Sunday, November 22, 2015

Toy Story, 20 years on

Well, twenty years ago today Pixar's Toy Story was released.

Kinda trippy to think about that.  Twenty years ago, earlier this year, Braveheart got released.

I thought the Mel Gibson film was overlong and overhyped and while it was competently made it didn't stick with me.

Of the two films it seems mundane and obvious to propose that Toy Story had the less cartoony vision of manhood than Braveheart. Not that you can't like the Gibson film if you like it, but if we were to contemplate which of the films introduced a sea change in how we consider mainstream American cinema what happened two decades ago suggests, at least to me, that Pixar changed our expectations about kids' entertainment.

There are, of course, many people who don't take kids' entertainment seriously as art.  We may be content to say that it's silly to watch cartoons or to treat the stories we tell children in mass media as artistic statements.  You get to be wrong about that.  I would suggest that if you want to find out what values and beliefs are inalienably sacred to a culture find out what stories are considered safe enough or important enough to pass on to children. If you're into Game of Thrones that is what it is but I wonder if I couldn't tell you more about American social values and beliefs from a season of Blues Clues.  What if the "grown up" art we are so often drawn to make is a wrestling with the dishonesties of the stories that are shared with our child selves? 

If that's the case then is the solution to subvert the "wrong" lessons or ideals of the stories we tell children or is another option sharing stories with children that don't give them lessons they have to spend the rest of their lives living up to or repudiating?

In a cinematic genre that still traffics in "you can be anything that you want to be" Toy Story has a story of two toys who are forced to confront disturbing realities about themselves.  Woody is forced to confront the reality of how much envy and murder he has in him and Buzz Lightyear is forced to come to a violent, self-damaging realization that he is not a space ranger. If so many childrens' stories traffic in the mantra "you can be anything that you want to be" Toy Story lingers in the mind for showing us characters for whom the path to deeper self-discovery is not through dogged devotion to self-image and self-esteem but through the crucible of doubt, doubt about the self.

Buzz is confronted with the reality that he isn't who he thinks he is. He's not as great and unstoppable as he thinks he is.  He's a toy.

Woody is confronted with the reality that he isn't who he thinks he is.  He's not as good and selfless and kind-hearted as he thinks he is.  Once envy fills his heart he discovers (thanks to some confrontational friends, that he's become a liar and an attempted murderer.

Buzz and Woody reach these moments of disturbing self-discovery and they don't double down on the idea that if they believe they can then they can. They can be anything they want to be and do anything the want to do.  Or not.

It's hard not to think about how, this year, the twentieth anniversaries of Braveheart and Toy Story remind me of favorites. You can't have lived in Seattle in the last twenty years without at least possibly hearing of Mark Driscoll and how he took up the pen name William Wallace II and wrote "Pussified Nation" and how the pen name was inspired by his favorite movie, Braveheart.

My favorite movie from 1995 was Toy Story. I never set out to do that thing people call watchblogging when I started blogging nine years ago.  I was pretty content where I was, give or take a few concerns.  I envisioned a life that would run its course as part of Mars Hill.  My path out of what was once Mars Hill was not something I would say was primarily about "waking up" about how bad it was there because in the midst of it you don't always think you are is that bad.  But I did begin to slowly and steadily and gnawingly have doubts about how I related to people and what that might say about Mars Hill that the things people said I was guilty of seemed to be such a remarkably good "fit" for the culture of Mars Hill.  If there were sinful ways of relating to people and interacting with people I wasn't going to shake those off by staying immersed in the Mars Hill culture. 

So in that sense my path out of Mars Hill was not some Braveheart William Wallace confrontation with a cartoonish evil, my path out of Mars Hill was more like Woody or Buzz confronted with the reality of an inaccurate and cartoonish conception of the self.

I suppose the internet being so often glib and assured as it is, it might be something to note that perhaps somebody could guess that Mark Driscoll's favorite film and Wenatchee The Hatchet's favorite film from 1995 and the reasons we like what we like could be fodder for blog rumination.

If you start with the kind of cartoonish live action drama that presents itself as the way things were and you present that as the emblem of healthy and authentic masculinity then if it turns out that the guy who made that film gets arrested over the years with reports of drunken anti-Semitic rants and the guy eventually says the version of the historical figure he presented on film was wildly inaccurate then it may just be that the actual cartoon was almost inevitably going to present a more nuanced portrait of human aspiration and envy. 

Or not, because you never know until you see a film what it may be getting at and even after you've seen the film there can always be this galactic difference between the film you saw, the film you think you saw, and the film someone else thought he or she saw.  The stories and art works that change the way we think of work in a medium don't always make themselves obvious at the time.

For those who had eyes to see, the 1990s were revolutionary years for animation in the United States.  We got The Simpsons altering what our understanding of cartoons could be, for adults and not just for children.  We got Batman: the animated series bringing a more adult sensibility to the emotional dynamics of kids' programming. We got Pixar and developing work from Dream Works showing that the first and last word in American animation did not have to be limited to mouse ears. We got South Park, too. Not all of it has aged equally well but it was great fun to see it while it was going on.  There's still a soft spot in my heart for Space Ghost: Coast to Coast.

It does seem, two decades on, that between Braveheart and Toy Story one film won the awards the year it came out while the other changed the shape of mainstream cinema in a small (perhaps) but significant way.

The cartoon has stuck with me these twenty years and I love it as much today as when I first saw it.  There are guys who in the face of opposition double down on who they are sure they are. I might be like that myself, but if I get to pick between celluloid William Wallace or Woody and Buzz Lightyear then I choose the toys over the man for the kind of person I'd rather be like.  There's someone else I'd rather be like than them but people who regularly read the blog probably don't need that spelled out for them by now.

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