Friday 30 July 2010

Toy Story 3 - a superb depiction of the best of modern secular morality

I saw Toy Story 3 yesterday - which seemed to me (after a single viewing) a first rate movie, blending humour, adventure and sadness. Via metaphor, it is an honest exploration of spirituality in the modern secular world.

(Toy Story 3 is, after all, one of the premier mass media products of our era; product of the most intelligent and creative minds of our era working together and at their peak - so it would be surprising if TS3 did not epitomize our era: for good and for ill?)

I have tried to avoid plot spoilers here - because I think you should see this movie for yourself - so the discussion may seem rather abstract and remote!


The Toy Story movies work at the deepest level by their metaphor of humanity as Toys - Toy life is about being played-with.

The Toy universe is mostly utilitarian - about creating fun and avoiding misery (evil is seen as causing misery, delighting in causing misery, to other Toys).

Being played with is the greatest satisfaction for the Toys - it has an almost enlightenment-like permanency - to have been played with just once justifies everything.

But play is ultimately altruistic - because the morality is that a good Toy should be devoted to the happiness of its owner, and not to his own gratification.


There seems to be no ultimate reason for this moral code - except the implication than in the long run it creates the most happiness for the Toy to create the most happiness for the owner. That just seems to be the way that Toys are 'set up' - to be happy themselves via the happiness of their owners - but there isn't any further reason for it.

But their life strikes the Toys, from time to time, as futile - since it ends with the Toy being discarded by their owner, or destroyed in the trash.

So a Toy's life is the pagan life of a brief period of consciousness, with loyalty the prime virtue, and life as a brief flame in the surrounding infinite darkness.


Like modern man, Toys do not have souls (separable from their bodies, potentially immortal); they are potentially immortal (serially long-lived) as long as the Toy retains integrity (in a kind of suspended state - waiting to see whether their owner may need them at some point); but their souls are seemingly destroyed by the dissolution of the Toy (e.g. if crushed, dismembered or burned).  

Toys try to escape awareness of their fate by constant activity and interaction, by complete absorption in play, by not-thinking about their future fate but being absorbed in the here and now - this is Toy wisdom (like Eastern paganism - Hindu of Buddhist): *not* to think about their ultimate fate, since this would poison the present moment.

Or to cultivate an indifference to this unavoidable reality.


A wise Toy just lives in the moment of play. For a Toy, the moment of play carries everything - all meaning - justifies everything. Play has no meaning beyond itself, no further implications, but (like death in battle in defence of one's Lord) is simply the ultimate reality, what Toys are *for*.

Yet the system keeps breaking down. The Sunnyside Day Care Center (Nursery/ Kindergarten) represent an attempted solution, where Toys have a perpetual and renewing series of children to play with them.

Day Care Toys have discarded the primary ethic of loyalty, and the Toy leader (Woody) finds this shocking.

The ideal of the Day Care Toy (as epitomized in a sequence after the end of the movie proper) is very modern: and is appropriately presided over by modern icons of this life.

It is a life of continuous fun with renewing supplies of children who never grow up. Of course, it is a completely shallow experience for the Day Care Toys, since they have no owners who really care about them - and the Day Care Toys are merely selfish and strategically allied with other toys to sustain their own hedonistic life.


For Day Care Toys 'God is dead' and their universe is utilitarian - there are no owners, no demands from loyalty, no aim or ultimate act -their life is one of perpetual distraction. They may well be happier than the Toys with owners - but they lack any understanding of reality, their life is precisely such as to stop them thinking about reality - drugged by the pleasure of playing and the rewards of socialization. A life of endless fun.

Being a product of secular modernity, the ultimate morality (loyalty for owned Toys, fun for Day Care Toys) has no meaning or rationale - it seems to be a reaction to the psychological set up of Toys. Evil is selfishly to interfere with these or to substitute other goals (such as domination) - but the ranking of these virtues and sins has no teleology.

The general feel is that of a cyclical universe, a universe of endless repetition; and the Toys are supposed to be consoled by contemplating this eternal recurrence (eg when looking a photos or remembering kids growing up, the cycle of generations, the cycle of new arrivals at Day Care).

Yet there is no reason why this recurrence really should be consoling, since it is purposeless, and the morality of play is non-quantitative and not accumulable towards anything else.

A life supposedly built around a perfect moment (of play) cannot make sense as a whole, and there is no reason for repeating the moment either in one life or in many lives, or in the future.  


Toy Story 3 is a deft and wholly enjoyable, deeply-sad exploration, therefore, of the best and deepest aspects of modern secular worldly morality, and the scope of its ultimate moral categories - kindness, loyalty, the metaphysic of fun; but TS3 is also honest about the profound limitations of life conceptualized without soul or salvation.


Ross Skinner said...

"Via metaphor, it is an honest exploration of spirituality in the modern secular world." You're totally correct.

F said...

Toy Story 3 was struck me as a deeply moving motion-picture. It was very brave of Pixar to show our main characters come face to face with oblivion (in the recycling factory) and have them all "give up" and hold hands as the final response to their fate. It is, I think, not a children's film at all but rather, as you describe it, a meditation on modern man in the world today. Do we exist only to play? Or there is something more to life?

May I offer my unconditional homage to "Ratattouille", a film that argues that the making of art is a transcendent act. I love that film, I wish it was true.

a Finn said...

Films are a widespread modern way of telling stories and conveying underlying messages, like this, I think, beautiful song which openly conveys religious and traditional conservative message. The children in the video are her children. Notice also the emotions evoked by the video in the comments section. I wish more of our entertainment would be like this.

Bill said...

beautiful song which openly conveys religious and traditional conservative message.

It is a beautiful song and a beautiful meditation on the Cardinal Virtue of Fortitude.

But modern society celebrates that Cardinal Virtue --- is there any message more modern than that you must be boldly assertive in defining yourself, in pursuing your dreams, in achieving your goals: you must, above all, try your best?

The song would have been more traditional had it been a beautiful reflection on one of the less modern Cardinal Virtues: Prudence, Justice, or (especially) Restraint.

On a related theme, the movie Seven was, I think, shockingly traditional. An investigation of the seven deadly sins in a modern context --- an investigation which shows the sins as, in fact, both sinful and corrupting. The movie had serious problems, but you take what you can get.

a Finn said...

Bill, you make a good point, but my view slightly differs from it:

- "I hope you never lose your sense of wonder"

Modern assertive person pretends to know, even if he doesn't, makes decisions fast and has no tendency to stop contemplating, like a person who wonders and stops to contemplate.

- "I hope you still feel small
When you stand by the ocean"

Modern assertive person pretends or feels himself to be big and imposing, whereever he is.

- "Promise me you'll give faith a fighting chance" "Give the heavens above
More than just a passing glance"

Faith means kneeling in front of God, that God is the highest and above you. Partly because of this, modern assertive person often is atheist. Self-worship gives a feeling of being the highest, momentarily.

- "Don't let some hell bent heart
Leave you bitter"

Modern assertive person sees large part of the interactions between people as competition. Because he can't get always what he wants, and competition is so dominant in his life, he is likely to feel often bitter.

- "When you come close to selling out

Because modern assertive person has one constant principle, trying to be the highest in the constant competitions, and many superficial principles, which are meant to help him to be the highest, he often sells out his "principles", friends, promises etc. to get advantages.

- Then there are Lee Ann Womack's children in loving context in the video. Children mean that you forsake your egotism and hedonism, and put the interests and the well-being of your children above yours. This is contrary to the egoism of modern assertive persons.

Hence, the fortitude in the video is in the traditional conservative context, which makes it much more powerful than modern assertiveness.


These might better represent modern assertiveness

First is from a person, who had a violent father, whom she feared and who left in her psychological scars. She feared pains of giving birth so much, that she insisted to be given anesthetics. You may compare that to the "fighter" image of the video:

Is this video meant to represent the birth of a high priced assertive prostitute, whose power then burns the poor rich man who bought her?: