Last week, Mike Mozart, a former Toy Consultant for Pixar, shared an extremely dark and depressing story for why Andy’s dad is never seen or mentioned in the Toy Story movies: he died of polio. While this bleak origin has since been refuted by Pixar writers, that the revelation, which Mozart claimed was explained to him by late writer Joe Ranft, was seen as true, speaks to a greater truth about the world of Toy Story: It’s dark as hell. And if you think polio is shocking, then boy do I have a mind-blower to lay on you.
Before we go any further, a disclaimer: I absolutely love the Toy Story movies. I mean, what’s not to love? They are funny, smart, heartwarming films that work together to tell a beautiful, complete story that only gets better with each new viewing. This article is not a takedown. Instead, it’s some neurotic insight into a fantastic franchise from someone who spends far too much time-consuming pop culture.
As you’re well aware, Pixar doesn’t shy away from populating the Toy Story world with creepy stuff. Just look at the franchise’s villains. Remember Sid? That horrible brat who abuses toys for fun? Or Stinky Pete, the prospector who threatens Woody’s life in order to ensure he’s never played with again? And let’s not forget about Lotso, the self-loathing teddy bear who wants all toys to share his morbid death wish? He’s behind what’s the most legitimately terrifying moment in the franchise, where, in Toy Story 3, the gang is headed to the furnace.
While this is all horrific, none of it compares to the fact that the Toy Story are alive. Yes, this is the impetus for the action in the entire Toy Story universe. But really think about what this means. These toys are living beings with the same emotional capacity as humans. They feel joy, sadness, relief, fear, anger, jealousy, and, most of all, love. As such, they, as much as humans, deserve to have complete control over their own lives. And yet they live in servitude to humans, gladly giving up any sense of control over their own lives in order to bring children joy. The disturbing implications that come with this realization are nothing short of horrifying, and essentially reverses everything you thought you knew about the films.
We the viewer are never told exactly how the toys come to life, but their origin doesn’t really matter. It’s a movie after all. The more interesting and darker question is why does every toy instinctively knows to hide the fact that they are alive from humans? Even Buzz, who at the start of Toy Story believes himself to be a real space explorer, freezes every time Andy enters the room. Is this a survival instinct? Did something happen that made them disappear? This seems to have something to do with the fact that toys rely on the joy of humans to live. Literally. In Toy Story 2, Jessie and Stinky Pete explain to Woody that if toys are placed into storage they’re essentially banished to an eternity of torment.
This is why the toys won’t reveal themselves to humans. It’s too risky. In Pixar’s world, they are completely at the mercy of us, so they do what they think will make humans most happy by pretending to be inanimate objects. Maybe the humans would learn to co-exist happily, but maybe not. And for a glimpse into what the toys are afraid of, look no further than another animated classic based on the secret lives of inanimate objects: The Brave Little Toaster.
During the chilling song “Worthless,” Toaster and his brave friends are forced to face a grim reality: once they are of no use to humans, they will be destroyed. Don’t think this applies to the Toy Story universe? The Brave Little Toaster was initially pitched by John Lasseter, the guy who directed Toy Story. He didn’t end up working on the film, but the late Joe Ranft co-wrote it. Does that name sound familiar? That’s because he is one of Toy Story’s writers. So it’s safe to assume the toys of Toy Story are aware they would face a similar fate.
What does this mean for Woody and the rest of Andy’s beloved toys? They live more or less with constant Stockholm Syndrome, accepting a life of slavery due to fear of being destroyed. They look to humans like merciless gods, desperately hoping to stay in the favor of their owner. Woody isn’t just jealous and petty when Andy begins to favor Buzz, he’s genuinely afraid Andy will deem his existence unnecessary. Suddenly, Lotso and Stinky Pete aren’t villains, they’re revolutionaries trying to opt out of a raw deal in their own way and helping others see the foolishness of their existence. But the characters are essentially stuck between a toy chest and a hard place. Attempting to escape their tragic existence could lead to their annihilation, so, instead, they’re trapped playing a game of survival that they know they are going to lose. There is no happy ending for them as long as humans are around.
And what does this mean for humans? Were we secretly the monsters all along? Well, yes and no. On the one hand, there is no indication in any humans in any of the movies knowing that the toys are alive, except Sid at the end of the first movie (and, holy shit, poor Sid. The so-called “villain” was really just a lonely, creative kid with an active imagination). So humans haven’t knowingly forced toys into slavery, but, in this universe, every toy you have ever thrown across the room, taken apart for fun, or destroyed was, in the scheme of Toy Stoy, basically a plastic human. Sure, we didn’t know, but does intent really matter if you have been participating in genocide for the last hundred years? Not really. This is, after all, a toy story. And in this toy story, we are the oppressors.
Will any of this actually affect your kid? Probably not. Honestly, if your kid is smart enough to have an existential crisis based on surmising the rules of the Toy Story universe, you should be filled with pride more than despair. More likely, on a surface level, your kid might get a little freaked out at the thought of their favorite toys secretly living a full, potentially happy life every time they leave the room. But next time you’re watching Woody and Buzz reaffirm their slavish devotion to Andy, perhaps you will pause and wonder if this is having any sort of weird effect on your kid. And isn’t that what being a parent is all about?