Most children’s stories are educational. The characters, the plot, the happy ending serve as vehicles to convey a message: encourage moral behavior, promote consideration, develop sensitivity—the lessons are usually rather straightforward and simple, so children can easily follow them. This also goes for children’s films and animations. Some of the most well-known cartoon figures are both funny and instructional. A couple of weeks ago, tired and bored on a long flight, I decided I would watch Toy Story1. The more I saw, the more puzzled I became. What, exactly, was the moral of the story?
Released in 1995, Toy Story was the first feature-length, computer-animated film. It revived an old idea prevalent in folk stories: when hidden from human eyes, toys come to life. At night, these inanimate objects move, talk, think and feel. Perhaps this was derived from the urge to further develop the toys as an imitation of their human counterparts, as means of preparing the child viewer for real life. In the film, a cowboy doll named Woody is Andy’s favorite toy. Woody becomes anxious as Andy receives Buzz Lightyear, a modern space ranger, for his birthday. The old toys are all excited as new birthday toys join them, both expecting new friends and fearing rivals that may take their place. The story revolves around the relations between Woody and Buzz; the first wants to keep his place as the favorite toy and the latter can’t accept the fact that he is a toy. On top of this, Andy’s family is moving, and the toys go through all sorts of adventures. Together they are lost and then find their way to Andy’s new home.
Andy is a “good boy”, well-behaved and nice. He loves his toys and takes care of them. He is sad when Woody and Buzz disappear and thrilled when they return. Unlike Andy, his next door neighbor, Sid Phillips, is the “bad boy”, a disturbed and aggressive child who makes scary experiments with toys. Playing doctor, he cuts them, mutilates them, and then puts together parts of different toys, creating revolting, monster-like creatures: a baby’s head with a spider’s body, a frog with wheels for legs, a woman’s legs attached to a fishing rod, a fly’s head stuck on a Combat Carl’s body—the victims are just as horrified at what they have become as we are upon seeing them emerge from the shadows of Sid’s room.
Naturally, the young spectators are led to like Andy and dislike Sid. The explicit message of the story is clear: children are encouraged to respect others, human or toy, and accept them for who they are. The film conveys a purely progressive message. But certain aspects of the film do not agree with this message. For example, the “bad boy” is physically unattractive, with a most repellant set of braces. The correlation between morality and appearance stands in sharp contrast to the progressive spirit of the work. Are ugly people bad? The mutilated toys are good-hearted, but this isn’t always true for ugly humans. Also, though Sid lives next door to Andy, his environment seems different, not at all cozy and loving. Andy’s mom is always in the background, and Phil’s parents are never seen; Andy sleeps in a nice, clean bed, covered with a pleasant duvet, while Phil’s bed is messy and lacks a homely appearance; Andy’s mom drives him to the Pizza place, as Phil returns alone on his skateboard. And despite of his disturbed way of playing, there are no parents in sight to help him. Is the film suggesting that children from good, loving families are simply better from those coming from neglectful homes?
The mutilation of the toys is another ambivalent aspect of the film. Of course it is shocking to see a bird’s head attached to a girl’s body, or a baby’s head to a spider’s body. But it should be pointed out that Andy’s toys, the nice, clean ones purchased at a toy store, are not exact replicas of natural forms, either. Mr. Potato Head’s facial features keep falling off and are sometimes placed “wrongly”, eyes where the nose and mouth should be. The dog has a Slinky for a body. The piggy bank has a cork in his belly.
So, what’s actually wrong with Sid’s mutilation of his toys? Seen from an alternate perspective, one could present an entirely new interpretation to Toy Story: the only difference between good and evil is that good is prettier, more refined, and not as extreme as evil. But there is no fundamental difference between the two. Evil actions are fine as long as you don’t do them yourself. And the problem with brutality is that it’s not graceful and appealing, not that it causes pain.
Strangely, the two conflicting interpretations are possible. Two mutually exclusive sets of values—one exemplifying morality and compassion, the other only aesthetic values—lie at the heart of the story. One wonders if this isn’t what we see in the United States these days, so deeply embedded in American culture: two sets of values coexisting, and we are constantly wondering if people are judged by their morality and compassion or only by their appearance.