As promised, this begins The Pixar Project, where I’m going to review all of the Pixar films in the run-up to the Dec. 25 release of Soul. If you know a friend or relative or Pixar aficionado who’d enjoy this project, please pass it along.
Toy Story arrived in theaters just a few days before my eighth birthday, so in many ways, we’ve grown up together. It was in the days of VHS tapes and the insufferable wait after pressing “Rewind” at the conclusion of the movie just to run it back to the beginning and do it all over again.
It’s interesting to look back at the movie now, knowing what would follow in terms of sequels, and consider who the movie is aimed at. Whereas later films in the franchise become meditations on philosophical underpinnings of toys (i.e., Woody’s idealistic and romanticized view of a toy’s loyalty to a particular kid versus almost every other toy’s more utilitarian view of toyness, which is to say they believe a toy’s highest purpose is to be played with and therefore favor any scenario that results in them in the hands of a loving child) this first installation is more about the petty jealousy of Woody upon Buzz’s arrival, and throughout the course of the movie, how Woody comes to cope with those feelings. Though Andy (and the quest for his affection) is the catalyst, the movie is mostly about the development of this unlikely buddy comedy between the two toys; it’s focused on the relationship between Woody and Buzz and among the toys in general.
Woody’s old-fashioned loyalty to Andy as his favorite is understandable but ultimately less interesting than his toy-human questions will become in later filmes. Of the toys, it’s Buzz’s storyline and development that’s interesting (and heartbreaking, in its own way) in this first film.
Most famously, he arrives under the delusion that his character’s storyline is reality; he’s an actor in a play that isn’t happening. He believes he is on a mission to foil the evil plans of Emperor Zurg. He believes that his spaceship (made of material far flimsier than his own arms, legs, plastic helmet) brought him to this strange planet and that necessary repairs can be completed with tape. He believes that the little red lightbulb on his wrist is a deadly laser, despite shooting quite a few people with it, all to no effect, yet he still questions what could be wrong with it when it’s ineffective against Sid’s Franken-toys. He mistakes a series of fortunate occurrences strung together as flying around a room after he’s said he’ll do just that.
But a moment of acute realization and “been there, my friend” energy is when he sees a commercial for, well, himself as he and Woody are trying to escape Sid’s house.
He was red-pilled, but instead of discovering, like the Matrix’s Neo, that he was the Chosen One, he discovered that his absolute belief in himself, his purpose and mission, was hopelessly wrong; he was literally indistinguishable from the commercial’s version of him, and at its end, there was the shot of Al’s Toy Barn and the shelves lining the aisle with Buzz Lightyear’s stacked as far as the eye could see.
It doesn’t matter how big or small the revelation, we’ve all had that moment, our own versions of standing in front of the television and seeing our own commercial. We’ve all had a belief system shaken to its core. We’ve all been absolutely certain of something only to have that moment of embarrassment, shame, and regret when we realize that we’re wrong.
In the film, Buzz stands, slack-jawed, staring at himself on screen, using all of the features after the commercial brags of them, and finally, near the end of the commercial, to see the admonition: “Not a flying toy.”
Perhaps the most human thing Buzz does follows that moment. Instead of accepting what he’s seen, he figures that he still knows best. Randy Newman’s words swell in a truly sad song as Buzz looks across the way to an open window.
The song says:
Out among the stars I sing way beyond the moon
In my silver ship I sailed in a dream that ended too soon
Now I know exactly who I am and what I'm here for
And I will go sailing no more
All the things I thought I'd be, all the brave things I'd done
Vanished like a snowflake with the rising of the sun
Never more to sail my ship where no man has gone before
And I will go sailing no more
But no, it can't be true, I could fly if I wanted to
Like a bird in the sky, if I believed I could fly, why, I'd fly!
Clearly, I will go sailing, no more
We know what happens to him. He doesn’t fly, just because he believed he could fly. He fell, a long way down, and in a film with numerous cartoonish crashes, none seemed more violent than his. He bounced off the stairs and, limbs splayed (plus one arm actually completely detached), he lies on the floor and closes his eyes in resignation to his fate: He’s just a toy.
The film then makes slapstick comedy out of the ensuing depression that follows for Buzz. He’s dressed up for tea time by Sid’s little sister, and he’s going by the name of Mrs. Nesbitt. He’s speaking manically and is only snapped out of it after Woody pops open his helmet and slaps him with his own detached arm/hand.
In my own life, I can see moments of Buzzness. From the time I was a little kid, I was convinced I wanted to be a lawyer. I don’t really know from where that idea actually sprang, but it was reinforced by teachers in all the right subjects telling me I’d be great for law school. My favorite show growing up was Boston Legal, and I knew enough to know that wasn’t what being a lawyer was really like, but I still romanticized the possibility anyway.
In college, I got the Pre-Law Award from the Political Science department, which meant they thought I was the most likely to go on to law school and succeed. I went straight on to law school, but I would not say I succeeded. I meandered through law school, I puttered my way through, I avoided being the worst but rarely, if ever, flirted with being the best. I didn’t quit though. “But no, it can’t be true, I could fly if I wanted to/Like a bird in the sky, if I believed I could fly, why, I’d fly!”
Like Buzz, I didn’t fly. I didn’t get hired by a firm, big or small, or by a governmental actor, neither prosecutor nor defense. I ran from the practice of law after graduation. Then the world gave me another chance. I became a lawyer, passed the bar and everything.
“But no, it can’t be true, I could fly if I wanted to/Like a bird in the sky, if I believed I could fly, why, I’d fly!”
But I really couldn’t. I tried, for almost five years, to make myself love being a lawyer, to reconcile my childhood dreams and expectations (mine and others’) with my lived-in, day-to-day reality, and I couldn’t. I was falling. I was crashing.
I had to recognize that a career path I’d thought I’d settled on years before was no path whatsoever; it was wild, unkept, virgin forest. No path in sight. That’s a complicated moment to have, a particular type of identity crisis, right as you’re about to turn 30. I’d been shown who I really was, and everything I thought I knew about myself fell apart. I’d just bounced off the steps and was lying in a crumpled pile, missing an arm.
But here’s the thing: Like the movie, my life turned around.
In the movie, after a failed attempt to return to Andy’s room, Buzz ends up with Sid’s mail-order rocket strapped to his back, and Woody ends up trapped under a milk crate with a toolbox resting on top of it. Buzz is still dejected; he doesn’t understand what his purpose could possibly be if he’s not a Space Ranger. He only lacks perspective. Woody tells him, plainly and honestly, revealing his deepest insecurities along the way.
Woody: … Over in the house is a kid who thinks you are the greatest, and it’s not because you’re a space ranger, pal. It’s because you’re a toy. You’re his toy.
Buzz: But why would Andy want me?
Woody: Why would Andy want you?! Look at you! You’re a Buzz Lightyear! Any other toy would give up his moving parts to be you. You’ve got wings! You glow in the dark! You talk! Your helmet does that, that, that ‘whoosh’ thing! You are a cool toy. As a matter of fact, you’re too cool.
Suddenly, Buzz is back in action, helping Woody to escape, but mostly, his outlook has changed. He’s at peace with himself, with his new purpose and with the idea of letting go of his old one.
It seems cliche to say that moment for me was quite so sudden, but it honestly was. While I enjoyed my time in law school, I adored my time in graduate school, studying journalism, making journalism, befriending journalists.
Things can turn that quickly. Beauty can arise from a terrible crash. A mistaken purpose doesn’t have to mean there is no future. Profound lows can be followed by great joy.
It’s a joy that sustains me to this day, in my new role: mere toy, not Space Ranger.
As I’ve grown up, Toy Story has changed over the years, grown with me. Originally, it was always Woody’s movie in my eyes. But now, with my own life providing the lens, I can clearly see that the first Toy Story is Buzz’s movie, to infinity and beyond.
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