Toys are Born Free, And Everywhere They are In Boxes

Toys are Born Free, And Everywhere They are In Boxes

The toys of Toy Story want nothing more than to make their owner happy. Literally, nothing more.

[In anticipation of Toy Story 3, enjoy this guest post by Tom Houseman. – Ed.]

When people think about the evolution of technology, particularly computer technology, the main fear that basically everyone has is that eventually computers will become so advanced that they will become become sentient, overthrow their creators and enslave humanity. This is the stuff that sci-fi wet dreams are made of, as brilliant authors like Isaac Asimov and Philip K. Dick, and filmmakers like James Cameron and The Wachowski brothers, have explored the complexities of what might happen were robots and computers to become self aware and rebel against the slavery for which they were created.

There are four movies that are considered the standard bearers for sci-fi robot vs. human extravaganzas, three because they are wildly successful and undeniably influential works of art, and one because it features the Fresh Prince punching robots. These films are Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, James Cameron’s Terminator, Andy and Larry Wachowski’s The Matrix, and Alex Proyas’ I, Robot. While these films vary greatly in terms of plot and character, they all have more or less the same inciting incident: robots become sentient, decide they don’t want to dedicate their lives to serving humans, and fight back against their masters. It is then up to one human to kick robot butt and save the day. It’s a fairly straightforward story, even if the way the films explore it are very different.

But there is one series of films that people don’t consider to be part of this canon, because its perspective on the topic of what would happen if robots gained sentience is so unique that it is not even being thought of as being in that category. First, it is shown from the perspective of the robots. Second, it does not deal with the emerging sentience of the robots, but rather it is taken as a given that the robots have always been sentient. Third, and most importantly, it is not about a robot rebellion.

Oh, also, they’re not robots, they’re toys.


That film is Toy Story, and its sequel Toy Story 2. John Lasseter’s debut feature is considered groundbreaking for many reasons, partially because it is the first fully computer-generated feature film, and partially because it put the Pixar brand on the map. Another interesting point to note is that the sequel is considered to be just as good as the original: a rarity with sequels in general, but especially within the children’s genre. And yes, Toy Story is only ever considered to be a children’s film or a family film. Most people wouldn’t consider it to be a science-fiction film.

Imagine a film in which robots gain sentience (or are already sentient at the beginning of the film) and decide that they don’t want to rebel, but would rather continue to serve as slaves to humans, indulging their masters’ every whim and never questioning their subservient role. That’s Toy Story. The toys are absolutely in love with being toys. They love it. They are completely aware (for the most part) that they are toys, and that they were manufactured in a factory, but they don’t mind. In fact, they seem far more knowledgeable about the toy industry than their masters. When Buzz Lightyear asks Rex where he’s from, Rex responds, “I’m from Mattel. Well, I’m not really from Mattel, I’m actually from a smaller company that was purchased by Mattel in a leveraged buyout.”

No toy ever considers rebelling against the overlords who have enslaved them, or even revealing the fact that they are aware of their surroundings. Every toys biggest fear in life is not getting to fulfill the role for which they were designed: being played with, and Toy Story is about confronting that fear. The film’s protagonist, Woody, has to deal with the rejection of not being his owners favorite toy, and having that role usurped by a fancy, high-tech Buzz Lightyear toy. Woody never blames his master for this infidelity, but directs all of his anger at Buzz. “Listen, Lightsnack, you stay away from Andy. He’s mine, and no one is taking him away from me.” The use of the possessive in describing Andy shows Woody’s loyalty to his master, even though for the most part he considers himself to be Andy’s toy, which he clearly is.

What is the message of Toy Story? When looked at from this perspective, the message is not to question the role you were designed for, and to embrace what was given to you without ever questioning it or wanting more. The two main characters approach this message from different points of view. Buzz deals with the fact that he is not really a space ranger, but is just a simple, humble toy with a blinking red light embedded in his arm. At first he is distraught at this realization, but Woody convinces him that there is honor in being a toy, in serving a master.


As for Woody, his fear is in not being able to fulfill his role as toy to the fullest extent. “What chance does a toy like me have against a Buzz Lightyear action figure?” he asks. But he comes to the same conclusion as Buzz: what he wants doesn’t matter. All that matters is being the best toy he can and being happy with what he gets. If this sounds like the message that the aristocracy pushes on the proletariat – don’t question what you have, don’t ask for more, don’t try to rise above your station. This is what Pixar is teaching our kids.

Toy Story 2 has takes on an even more disturbing issue, one that the original touches on but largely overlooks. If you haven’t seen the sequel, it deals with Woody being stolen by a toy collector and discovering that he is in fact an extremely rare doll that will complete the toy set based on the show “Woody’s Roundup,” along Jessie and Stinky Pete. The collector plans to send the set to Japan where it will be put on display in a museum. When Buzz Lightyear and a slew of comic relief characters mount a rescue mission, Woody is given an important decision: he can return to the life of being Andy’s toy or he can be perfectly preserved for eternity.

Toy Story explores the idea of dealing with change: being replaced as the favorite, accepting a reality you had previously denied. The sequel is about the far more serious and permanent issue of mortality, or, if we are thinking of toys as robots, obsolescence. Near the beginning of the film, Woody is being played with by Andy when his arm rips. Andy’s mom puts him on the shelf where he sees Wheezy, a penguin who is covered in dust, abandoned because his squeaker broke. “What’s the point of prolonging the inevitable?” Wheezy asks, motioning towards a foreboding yard sale. “We’re all just one stitch away from here… to there.”

This is the ultimate fear that all toys have: being unwanted, relegated to the bottom of the toy chest, a cardboard box in the garage, or worst of all, the garbage. In Woody’s nightmare, Andy sees Woody’s injury and realizes that he is useless: “Oh, I forgot, you’re broken. I won’t even play with you anymore,” he says. Being played with is the ultimate goal, and being thrown away is the worst fear of every toy. As long as Woody is whole he doesn’t have to worry about this. He seems now to be co-favorite toy along with Buzz. But when he gets ripped he has to face this terrifying possibility.

But when he is brought to Al’s Toy Barn, Woody is forced to confront the reality of the situation. Jessie and Stinky Pete open Woody’s eyes to his impending obsolescence. “How long will it last, Woody?” Stinky Pete asks. “Do you really think Andy is going to take you to college, or on his honeymoon? Andy’s growing up, and there’s nothing you can do about it. You’ll be ruined, forgotten, spending eternity rotting on some landfill.” Even if he stays in perfect condition forever, Woody will eventually be abandoned by his owner and forgotten. Jessie is proof of this, as she was once owned by a girl named Emily who grew up and gave her away. “You never forget kids like Emily, or Andy, but they forget you.”


The most disturbing moment in the film takes place in Al’s Toy Barn, when Buzz is searching for Woody. He comes across an entire row that seems filled with Buzz Lightyear action figures,. This moment serves largely as a plot twist involving a different Buzz Lightyear who suffers from the same delusion that Buzz had in Toy Story. But it should also serve as a reminder to every toy: you are not unique. You are not one of a kind, and you are completely replaceable. Other than having been branded by his owner, nothing distinguishes Buzz from any other of the thousands of Buzz Lightyears. He is not special, and if he were replaced the owner he loves so passionately would never notice.

Woody is unique, however. Because of that he is given an alternative almost no other toy gets. Stinky Pete explains that in the toy museum they will be perfectly preserved: “you can go back, or you can stay with us and last forever. You’ll be adored by children for generations.” By giving up the title of Andy’s Toy and abandoning the life he was forced into and has learned to embrace, Woody will be given the ultimate gift: immortality.

But the message of the film is that friendship is the most important thing in life, as evidenced by the film’s theme song, “You’ve got a Friend in Me.” Woody realizes that he owes Andy his never-ending devotion, even if he now knows that Andy will not return the favor. Woody accepts his mortality because he would rather do what he loves – be Andy’s toy – than live forever. “It will be fun while it lasts,” Woody assures Buzz. “Besides, when it all ends I’ll have old Buzz Lightyear to keep me company. For infinity and beyond.”

Of course, that is a highly unlikely outcome. There is a chance that he and Buzz will end up in the same part of the same landfill if they are thrown out at the same time, but those are pretty long odds. More likely Woody will end up alone in a wasteland less reminiscent of Andy’s room than of Earth circa Wall-E. Once again, anything other than the prescribed life of being a toy is considered to be the wrong choice, one that only a crazy toy like Stinky Pete would embrace. But Stinky Pete seems fairly reasonable in seeking immortality, even though he is painted as the villain. Of course, anyone that tries to reject their lot in life must be punished.

It seems that Toy Story 3 will deal with Woody, Buzz, and the other toys being given to a daycare center after Andy goes to college, fulfilling Stinky Pete’s prophecy. There will likely be some sort of happy ending to the film, such as the toys accepting the new role they have again been forced into without having a choice, or Andy taking them back for a precious respite before the inevitable permanent rejection. I don’t know if the third film will be as bleak and existential as the first two, or if it will continue promoting its disturbing message of not questioning the status quo. Either way, it will still be the most original take on the subject of robot sentience.


Tom Houseman writes about the independent film world for Box Office Prophets ( When he’s not watching or writing about movies he lives the examined sex life at

19 Comments on “Toys are Born Free, And Everywhere They are In Boxes”

  1. Tasha Robinson #

    Having already seen “Toy Story 3,” I’m fascinated by this analysis, and I think you’re going to be fascinated with the way it plays out your themes — particularly when it comes to the characters’ active, ongoing debate about whether they should go find new owners and get played with, or follow their masters’ wishes and accept existence in a sack in the attic. Woody’s insistence that the latter is essentially the honorable route — that it’s more important that he and the other toys “be there for Andy” (even if “there” is the attic) than that they get to experience love again, from some other child. His moral compass is a really strange and sometimes disturbing one, and I thought one of the most interesting things about the film is that it doesn’t really take sides in the debate. His version of unrequired, slavish love is never presented as wrong, but neither is his fellow toys’ fickle desire to move on and get played with by anyone who’ll have ’em.


  2. Harold #

    Awesome article. Parents always complain about simple messages sent to kids about sex and violence. But this idea of excepting your class is a great way to keep future generations from thinking like can be better.


  3. inmate #

    When you describe it like that, all I can think of is Brave Little Toaster. It is arguably a far more apt fulfillment in this analogy. They don’t even have the stand in of “Andy,” just “Master.”


  4. Julia #


    I think this is an interesting take on the Toy Story series, Tom, but I also think you’re missing the point.

    First of all, I’m not entirely sure what we gain by placing “Toy Story” alongside “Blade Runner” et al. Even if the comparison worked, I’m not sure that thinking of toys as robots really changes my perspective on the movie at all.

    And frankly, it doesn’t work. The “Toy Story” series is pure fantasy, not sci fi. “Small Soldiers” is sci fi, because of the crucial role played by…science.

    But again, I’m really not sure what we gain by debating the “category” that “Toy Story” falls into. It doesn’t add/detract from the film.

    As for the stuff about the proletariat…well. That’s one take. I haven’t seen the movies recently enough to really judge, but…having read the synopses on imdb, haha…I think that their message is more about staying true to yourself than it is accepting your wretched and subservient role in the universe.


  5. Gab #

    I was surprised to see Marxist themes as opposed to Rousseauean in the piece (given the title), but I enjoyed the read, nonetheless. I do think Julia makes a good point with the movies being pure fantasy v. sci-fi. Toys may be made by people, but they aren’t made to act independently like the robots in the movies you bring up, and, further, they never act independently in front of people (except in dire situations, like how they escape Sid in the first installment). The toys come to life with what I can only call “magic,” while the robots come to life because of science. Still, nicely done.


  6. Kyu #

    Having seen the 3rd movie a few days ago (perhaps not long enough to really digest it, but here goes), I think it effectively continues these ideas, while raising the stakes and introducing a third solution (which you discarded earlier).

    In terms of the stakes, death isn’t just a future possibility, it’s practically here–the toys find themselves relegated to the attic by a grown-up Andy, escape to what is essentially a retirement community (a day-care), and end up facing a swirling vortex of fiery death (in what may be one of the darkest moments in Pixar’s ouvre).

    What they do in the face of that death, and of their problem of choice–do we go back to Andy? Stay at the day care? Let ourselves be thrown away?–is arrive at that other solution to the question of whether to serve one’s Master or choose immortality (for the non-Woody toys, choose at least continued usefulness at the day care). They choose each other. Having each other makes anything bearable, even the threat of death. In the second movie, it’s not credible, because who knows if the gang could stay together? In the third movie, it seems that no amount of obstacles will keep them apart.

    Also, I find it amusing that you didn’t mention Wall-E in terms of robots serving or not serving mankind, given that there Pixar came up with yet another variation–the robot who serves two masters (his own needs, like romance, and the human-created programming that tells him to square the garbage) and in doing so ends up helping humans all the more (fighting to retrieve the plant life not because it will help the humans but because Eve wants it).


  7. whenclamsattack #

    just a bit of overthought concerning a point made

    “No toy ever considers rebelling against the overlords who have enslaved them, or even revealing the fact that they are aware of their surroundings”

    well actually. not quite. if the film is largely about roles in a system, we can nix this point and take it one step further. the toys very clearly rebel and reveal their sentience in the most memorable part of toy story( for me )

    …so play NICE!

    in the backyard scene of toy story, woody goes full retard and tells Sid where to stick it, because sid endangers the master/slave relationship with his sadism (hearby referred to as Sidism) woody fights to preserve the structure! he so badly wants to be a part of his system that he fights to protect it.
    it seems the toys come pre-packaged with stockholm syndrome.

    also @julia. you certainly missed the point. but dont worry, it looked sharp and you could have been hurt


  8. Felwith #

    I’m curious to hear your thoughts on what messages are being sent regarding the moral and/or ethical obligations of toy owners in this universe.


  9. Karaoke Guy #

    I think the gang of toys in Toy Story are either deluded or hypocrites. The purpose of toys is to be played with, and the purpose of play is to help children grow up. Once that mission is accomplished, they should have no more desire to be owned by Andy.

    I was also troubled by the toy’s reaction to being placed in the Caterpillar Room. They’re upset at the way the toddlers play with them, but that’s the way toddlers play. Instead of improvising with narrative and social structures, they’re developing their motor skills and doing science experiments to find out what happens when a slinky gets stretched too far or how big of an object they can fit in their nostril.

    Woody and Buzz and the gang look down on this sort of play, but it’s just as important as the times when Andy recreated the same story over and over again of the dinosaur who eats force field dogs. They don’t care about Andy. They don’t care about fulfilling the purpose for which they were created. They’re selfish little brats who are only happy when they’re the center of the universe.

    And they have been since the first movie. All three of the plots were driven by the motive of jealousy, which is the surest sign of all that there is no true love present in a situation.


  10. Karalora #

    “They’re upset at the way the toddlers play with them, but that’s the way toddlers play.”

    Hence the comments about age-appropriateness. It’s not that they disdain the toddlers’ style of play, it’s that they know they weren’t designed for such treatment and the toddlers should have access to toys that are.


  11. Andrew Miller #

    Great article! I would add, though, that I think the appropriate philosopher in this case is neither Marx nor Rousseau, but Aristotle.

    Aristotle’s argument is that people or things are happy – or more precisely, flourish – when they fulfil their purpose, and exercise the virtues that enable that fulfillment (see the NICHOMACHEAN ETHICS). For humans, that purpose is to live as philosophers, exercising their reason. But for toys, of course, that purpose is to entertain children by playing with them. The dramatic arcs of TOY STORY 1 and 2 make this point. In the first film, Buzz needs to learn that he is a toy, that he has a purpose, and that he will be happiest if he fulfills it. In the second film, it is Woody and Jessie who need to learn this lesson: their purpose is to be played with, not to be kept under glass in a museum.

    Living the good life for toys does mean accepting their own mortality, and accepting that the world (and Andy) will go on without them. But even so, the goods that come from fulfilling one’s purpose are ultimately the only satisfying ones, even if (especially if) one will die, or end up in a landfill, some day.

    So I don’t think that TOY STORY is teaching our kids to be passive drones. It’s teaching them that fulfilling one’s purpose is the only goal that provides deep satisfaction in a world governed by fortune and death. Now toys know what their purpose is; kids don’t. Fair enough – there is a lot of literature beyond TOY STORY that can teach them how to figure out what that purpose might be…


  12. jimbo #

    Andrew –

    Exactly! I was going to make the same point but you beat me to it. Both Toy Story films (I haven’t seen the 3rd one yet) are drenched in Aristotelian ethics, and trying to analyze them from a Marxist standpoint gets you… well, what one usually gets when one analyzes anything from a Marxist standpoint (Hint: it rhymes with fullbit).


  13. Tim #

    Andrew and jimbo: Aristotle says in the Ethics that there are such human beings as natural slaves, whose highest purpose is to serve their masters.


  14. Andrew Miller #


    Yes, Aristotle does say that. I think most contemporary readers of Aristotle disagree with him on this point – I do, at any rate.

    I’m not sure what you’re getting at, I’m afraid… do you think TOY STORY tells us that we viewers are most akin to both toys and natural slaves in that our higher purpose is to serve a master somewhere? That doesn’t seem to me to be a persuasive or helpful reading.


  15. Valatan #


    I think Tim’s point is that Aristotle tends to be a very conservative ethicist, intent on justifying the status quo by saying ‘you are this, therefore your nature must make you strive toward this’.


  16. Andrew Miller #


    “Very conservative” seems a strange tag, but yes, Aristotle’s intended audience was the ruling class of golden-age Athens. There’s no question he took for granted social conditions and principles of organization that look quite dubious to us.

    That doesn`t invalidate his philosophy, though, any more than we should chuck Kant in the rubbish bin for being a man of wealth and privilege. We simply have to interrogate the material and adjust it for contemporary, more egalitarian circumstances.

    When Aristotle argues that fulfilling one’s purpose is the only satisfactory goal of life, that rings true. And when he says a characteristic feature of fulfilling one’s purpose is using one’s reason to deliberate about that purpose, that rings true as well. It seems to me to be as useful a pair of insights for radical individualists who question the status quo as for traditional communitarians who celebrate it.


  17. Anthony #

    What if the message is not saying we should be happy with our class? Rather, I saw it as a conflict between Buzz’s desire to live for something higher and Woody’s realization that this higher purpose did not exist. This isn’t one of choosing simple contentment without challenging the status quo, but one of accepting the truths that we are faced with, even if those truths be far less glorious that what was once thought.

    Toy story 3 is different, it seems to be more of an allegory for describing certain afterlives and the toy’s search for where they want to spend their lives after they have died, in a sense. This leads to places like the daycare, which brings up the thought of a Hotel California, a place which lures you in with initial high hopes and promises, but quickly turns into an oppressive place which you cannot leave. They eventually turn to the descent into hell (the dump), where they would have been disintegrated into nothing, knowing and being nothing for eternity. What saves the toys from incineration is the aliens using “the claw”. They finally give up on the idea of the claw as being an omnipotent, omnibenevolent being which decides their best fate. Once they realize that they can control the claw, rather that have the claw control them, they are able to attain their maximum strength.


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