[Spoiler alert - you may find out more than you want to know about Lotso's fate]
Toy Story 3 has two goes at telling us what life is like when we aren't owned, when we don't derive our self-esteem from being the play-thing of another, and both times it underlines the worryingly dehumanising and belittling moral of the film.
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The first vision of self-rule is the dictatorship established by the strawberry-scented, I'm-a-big-hug-kinda-bear, Lotso. Andy, the main human character throughout the Toy Story franchise, has had to clear out his room because he is leaving childhood and home. He is off to college. Just as his mother has to tearfully pack him off and set him free, so he has to put away childish things, including Woody, Buzz and company (or "family", as they prefer to be called). A series of mishaps finds the family at the Sunnyside Daycare Centre, a sort of animal farm for toys.
The family has not been played with for a long time. They have been gradually abandoned by Andy, their master. They are shown to be desperate for indications of proof that he still cares. Like humanity abandoned by its gods, the family still want signs. In a poignant opening scene, the family elaborately constructs a phone-call to Andy, and when he talks, they do not dare answer back. Even if God did reveal himself, we wouldn't know what to say anymore. Andy opens their crate, silences the phone, but will not even acknowledge the presence of the toys who were once so central to his existence. As he was to theirs.
So, alone, abandoned and not having the opportunity to fulfil themselves as toys, Sunnyvale at first promises much. Lotso talks it up: "We own ourselves...", "No owner, no heartbreak..."
But the reality of self-rule soon becomes clear. The family is relegated to serving the needs of the youngest children. The most appalling image of the breakdown of the proper order of society ensues: Cowgirl is dipped in paint and trailed across a page; slinky-dog becomes tangled with all sorts of foreign bodies; Buzz Lightyear is abused and the potato couple is dismembered. The message is clear: real fulfilment comes from being the toys of humans who own you. The first problem with self-ownership is that you pay your way in the world by service to others who don't properly care for you. There is a whiff of nostalgia for the plantation.
In one of the sequences of abuse, Buzz peers into another room at Sunnyside, where Lotso is being lovingly groomed by a kind, calm girl while the terrifyingly King-Kong-like, lifesize Big Baby is fed his bottle by another. Buzz does what any good lieutenant would in the circumstances (Woody, the family CEO, is away) and appeals to the hierarchy; there has been a mistake and the family wants to be relocated.
This is when the true nature of the regime becomes clear. It is run as a dictatorship through terror and bribes. An elite of toys enjoys a seedy high life of gambling, playing for toy-parts inside a gaudy vending machine; Sunnyside's CCTV's are monitored by Lotso's monkey to make sure his iron grip is maintained.
This is classic Hollywood dictatorship; we only just avoid Lotso having a Russian accent. Buzz tries to appeal for the whole family but is only laughed at. (The notion of the loyalty to family and identity is mocked: one of the taunting toys looks at Buzz's sole (soul?) and, seeing the name of the toy's owner, sneers: "Who is this ydnA, anyway?"). As dictators do to courageous lieutenants, Buzz is reprogrammed. He is put into "demo" mode, where he loses an autonomous sense of self but diligently polices the crowd he was once a part of.
The message is clear: self-ownership may sound great, but it gets captured by a hierarchy that will abuse its power and transform the minds of the individuals whom it co-opts. The promise of self-realisation ends in chains.
Lotso, the evil genius behind the system, has a genuine grievance. He was particularly loved by his own owner, but they were accidentally separated; and he later discovers that he has been replaced by an exact replica. Toys regularly have to confront the problem of their commodification: they are mass produced but have to believe they are unique. A well-balanced toy reacts like Rex the dinosaur who jokes that he is going to look up on eBay how much he is worth.
But Lotso cannot forgive the reality of his replaceability: incapable of love, he organises the world to maximise his own power. Part of the morality tale of the film is that you end up deserving the owner you get -- a version of the bumper sticker popular amongst fundamentalists in the USA: "you get what you need, not what you want" -- and Lotso, unreformable, ends his days Prometheus-like, taped to the radiator of a garbage truck owned by a side-burned ruffian.
If the first vision of self-rule is hellish, the second is a joke. We are only offered it as a coda, in the credit sequence of the film. Ken and Barbie – Barbie who goes through a political transformation and blurts out, having previously only talked about clothes, that "authority should derive from the consent of the governed" – together replace Lotso's regime with a Californian parody of the rich hippy commune, a world of clothes and tans and social harmony. A world where the underlying difficulty of Sunnyside – that there are young children who will be rough with toys – is simply assumed away in much the same way that rich West Coast hippies can assume away the difficulties of running a real society.
So if self-rule only offers a joke or a hell, what kind of good society does Toy Story 3 offer us? The film has been criticised for being anti-feminist, which maybe - just maybe - it is. But much more glaring than its gender coding is its social coding. True fulfilment comes from serving Andy. That builds genuine ties of love, respect and attachment. It is around the heroic, salvationist fantasies of Andy that a family is created. Andy's mother gives Andy to society through his departure to college – his own fulfilment comes from being transferred from one owner to another. And Andy, nudged by the Toys who owe him their existence as fulfilled beings, finally understands that his duty is to pass the toys onto another owner.
Toy Story has been said to have reduced grown men to tears – indeed, it did me. The heart-string that it consistently pulls is the very Pauline sentiment of gratitude to ones maker for an unconditional gift. There are the genuinely moving episodes of this – especially of Andy's mother seeing her son grow up and leave home. Then there are the idiotically sentimental episodes, as when Woody gives freedom at Sunniside to his trusty servant Bullseye, the horse. But the dominant narrative, the relationship of Andy to the Toys, is thoughout that of a God towards a creation that no longer has any value but who neverthelsess does the right thing by his creation. How is something unvalued by its creator to feel in the face of a gift from the creator? Gratitude, grace ... a tear-jerking sentiment of undeserved love; a mixture of good fortune in ones desparation of being worthless and thankfulness for a crumb of attention. The unconditional gift may be the right attitude of parent to child, but it is based on a celebration of the value of the child's life. The relationship of Andy to the Toys is ultimately based on their valuelessness, on their nature as commodities.
Nothing good comes of freedom in the world of Toy Story. The best it gets is when the Toys think they are facing certain death in the fiery furnace. They hold hands and enjoy a moment of human warmth – the one pause in the relentless picaresque adventure of their lives – before the flames consume them. The Toys now have a new owner, a girl. Will Pixar ever set the toys free? And if not, is that because that would be the end of Toy Story, the commodity franchise or because successful self-rule really doesn't fit the Hollywood script?