Inside D.C. entertainment

Why 'Toy Story 3' is a defense of, not rebuke to, liberal values. Obviously.

November 19, 2010 - 09:33 AM
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Don't let the gavel fool you: Lotso only enacts commie justice. (publicity photo)

"It's a no-brainer. When you watch the film, that's what it's about."

Andrew Klavan, the mystery novelist and screenwriter (True Crime), told me this a few weeks ago, not long after he published an article in the Los Angeles Times, "Assessing the midterms is child's play," in which he argues that the Republicans' takeover of the House and the release of Toy Story 3 on DVD — both on Nov. 2 — "are not unrelated." The plot of the Pixar film, he writes, is a "rebuke ... not perhaps to the Obama White House specifically but to its underlying ideas," and its theatrical success, he adds, "should have served as a warning that Americans, though they might like the president personally, do not share his agenda."

It's a provocative thesis statement, and what follows is an impressive feat of timely film criticism. It's also deeply flawed, illuminating far more about Klavan's conservative crusade against Hollywood than it does about Obama liberalism, American voters, or even Toy Story 3 itself. In response, I have found a few other hidden meanings in the film that reveal, once and for all, what the film is truly about.


Klavan's article begins convincingly enough. He says Woody, the cowboy voiced by Tom Hanks, represents "the heroic mythos of the American past ... a paragon of age-old virtues: loyalty, indomitable courage and resourcefulness." Buzz Lightyear, meanwhile, is a stand-in "America in the Space Age ... a figure of hilariously boundless optimism." Klavan's right in both respects, as when he describes them as "virile, lovable archetypes" rendered anachronistic by the cultural upheaval of the late 1960s.

So far, so good; I doubt Richard Slotkin would disagree with a single word. Klavan then digs deeper, claiming that the daycare center to which Woody, Buzz, and other toys are donated is an embodiment of our "transformed culture." Sunnyside is inhabited by "the modern American paradigms: Lots-o'-Huggin' Bear, Big Baby and the shallow, metrosexual Ken doll," and the rainbow on the door isn't just another daycare rainbow — it's "the pervasive symbol of so-called diversity."

If you think that's a stretch, consider the kicker: Sunnyside, where the toys govern themselves, is really a socialistic society run by Lotso, the "bitter tyrant"; Big Baby, "compassion's coddled and perennial victim" and "an overbearing monster"; and Ken, "a vain, empty and unmanly tool of his evil masters." Klavan finds a choice quote from Lotso: "No owners means no heartbreak.... At Sunnyside, we own ourselves." Logically, then, the Woody gang's escape from the center is just like...

...America's escape, through the midterm elections, from "a leftist culture" that has sought to "shape our imaginations" with "sissified men"; from "race-baiters and gender warriors" who want to kill our "heroic cowboy past"; and from an "intellectual and political elite" that attempts to "destroy our Space Age optimism" with "environmental hysteria." Time, he says, to put an end to the "daycare state." Then there's an obligatory "to infinity and beyond!" reference, and the dick-swinging article mercifully ends, leaving behind nothing but the echo of clanging stirrups and the faint whiff of jetpack fuel.


I had not yet seen Toy Story 3 when I interviewed Klavan, and he assured me that once I did, I wouldn't be able to avoid the film's blatant subtext. "It's definitely a thoughtful, intelligent film," he said. "It's not just me making it up." Or maybe it is. After reading Klavan's article, Toy Story 3 director Lee Unkrich tweeted, "Really? REALLY? Please keep Toy Story 3 out of your politics." Klavan's response, during our interview: "Let me put it this way, I didn't hear anything from the writer." He was referring, presumably, to screenwriter Michael Arndt, but three other writers are credited with the actual story. (In this Post interview, Arndt says, "The overarching story is about change.")

The issue, of course, isn't whether Klavan is "making it up." Film criticism doesn't work that way; one needn't know the author's intention. But Klavan, who also rants for PJTV, is clearly using the film to push his political ideology (and his books). In 2008, he wrote in the Post that there's a "graylist" for conservatives in Hollywood. That same year, he published a novel, Empire of Lies, about a conservative Midwestern family man whose estranged teenage daughter gets mixed up with terrorists. "Disgusted by the excesses of the liberal media, Jason discovers that he's not just paranoid, he really is a persecuted outsider," writes Publishers Weekly. "The action builds to an explosive climax at the screening of a 3-D movie at a Manhattan theater." Naturally.

Toy Story 3 isn't even the first time Klavan's used a blockbuster film to make a case for conservativism. Two years ago, he published an article in the Wall Street Journal, "What Bush and Batman Have in Common," that called The Dark Knight "a paean of praise to the fortitude and moral courage that has been shown by George W. Bush in this time of terror and war. Like W, Batman is vilified and despised for confronting terrorists in the only terms they understand. Like W, Batman sometimes has to push the boundaries of civil rights to deal with an emergency..."

Sorry for the ellipsis there, but I can't even bring myself to reprint the second half of that sentence. You can read the rest of it here.

About his Toy Story 3 article, Klavan said to me, "Not one person said, 'I have another reading.' It was just four-letter words." Well, now I've finally seen the film, and I have another reading — more than one, actually. I have so many readings I don't even know what to do with them. For all of Klavan's insistence that I'd find his interpretation inescapable, what's most obvious is how Klavan never delves far enough into Toy Story 3's plot, cherry-picking a few lines and scenes to support his unwavering conviction that, with these midterms, the Republicans just saved America from years more of metrosexuality.

Klavan never uses the S-word, but he makes it clear in his article, with a joke about "redistributing wealth and taking over the means of production," that he views the daycare center as a socialistic society. But Sunnyside strikes me less as a depiction of leftist values than of human carelessness and neglect. The toys arrive there because they're unwanted by their original owners, and, now at Sunnyside, they're treated poorly because the children — their caretakers — feel no attachment to them. If anything, this strikes me as an argument against adoption and foster care, not cuddly liberalism. If I were the Andrew Klavan of the left, I might even argue that Toy Story 3 defends a woman's right to choose.

But let's say Sunnyside is a socialist dictatorship. Would that make Lotso's imprisoning of Woody's gang a metaphor for the Gulag camps? Now things get messy, which is exactly what happens when you take Klavan's argument to a place he refuses to take it — its logical conclusion. In reality, the strife between the two groups has less to do with Marx vs. Jefferson than citizens vs. immigrants. Woody's gang endures a long journey to their new land, and all they want is to be treated like equals; one of them, a rebooted Buzz Lightyear, even speaks Spanish. But the toys already living at Sunnyside, despite having been immigrants themselves, refuse to grant the newcomers equal citizenship.

Look, I'm not making this stuff up. It's a no-brainer.

Klavan wants desperately to resurrect the astronaut and cowboy as heroic American icons, but I wish them good riddance. While the former represents an outdated and inefficient approach to space exploration — it was Bush, by the way, who forced the Space Shuttle program into retirement — the latter represents, at least in a historical context, nothing less than the American Indian genocide. So as I watched the end of Toy Story 3, when Woody, Buzz, and the rest of the gang slide inexorably toward their deaths in a fiery hell — a landfill furnace, which represents the excess of American consumerism — I was conflicted. Being someone whose heart occasionally beats (and bleeds?), I wanted to cry for these animated depictions of children's toys who now, hand in hand, faced their liquid end with an equanimity not seen since Bruce Willis at the end of Armageddon. Then the film critic in me woke up — the prototypical "left-wing reviewer" who, as Klavan bemoaned to me, slams every film with a "value-based perspective." I would not, I decided, lament the death of the astronaut and cowboy. Time for new heroes.

Sure enough, those new heroes arrived — in the form of three squeeze-toy aliens who plucked the gang from the rubbish with a claw crane. My heart swelled with the music, and my mind gleaned the secret message. It was so blatant, even Klavan himself couldn't possibly have missed it: America has become an overcrowded, glass-enclosed arcade game, and only extraterrestrials can save us now.

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