Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Buzz Lightyear al Rescate!

by Stephen Cummings

Lee Unkrich, 2010, Toy Story 3, Buzz Lightyear

Toy Story has always been about our past's collision with the future: Woody — the Old West — forced to reconcile with Buzz Lightyear — our technological triumph. It's Classic meets Cool, Silicon Valley versus Death Valley, LPs recorded onto iPods — or at that time, what? Walkmans? — even Steamboat Willie whistling along with WALL-E. Toy Story is the story of America. Drawing from the past, we look to the future. The theme runs through Toy Story 3 with a note of regret at what's being left behind. While the only loss in the original was Buzz Lightyear's delusion of grandeur (a healthy trade for Woody's newfound acceptance of the unknown), there is a clear sense through most of this third installment that things will not be the same. But is it really so bad in the end?

In its broadest strokes, Toy Story 3 pits optimism against cynicism. It is the toys' belief that Andy no longer wants them that leads the group away from him in the first place, despite Woody's appeals to the contrary. Once at Sunnyside Daycare, there is the seduction of Lots-O'-Huggin' Bear's philosophy: no owners means no heartbreak. Jessie and the gang are sold, until Sunnyside turns out not to be all that was promised, and Lotso's unsavory side comes to light. Naturally, it is Woody's loyalty, and his companions' unity that saves them from the draconian grip of Sunnyside (not to mention the love welling up in Ken and Big Baby that saves Sunnyside from Lotso). In this ideal world, Woody and friends are able to take the higher road — near calamity notwithstanding — letting go their anger at Lotso while the audience is assured of the strawberry scented bear's comeuppance. Though purity of heart is not without its dangers, the lesson to be learned is clear. (In the end, even Chuckles can't help but crack a smile.)

It's a fairly standard Hollywood theme that includes a current of cooperation trumping exclusion. Sunnyside's dark side is a product of Lotso's separation of new arrivals from old hands, a system abandoned in his absence in favor of a shared effort with benefits for everyone. And while the original cast do well in their escape attempt, it is the Chatter Telephone's decision to fend for himself that jeopardizes the whole operation. Again, a fairly standard treatment, and a good lesson for the kids, but there are a few details that make this particular tale one worth remembering.

Buzz Lightyear's transformation, mid-way through the film, into a suave, Spanish dancer is the moment that brings Toy Story 3 into that uniquely American space that has been the series' strength. Dancing the Pasodoble with cowgirl Jessie, Buzz becomes suddenly both past and present. He reminds us of our mythic, Western roots, when cowboys roamed between Spanish missions and trade flowed freely across the Rio Grande, and between Alta and Baja California — the time of Zorro and Jim Bowie reified in a space ranger. While taking us back, Buzz remains firmly in the present, still a favorite, plastic toy — and symbol of Disney merchandising — with a Spanish/English owners manual to boot. Jessie, the all American girl, of course finds the new Buzz all the more enchanting, and in a sign of the times, needs only offer a slight musical nudge to set Buzz's alter ego bubbling up irresistibly from below the surface.

Further details include Mr. Potato Head's use of a tortilla in the escape operation (innocuous, perhaps, but a clear sign that our national identity has already shifted — back to its roots?) and Andy's decision to leave his toys to a girl called Bonnie, the embodiment of the next generation, who is herself possibly Latina. It is a touching conclusion, and reassuring in that this little girl of ambiguous lineage is so plainly the best possible heir to the characters we've come to love over the past 15 years. The future, it turns out, will not be so different. Finally, the Oscar-winning theme which was introduced in Andy's room, rounds out the trilogy with a recording by the Gipsy Kings, this time with the words, "Hay un amigo en mi."

As the furor over U.S. immigration policy continues with court orders and appeals and even calls for reexamination of the 14th Amendment, it's hard not to catch the resonance of this final Toy Story chapter. Much as some may fight to keep our southern neighbors on the opposite side of the border, the fact of the matter is that the battle is already won. Kids today are growing up on Dora the Explorer, baseball's biggest stars have names like Pujols and Rodriguez, and the world's game continues to creep into the national consciousness. These are the cues that will shape the future, not Jan Brewer and J.D. Hayworth. And now, even one of Pixar's most beloved characters is bilingual. So, thank you, to Lee Unkrich and his team. It's a comfort, when things have gotten terribly overheated, to have a reminder that everything will be ok. To quote Woody: "We're all in this together."


  1. stephen, dang. your insight and analysis amaze me. nice. you should send this to a newspaper. it deserves publishing.

  2. I enjoyed and agree with the first part of this piece. You had me right up to the end.

    I think the majority of Americans don't have an issue with Hispanic culture; witness the popularity of "bilingual Buzz," Mexican cuisine, and Cinco de Mayo, for instance. Even then, it's not a matter of "winning," culturally; the United States is a melting pot. (And it should be noted that "bilingual Buzz" is not Mexican, but Spanish-Castilian-- that accent is distinctly European.) What justifiably angers a lot of people is that some of "our neighbors to the South" are vaulting into the back yard instead of coming through the front door like responsible neighbors, sometimes trailing ecological damage, criminal records, and drains on taxpayer resources. The vast majority of people I know who support a crackdown on illegal immigration do not have a problem with immigration in and of itself. So, I think, to say that there is fighting to "keep our southern neighbors on the opposite side of the border" is an over-broad statement.