skills to rescue the heroes. My initial response was that this ending suggested that the only thing which will alleviate current environmental problems is the unlikely intervention of some being from another world. Why take responsibility for environmentally disastrous actions of the past and try to implement changes now if “salvation” does not rely on our actions?

However, upon further reflection, I think Lotso’s betrayal changes the emphasis of this ending somewhat. While on the conveyor belt, Lotso sees the “stop conveyor belt” button overhead. Trusting Lotso to press the button and save all their lives, Woody and Buzz push Lotso up the ladder and out of harm’s way. Par for the course for the bad guy, Lotso doesn’t press the button, instead he proclaims, “Where’s your boy now” (referring to Andy, Woody’s owner) and flees, leaving the others to be destroyed.

[7/365] Axis of Evil

[7/365] Axis of Evil (Photo credit: pasukaru76)

When the actions of Lotso—who can be understood as standing for capitalist logic—are taken into consideration, I think a different layer of meaning emerges. This scene seems to suggest that without the lure of incentives or threat of repercussions the invisible hand of the market (i.e. Lotso-big business) will not implement environmentally responsible practices. The guiding interest of big business is short term (i.e. profit) of the company and not long term sustainability of planet habitable by humans and other species. That is, once saved from imminent doom, Lotso abandons his loyalties to his fellow toys, and takes the opportunity to assert his truism that value and power are symbolically negotiated rather than innately located: for how would a boy who loved a particular toy let that toy be destroyed? Lotso wins his value and power through shrewd independence and one upmanship, and not cooperation and mutual obligation.

The other toys, on the other hand, symbolically join hands to meet their combined fate together. This gesture registers a recognition of the interconnectedness of their lives and demise. The alien toys, rather than abandoning their friends and saving themselves, work together to use the tools and skills available to them to save their friends. This I think is a much more pleasing environmental “message”, if somewhat undercut by the film’s complicity to make profit through the merchandising of tchotchke.

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