Classics: Toy Story 3 (2010) & Peabody (1983)

Did you betray your toys?

by Gordon Campbell

For the last decade or so, the toy industry has been worried about the problem of ‘age compression’ – ie, the notion that since children are acting older at a younger age, the length of time they’re in the market for buying and playing with toys is shrinking. In a related move, children are also reportedly switching the focus of their play activity away from toys and into video games, at a younger and younger age.

Pity the poor toy peddler, then. Even the old reliable games don’t seem to be doing the business anymore. In the past, the likes of Monopoly, Scrabble and Battleship could keep the finances of major toy companies reasonably healthy, and able to sustain the turnover in the flashier toys du jour. That market is now virtually saturated. Nearly every family has board games in the cupboard, and the formats can’t be updated all that successfully. True, there have been recent efforts to link Monopoly with Google Earth so that players can buy any street on Earth, and to include in the box an electronic calculator that eliminates the need for the bank to deal in paper money, but this only goes to prove how desperate things are getting. Toys and board games, if not quite headed for complete extinction just yet, do seem bound to play a smaller role in childhood experience – with digital games and electronic novelties increasingly dominating the field.

I mention this as only a backdrop to Toy Story 3, the remarkably successful return by Pixar to the characters and setting that first put the company on the map. As nearly everyone knows by now, the plot of the new film hinges on the fact that the boy who owns Woody, Buzz Lightyear and Co. is now 17, and heading off to college. Faced with the grim options of (a) being dumped in the trash or (b) left to gather dust in the attic, the toys almost accidentally find a third alternative…and become involved in a rearguard action that brings quite a range of emotions into play. Most of those feelings have to do with bidding farewell to childhood, and with the fear of being left at the mercy of arbitrary adult decisions.

At the heart of Toy Story 3 is the notion that playing involves a transfer of identity. The toy is not to be seen as merely a passive vehicle for imagination, but receives a life of its own over the course of these transactions. In turn, the toy enables the child to be transported – as when children play with dolls, assign them voices and create the rules and the pecking order that governs the dollhouse.

In Toy Story 3, the notion of toys receiving a life from their owners is treated as a positive development, give or take a couple of notable exceptions. While it is pretty rare, it is not entirely unknown for toys to go over to the dark side. In the Child’s Play horror movies for instance, Chucky the doll receives a human soul – from a serial killer , no less – and things turn out very badly for nearly everyone. The bear in Toy Story 3 isn’t a happy camper, either.

So what is the best platform for the imagination : toys or video games? Arguably, toys provide a different environment compared to the pre-determined rules, game settings and challenges involved in playing video games, where the scope for imaginative play and self expression is \much reduced. Basically you either play by the rules of the game, or you die.

At the same time, cynics would probably argue that this is a more realistic way of preparing the child for the modern workplace, since work has a lot more in common with a video game than a playground – in that being able to solve a given problem by the established rules is valued far more highly by most employers, than the ability to make up one’s own rules, and be true to them.

Still, a few mule-headed romantics will always hold out for toys over video games, if only because toys don’t pre-determine the pattern of play. The time-out aspect that toys provide is also pretty important. After all, children have to live almost entirely in situations where adults hold all the power – and that does create a need a free zone where a child can get to have fun and call the shots, strictly on their own terms. Ultimately, so much effort goes into this process that it can’t readily be abandoned without some feelings of regret – which is the problem that Woody, Buzz and Co get to wrestle with throughout Toy Story 3. How much allegiance, if any, do they still owe to a ruler who has grown up and abdicated the kingdom?

This is an extremely old story. St Paul, typically, treated it as a clear cut issue (1 Corinthians 13.11) of just sucking it in, growing up and moving on : “When I was a child, I used to talk as a child, think as a child, reason as a child; when I became a man, I put aside childish things…”All cut and dried. Often though, the process of leaving toys behind is portrayed in terms of betrayal, or abandonment. On the last page of The House at Pooh Corner for instance, Christopher Robin makes an abortive attempt to warn Pooh that he soon won’t be able to hang around doing nothing with Pooh quite so much, anymore. Maybe even, not at all. ‘They don’t let you,’ he explains.

Still with his eyes on the world, Christopher Robin put out a hand and felt for Pooh’s paw.
‘Pooh,’ said Christopher Robin earnestly, ‘if I – if I’m not quite –‘ he stopped and tried again ‘Pooh, whatever happens, you will understand, won’t you ?’
‘Understand what?’
‘Oh nothing.’ He laughed and jumped to his feet. ‘Come on!’
‘Where?” said Pooh.
‘Anywhere,’ said Christopher Robin.
So they went off together. But wherever they go, and whatever happens to them on the way, in that enchanted place on the top of the Forest a little boy and his Bear will always be playing.

One doesn’t need to know the grim life story of the real Christopher Robin to see that the poignancy of that passage rests in knowing the boy and his Bear are going their separate ways and at best, only memory traces of the enchanted place will survive. Bar for the occasional sentimental side trips, toys and their childhood associations are always headed for the rubbish tip, or the dusty box in the memory attic.

Still, a few authors do try and find a way out for them. In The Velveteen Rabbit for instance, the toy is not merely facing the prospect of being left behind, but of being tossed onto a bonfire in order to disinfect the nursery. It is its own grief that finally brings forth the tear that helps to transform the toy into a real rabbit, and he escapes into the woods.

If there was a word for a melancholy attachment to toys, you can bet that German would be the language to provide it… something like schadenfreude and weltschmerz perhaps, but with fur and button eyes attached. We could call it Spielzeugtraurigkeit, or toy-sadness.

The best dramatized version of that sentiment would have to be the 1986 book Peabody by the American writer, Rosemary Wells. Now 65, Wells is best known for her Max and Ruby series for small children, as well as for other fine picture books such as her 1975 Christmas classic, Morris’s Disappearing Bag. She has also written several excellent ‘ how the outsider kid at school found a soulmate’ stories, such as Timothy Goes to School and Yoko.

Peabody though, is something else again. Peabody is a bear, and the plot of this simple picture book takes you from his out-of-the-box acceptance by Annie, the child to whom he has been given as a birthday present, and the depictions of their initial happy days together. That is, until…the child gets a new toy, a monstrous walking, talking doll called Rita who is programmed to say things like ‘Good morning! I love you!’ incessantly. The child is entranced. Peabody is upset about the turn of events, but what can you do?

Soon, poor Peabody is being left on the shelf, where his eyes go dim and his heart turns sandy and dull from neglect. Until one day an accident befalls Rita and her wiring (it involves coffee and being dumped in the bath) and she is silenced forever. Peabody gets hauled back into action as the old reliable stand-by. Except in the light of what has happened, he is understandably wary. The last panel in the book – of Peabody dancing uncertainly on Annie’s bed in the moonlight – is quite haunting. What the panel and book as a whole seem to be saying is that once the spell of unconditional love has been broken, it can’t be re-made. A sadder bear, Peabody appears to be trying to get into the moment, before the arrival of his next betrayal. Gulp.

Since Peabody is now out of print and is quite hard to access, I’ve selected a few panels from the book to give the general idea of how the story evolves – from the Garden of Eden early days of girl and her bear, to the uncertain resolution. Even in this sketchy outline the similarity to the Toy Story 3 situation is clear enough, though the resolution in Peabody is nowhere near as re-assuring.

Toy retailers can take some consolation, at least. The fact that people are writing books and making movies about our relationship to childhood and its artifacts is a sign that ‘age compression’ also has a mirror image. Call it age expansion, whereby the childhood being compressed at one end is being elongated at the other. It is happening mainly because many of the former signifiers of adulthood (career, settling down, marriage, children) are now being pushed out into the 30s, especially among the trainees for the ‘knowledge industry’ parts of the economy.

These well educated and increasingly well paid new parents – and their kids – are the core audience for Pixar films. Barely out of their own extended period of relative dependency, such parents are taking on responsibilities that previous generations began to shoulder a decade or so earlier. They seem to be ripe for waxing nostalgic about a condition of dependency that they’ve really just left behind, and are now vicariously re-entering with their kids. Playtime is over, long live playtime! St Paul, one imagines, would probably regard Pixar movies as the work of the devil.