Monday, August 24, 2009

Famous Firsts - Toy Story, Part Two

Woody was living every toy's dream until Buzz Lightyear showed up and became Andy's new favorite toy. Now Woody's scheme to briefly remove Buzz from the picture has backfired. Buzz is missing and Andy's other toys assume that Woody intentionally got rid of his competition. Woody's situation has just gone from bad to worse and his only hope for redemption is to find Buzz and bring him home.

Since he can’t find Buzz, Andy grabs Woody to take with him to Pizza Planet. Except for the fact that there’s a lynch mob of toys waiting for him back home, it’s exactly what Woody wanted: time alone with Andy. But Woody is far too worried about his predicament to enjoy the moment. Buzz, who may be delusional but is not oblivious to what Woody has done to him, had hitched a ride on the back of Andy’s mom’s car and pounces on Woody while Andy and his mom are busy at the gas station. Their fight causes both toys to fall out of the car and to be left behind when Andy and his mom return and the car leaves for Pizza Planet. Woody reacts with genuine confusion – “Doesn’t he realize that I’m not there?” As far as Woody is concerned, Buzz was the problem and he can’t believe that Andy would fail to notice that Woody is missing without that annoying space ranger around to distract him. This is Woody’s deepest fear, not just that Buzz has totally eclipsed him Andy’s affections, but that Woody is such an outdated toy that the end of his days as Andy’s favorite is inevitable.

Once again, we see that Woody and Buzz have virtually no chance of seeing eye to eye due to their completely different priorities. Woody is only concerned with getting back to Andy and blames Buzz for everything that has happened to him. While Buzz correctly points out that neither of them would be in this situation if Woody hadn’t pushed Buzz out of the window, his real concerns are of a much grander scale. Buzz believes that he possesses vital information about the one weakness of his archnemesis Emperor Zurg’s Death Star equivalent and that Woody’s actions have endangered not only Buzz, but the whole galaxy. Woody can only stare at Buzz in disbelief and is finally reduced to flailing his floppy cloth arms and screaming “You are a TOY!” But no amount of screaming or logic from Woody is going to convince Buzz of this fact. And even though he is angry and believes that Woody has caused him some galactic level problems, Buzz never completely loses his cool the way Woody does, a fact which makes him all the more infuriating to Woody. Buzz will never believe or understand that he is a toy so long as the news is coming from Woody. From Buzz’s perspective, Woody is at best exactly what Buzz called them when they first met: local law enforcement, someone who is too wrapped up in the problems of his little corner of the galaxy to see the big picture. At worst, he’s dangerous enough to attempt to terminate Buzz. Similarly, Woody’s animosity towards Buzz and Buzz’s unshakeable belief in his whole space ranger back story means that Woody won’t listen to a word he says, not matter how right Buzz may be when he’s not talking about Star Command and Emperor Zurg.

Woody is so fed up with Buzz that when he spots a Pizza Planet delivery truck pulling into the gas station, he’s all set to hop in and leave Buzz behind. He only stops when he remembers that the toys back home will tear him apart if he comes back without Buzz, reminding us of his largely selfish motivations at this point. Fortunately for Woody, the Pizza Planet delivery truck – a beat up old Toyota judging from the two remaining letters on the back – features a spaceship mounted on top of it, which is just enough to convince Buzz that the truck is a spaceship en route to its home spaceport.

Pizza Planet was originally “Pizza Putter” a combination restaurant and miniature golf course. The change was made so that the destination would be more appealing to Buzz. This could have easily felt far too convenient and I’m still amazed that in all the times I’ve watched Toy Story, Pizza Planet has never felt like an overly convenient plot device. This is largely due to Pizza Planet being designed as a restaurant any kid would love to go to, but never seeming so over the top that it becomes unbelievable. Of course there is a lot of space theming, but there are also a few unrelated video games thrown in for good measure. The only aspect that seems unrealistic is the working claw machine. You buy that Pizza Planet could exist in the real world and give Chuck E. Cheese’s some serious competition and your inner ten year old really wishes there was one near you.

Woody spots Andy and his family and tells Buzz that he has located a “special spaceship.” So Woody and Buzz hop on little Molly’s stroller and go home with Andy and everything’s hunky dory, right? Well, no. Woody and Buzz can’t go home yet because neither one of them has worked out his problems. Woody has only been able to get Buzz to follow him this far by lying to him and using his belief that he is a real space ranger to get him to do what Woody wants. Even if Woody could get Buzz back home without Buzz realizing that they aren’t actually taking a spaceship to his meeting with Star Command, Woody would still have to deal with Buzz hogging Andy’s attention. Buzz is not even aware at this point that he has a problem and is still convinced that he is a spaceman with a mission. He may have been willing to follow Woody up to this point, but he still sees himself as the real expert when it comes to space travel. So while Woody is focused on timing their jump into Molly’s stroller, Buzz runs off to board a spaceship-shaped crane game with a blinking “Ready to launch” sign.

Can you believe that this scene was once little more than a way to get Buzz and Woody from point A to point B? Buzz climbs into claw machine, Woody follows him, Sid spots Buzz, Sid wins both Buzz and Woody as prizes. Then someone – even the guys at Pixar can’t seem to recall exactly who – suggested that the alien toys who were the regular prizes in the crane game could be little cargo cultists and the ideas just started flowing. The squeaky toy aliens and their worshipful reverence for “The Claw” turned the scene into one of the funniest of the film. Plus, poor Woody now has to deal with not only deluded Buzz but also a bunch of loony aliens who see The Claw as their gateway to a better world. It’s annoying enough just having to listen to the lot of them, but it gets even worse when who else but Sid shows up and tries to claim Buzz as a prize and the aliens fight Woody’s attempts to save Buzz.

Okay, living toys and a space-themed pizza restaurant I can buy. But a claw machine that is capable of not only securely grabbing a large chunky spaceman toy by the helmet but also holding on while Woody is trying to pull Buzz back down? Now that’s just silly.

An interesting small detail is that Andy is at Pizza Planet with his whole family while Sid, who doesn’t appear that much older than Andy, is there by himself. Though it isn’t a major focus of the film, the contrast between Andy’s family and Sid’s family does pop up occasionally. Andy lives with his baby sister and his mom, who is single for reasons unknown and very loving and active in her children’s lives. She isn’t so perfectly sweet and understanding that she seems too good to be true, but she does come across as a good mother. Sid comes from a two parent home that he shares with his younger sister Hannah and Scud the dog. Sid’s mom is never seen, only heard offscreen. His dad is glimpsed once snoozing in front of the television. I seriously doubt that Pixar is trying to make some kind of blanket statement about single-parent families versus two-parent ones. The film just shows two different families, one of which produced a nice kid, the other which produced Sid.

We haven’t seen Sid in a while, so the film takes a few minutes to remind us that Woody and Buzz are not safe in his hands. Prior to winning Buzz and Woody from the claw machine, Sid won one of the squeaky toy aliens, which he gives to Scud to maul. Sid then grabs a doll out of his sister Hannah’s arms and rushes it into his room for an “operation” where he switches the doll’s head for a toy pterodactyl’s. Sid’s room is a nightmare of blacklight posters and mangled toy parts. The only living toys here are the frightening mutants that Sid has cobbled together from pieces of different toys. After watching them grab the pieces the doll and pterodactyl, Buzz concludes that the locals are cannibals, as if he and Woody didn’t have enough to worry about.

Back at Andy’s house, the toys watch from the window above as the car pulls into the driveway and Andy realizes that Woody is missing. Andy seems genuinely upset about not being able to find Woody, showing that he hasn’t lost interest in his old favorite toy. While most of the toys assume that Woody’s disappearance proves his guilt, Bo Peep and Slinky are still worried for Woody’s safety. Woody still has a few friends in Andy’s room, for now anyways.

The next morning finds Sid “interrogating” Woody and using a magnifying glass to burn a small spot onto his forehead. This moment sets us up with information that will be vital in a later scene, but it never feels like that, mainly because burning Woody’s forehead with a magnifying glass seems like a very natural thing for Sid to do based on what we know about him.

When Sid takes off for breakfast, Woody spots the open door and makes a break for it. His escape is blocked by the mutant toys and he ends up using Buzz and his karate chop action to keep the mutants at bay and get out the door. This is a good reminder of just how deep Buzz’s delusions run. He is confused when his “laser” fails to have any effect on the mutants and can’t understand how Woody is able to make his arm move by pushing a button on his back. But by the next shot, he seems unconcerned by these strange occurrences. Another toy in his situation might have taken more notice of these incidents and maybe even put two and two together, but Buzz is completely convinced that he is Buzz Lightyear, space ranger, to the point where he can just shake off anything that would seem to contradict that idea. Or maybe the escape mission just has him too busy to put two and two together. Either way, it’s going to take something big to force Buzz to realize what he truly is.

Scud is alerted to the presence of the toys, forcing Buzz and Woody to split up and hide. The ostensible reason for this is so Scud will have less chance of finding both of the toys. But the real narrative reason is that Buzz must be alone for what is about to happen to him.

Buzz narrowly escapes from Scud, hiding in the darkened room where Sid’s dad has fallen asleep watching championship bowling. As Scud gives up and walks away, Buzz hears a voice calling him. The voice identifies itself as “Star Command” as the Star Command symbol appears on the television screen that provides the only light in the room. Elated, Buzz flips open his wrist communicator. But before he can respond, a young boy’s voice replies “Buzz Lightyear responding.” Confused, Buzz looks up and discover that the television isn’t broadcast a communiqué from Star Command, but a commercial for the Buzz Lightyear action figure. And suddenly, everything starts to make sense. Why was Woody able to use a button to make Buzz’s arm move? Because the Buzz Lightyear action figure has a karate chop action. Why didn’t Buzz’s laser have any effect on the mutants? Because the Buzz Lightyear action figure only has a pulsating red light bulb on its arm. Why do the buttons on Buzz’s chest activate phrases like “There’s a secret mission in uncharted space”? Because the Buzz Lightyear action figure has multi-phrase voice simulator. Despite the featured high-pressure space wings, the advertisement notes – in text and speech much larger and slower than in any real commercial – that the Buzz Lightyear action figure is “not a flying toy.” The commercial comes to a close with first a shot of three Buzz action figures, and then hundreds of them sitting on the shelves, all toys, all exactly like Buzz. Buzz lifts up the cover to his wrist communicator to reveal three words he had never noticed before: “Made in Taiwan.”

Buzz never would have believed this from Woody. He had already written Woody off as someone who just couldn’t grasp the big intergalactic picture. But the television commercial is impartial, with no grudge against Buzz like Woody has, and the ability to explain every strange thing that has happened to Buzz point by point. Buzz finally realizes that Woody was right: he is a toy.

Story-wise, no good could have come of Woody being present when Buzz realizes the truth. His reaction could have either been sympathy, disinterest, or “See? I told you so.” The first comes later; Woody isn’t quite to the point where he’s ready to view Buzz as a friend. The latter two would make Woody seem like a jerk, causing him to lose the audience’s sympathy. So Woody doesn’t meet back up with Buzz until later, at a point where Buzz has already gone through a few stages of grieving and it’s more understandable that Woody would be more focused on getting both of them home than on Buzz’s feelings.

Buzz’s realization leads into the last song of the movie, “I Will Go Sailing No More.” While the first two songs focused on Woody’s perspective, this one is from Buzz’s point of view. It may not be the most famous song from the movie, but it is probably the most important. Up to now, we have been seeing Buzz largely through Woody’s eyes. We may have felt sympathetic towards him from time to time, but we have known from the beginning that Buzz is a toy and that all his talk about Star Command and Emperor Zurg and threats to the galaxy are nothing more than fantasy. In order for Buzz realizing that he is a toy to really register as a sad moment, we need to understand what Buzz is going through and how he feels about all of this Star Command stuff. Which is where the song comes in. The music tells us that this is a low point in Buzz’s story in a very general way while the lyrics fill in the details of Buzz being forced to come down to earth and accept what he is. Buzz loved being a space ranger, or at least believing that he was one. He was somebody important with amazing abilities. He could fly, he could zap enemies with his laser, he could defend the whole galaxy from evil. Being a space ranger was Buzz’s whole identity, much as being Andy’s favorite toy was Woody’s life. And now, just like Woody, he is having all of that taken away from him.

Also unlike the other two songs, “I Will Go Sailing No More” takes Buzz through a change of mindset and mood. Woody loves Andy all the way through “You’ve Got A Friend In Me” and hates Buzz all the way through “Strange Things.” But halfway through his song, Buzz has a moment of denial. He shuts his wrist communicator and even though it isn’t it close-up, we just saw him discover the “Made In Taiwan” on the lid so we know that’s what he doesn’t want to see as me makes his last attempt to prove that he isn’t a toy. He climbs to the top of the stairway railing, echoing the start of his “flight” back in Andy’s room. But this time, there is no series of racecar tracks and balls and toy airplanes to stop his fall. Buzz watches the window he was attempting to fly though grow smaller and smaller as he falls and finally hits the floor below, popping one of his arms out of its socket. The song follows his arc, giving voice to his initial sadness at his loss, then his determination to prove that that he has learned is not true, and finally the inescapable conclusion that his days as a space ranger were little more than a dream.

To be concluded.....

All images in this article are copyright Disney/Pixar.

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