Love and Loss in John Lasseter’s America

One of Pixar’s greatest accomplishments is that their movies are more than just terrific mass entertainments.

Love and Loss in John Lasseter’s America
Photo: Walt Disney Pictures

One of Pixar’s greatest accomplishments is that their movies are more than just terrific mass entertainments—they’re personal statements from the directors that made them. Their filmmakers each have their own set of reoccurring themes and characters, and one of the most interesting examples to me is that director and Pixar head honcho John Lasseter keeps returning to the same subject matter. He’s fascinated with relics of Americana from the past, and three of the four films he’s directed thus far—Toy Story, Toy Story 2 and Cars—have focused on trends and lifestyles that have been tossed aside by our culture in favor of something newer and shinier. There’s an element of poignancy and regret in his movies at how much things have changed, but Lasseter is also astute enough to know that American pop culture has been always been a little junky and disposable, and yet at the same time it’s something that we can imbue with personal meaning.

Weirdly, the one movie Lasseter directed that doesn’t share this obsession is A Bug’s Life, which in many ways feels like the odd man out among Pixar’s films. While I agree with the general consensus that Cars is their weakest film overall, A Bug’s Life feels to me like their most formulaic and least personal, as if they needed a follow-up to Toy Story and decided to redo The Seven Samurai with insects, but with the added plot twist that the hired warriors are actually performers in a flea circus.

The two main characters in Toy Story are, of course, Pixar originals (Woody the cowboy and Buzz Lightyear the space ranger), but the remainder of the cast is filled out with either generic playthings (Rex the plastic dinosaur, Hamm the piggy bank, the Army men) or specific, real-life toys that have been around for decades (Slinky Dog, Speak ‘n Spell, Etch-A-Sketch, Mr. Potato Head, the Playskool Microphone). While the inclusion of some of these toys is debatable (do most kids these days own an Etch-A-Sketch?), Pixar’s decision to fill the cast with so many time-tested toys rather than create new characters is clearly an attempt to make Andy’s toy collection representative of the American childhood itself, in all its overly commercialized glory.

The movie’s brilliant core idea is that when you’re not looking, your toys come to life and interact with each other (an idea I’m sure most of us entertained while we were young). But these toys’ lives aren’t all fun and games: There is some jealousy among the toys over who Andy’s favorite is, and the film opens with a dreaded birthday party in which they fear that he will receive gifts that will take their places. This turns out to be the case when Andy casts Woody aside in favor of Buzz Lightyear, his favorite present.

The two lead toys are a terrific study in contrasts. Woody looks almost like an antique with his pull-string that makes him talk, vintage clothing and a body that’s full of stuffing rather than hard plastic—he’s less an action figure and more of a doll or stuffed animal. Buzz, by contrast, is much smaller in size and looks exactly like a modern action figure, complete with decals, special features (his “space laser,” actually a red light) and outlandish packaging designed to look like a spaceship. Between the two of them, you can see the evolution of children’s entertainment from the 1950s to the modern day, from quaint simplicity to aggressively marketed merchandise (in the commentary track, the filmmakers mention that they hired Penn Jillette to be the announcer in a Buzz Lightyear toy commercial because his voice was the most forceful they could think of).

There’s something undeniably cruel and heartbreaking about the relationship between the toys and Andy. They love him unconditionally, but he’s rarely seen and fickle enough to change his preferences at a moment’s notice. The first Toy Story film doesn’t really explore this theme, instead choosing to use the Woody-Buzz rivalry as the setup for a buddy comedy (albeit a fantastic one), but the sequel dives right into this material and paints an astonishingly mature, thematically rich portrait of love, loss and devotion.

In Toy Story 2, Woody has to face a dilemma greater than losing out to Buzz as Andy’s favorite toy: he realizes, with a touch of existential dread, that eventually Andy will grow up and have no use for toys at all. His fears are first triggered when Andy accidentally rips Woody’s arm partially off and stops playing with him, but they’re exacerbated when Woody discovers toy penguin Wheezy, a toy penguin who squeaks when his belly is pressed, coated with dust and tucked between a stack of books on a high shelf. Wheezy’s squeakerbox broke long ago, but instead of being fixed, he was abandoned in a little-seen corner of the room. “What’s the point of prolonging the inevitable?” Wheezy asks and points to a yard sale outside. “We’re all just one stitch away from here to there.” (The scene is touching enough on its own, but it’s even more affecting when you remember that Wheezy was voiced by Pixar filmmaker Joe Ranft, who was killed in a vehicular accident in 2005).

Woody’s “mortality” is also reflected in the character of Jessie, a toy cowgirl whose owner grew up and left Jessie alone under her bed for years when she discovered makeup and listening to records. By the end, the movie does offer a happy ending—this isn’t an Ingmar Bergman film after all—in which Wheezy is fixed and Jessie is welcomed into Andy’s toy collection, but there’s also a tender scene in which Woody and Buzz agree to stay with Andy for as long as they can and accept the “death” of Andy’s abandonment when it comes.

On one level, Woody and Buzz’s relationship to Andy in Toy Story 2 is analogous to the relationship between parents and children: Woody and Buzz must accept that as Andy grows up he will have less of a need for them. More generally, it could be seen as a metaphor for any relationship that fractures over time, whether it’s a friendship in which two people have less and less in common or a romance that slowly falls apart (Sarah McLachlan’s song “When She Loved Me,” which plays over a montage of Jessie’s memories of her owner, sounds exactly like the story of a jilted lover when heard by itself).

At the same time, Lasseter is also trying to say that the things we own—toys or otherwise—can become special and personalized to us, even though we live in a time when virtually everything is mass-produced and it can seem like the easiest solution after breaking an object is simply to go out and buy a new version of it. America is often criticized for being too much of a “consumer culture,” but Toy Story 2 sees that the problem isn’t buying stuff, but obtaining it just for the sake of having it or to use it as a status symbol—it’s no coincidence the film’s villain is an obsessive toy collector who keeps his valuables in glass cases.

There’s a give and take at work here. Our toys belong to us, and we belong to them. Andy’s toys are changed by his friendship (even if that friendship is once again left mostly off-screen). Nowhere is this better seen than in the character of “Deluded Buzz” (so named on the movie’s commentary track), another Buzz Lightyear action figure who encounters Andy’s version of Buzz at a toy store. Both Buzz figures have the same personality immediately after being removed from their packaging—they’re self-important adventurers who believe they’re really on an interstellar mission—but Andy’s Buzz has been changed by his time with his owner and now accepts and appreciates the fact that he’s a toy.

Deluded Buzz, on the other hand, has no such self-awareness and blindly accepts the fictional character of Buzz Lightyear’s life as his own, even referring to an action figure of Emperor Zurg as “his dad” after learning more about the mythology of the franchise he’s based on. It’s a way for the writers to make jokes and easy Star Wars references, sure, but it’s also an intriguing look at how the toys develop personalities through their interactions with others, in essence becoming reflections of their owners.

Lasseter also offers a sly analysis of American pop culture through two very different (on the surface) entertainments that correspond to the two main characters: a Western television show from the 1950s performed by puppets of Woody and his friends and a science-fiction video game that pits Buzz Lightyear against the tyrannical forces of Emperor Zurg.

You might expect Lasseter to use video games as a convenient shorthand for the reduced attention spans and self-absorption of a generation (as just about every movie from The Princess Bride to Reign Over Me has already done); instead, Rex is a fan of the game, and his attempts to finish it form the basis of his character development and his gaining of self-confidence over the course of the film. By the end, though, Rex has lost interest in the video game when he realizes that the adventures he’s had in real life has been more exciting and bigger in scope, telling Hamm, “I don’t need to play. I lived it!”

Similarly, Woody is mesmerized by the sight of Woody’s Round-Up, the old television show he’s based on, and his joy is probably something like the nostalgia most of us feel whenever we rediscover some old memento from our own childhood. But these pieces of cultural flotsam aren’t magical in and of themselves; it’s our memories that make them seem better than they really are. And Lasseter and the rest of the Pixar crew understand this deep down. The plot of Woody’s Round-Up is ridiculous and formulaic, and the show looks cheap. In one telling detail, the background behind Woody keeps repeating as he’s riding his horse to the rescue. The only people who bother to own this show years later are fanboys like Al the toy collector. Lasseter looks at the pop culture of both the past and present, but rather than judging one to be better than the other, he sees them both as charming, fun, and, for the most part, disposable.

Unfortunately, it’s that sort of nuance that’s missing from Lasseter’s latest film, Cars. Just as Toy Story 2 recalls the fascination with westerns from the 1930s through the 1950s, Cars takes a look at another American trend that’s mostly faded away: cross-country family road trips and the tourist traps that sprang up to capitalize on them. The setting of Cars is a bizarre, never fully-explained world where there are no humans (nor, it seems, biological life of any kind), and the planet is populated by sentient, talking automobiles and other vehicles.

While this raises some oddly fascinating questions that obviously aren’t going to be answered in a children’s movie—do the cars procreate? did somebody build them and then get wiped out?—the plot itself is a rigid formula, the story of a big city hotshot who winds up in a small town and learns to slow down and appreciate life. In this case, said hotshot is race car Lightning McQueen, who gets lost on his way to a major competition and winds up in Radiator Springs, a once thriving town that’s been decimated by the construction of a major highway that allows commuters to blow right past it.

Lasseter clearly misses America’s old car culture and the sense of freedom and discovery it provided. One character even has a brief speech mourning the building of an interstate highway forty years earlier that sounds like Lasseter directly addressing the audience: “Back then cars came across the country a whole different way… the road didn’t cut through the land like that interstate. It moved with the land; it rose; it fell; it curved. Cars didn’t drive on it to make great time. They drove on it to have a great time.”

I’m not looking down on Lasseter’s appreciation for the way things used to be. Nor am I objecting to the idea that small-town America can be an oasis of community values amid the frenzy of modern life. But if Cars feels like such a thin story, it’s because Lasseter fails to consider the possibility that there are upsides to the way things have changed, that those interstates are more convenient for travelers and that towns like Radiator Springs fell into decay because they failed to keep up with the times. It would be like Toy Story casting Woody as the hero and the embodiment of the optimism of 1950s children’s entertainment, while Buzz was reduced to being the villain because he represented the cynicism of tie-in merchandising. Or if Toy Story 2 depicted Woody’s Round-Up as a forgotten masterpiece while Buzz Lightyear’s video game was brain-rotting nonsense.

Regardless, there’s something to be said for John Lasseter’s respect for the past, even when it’s seen through rose-colored glasses. In her recent review of Inglourious Basterds, Salon film critic Stephanie Zacharek bemoaned the short memories of pop culture-saturated audiences and praised Quentin Tarantino for his devotion to past films and knowledge of historical details (the execution of the entire Nazi high command in 1944 notwithstanding). Zacharek went on to criticize the myopia of our culture, the way that films and TV shows congratulate audiences for getting references to works of entertainment that only came out a year or two ago.

While this is an argument that critics return to time and time again, I do think there’s merit to it. Our pop culture has grown so pervasive that it’s the only culture many of us have any knowledge of any more. Indeed, the most common complaint directed at Pixar’s competitors is that their animated films are lazily written and use quickly dated references as a substitute for actual jokes. Pixar, of course, isn’t above this brand of humor as well, but they’re interested in more than just capturing the zeitgeist; their films, and Lasseter’s in particular, believe that the cinema didn’t begin with Star Wars and that our society goes back further than the creation of the Internet. At their best, Lasseter’s films examine with a clear eye these changes in society; at their weakest, his movies merely look with sadness at what’s been lost. But either way, his films have taken up the noble mission of not merely entertaining us, but showing us how rich and varied our own history is.

Pixar Week will run October 4—10 at the House. For more information on the event, please see here.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

Jack Patrick Rodgers

Jack Patrick Rodgers is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. His work has been published in Slate, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and Geek Monthly.

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