Torture and "Toy Story 3"

File this post under "crotchety dad" if you must, but I hope it is more than that.

Today, I went with my nearly-five-year-old daughter to see the new Disney movie "Toy Story 3." I did not know the storyline or the characters from the first two "Toy Story" movies, but looked up the trailers and read a few reviews online before deciding we could go see it together.


The movie served up enough double-entendres and other multilevel gestures, speaking to children and adults distinctly but simultaneously, to keep the older set (20%) in our packed Yonkers theater laughing almost in sync with the kids (80%). But I also left deeply disturbed by the presence of (what I at least took to be) a casual torture leitmotif in the movie.

(Spoiler alert: if you don't want to know a few details of "Toy Story 3," stop reading here.)

Let me preface these remarks by saying that I found the intimations of serious violence throughout the movie, and especially in the last half-hour (living toys nearly getting thrashed to shreds and burned to death in an incinerator, and calmly holding hands as they prepare to die violently in fire), almost willfully gratuitous. (This movie, by the way, is rated G.) And then there is Barbie.

But back to "deeply disturbed": does a film created after September 11 and in the midst of the present wars get to pretend innocence when torture is playfully suggested in three different scenes? My descriptions might make you laugh given the characters involved, but no one who has read any of the torture accounts from the post-9/11 era (or indeed, long before) can deny the unsettling echoes between those accounts and the film's unstudied and untroubled attitude to the depiction of physical abuse (each time for the sake of "the truth") in this film.

I'm flying without notes here, but these are my best recollections:

The first occasion has Ken (Barbie's boyfriend) interrogating Buzz Lightyear, in the manner of old-fashioned one-on-one movie interrogations under an exposed light bulb. Ken wants Buzz to come over to the mean side of the tracks. Buzz refuses. Then Ken moves forward with an aggressive look and summons a nearby robot to take a power-screwdriver to Buzz's back while others hold Buzz down as he resists and writhes. Many children around me cringed. The power-screwdriver pulls out the screws on Buzz's back panel, and the panel is removed and a big deal made of switching off one of his settings near his batteries, fundamentally altering his personality for much of the rest of the film, making him docile for the "bad guys."

The second occasion has Barbie (you read that right) with Ken in a spacious walk-in closet. This time it is Ken who has information that Barbie needs, and she has stripped him and tied him up with ropes. She proceeds to start pulling items off his clothing rack and ripping them in half while he yells for her to stop. Only after she starts rending a highly prized shirt, and Ken, still bound and wearing only shorts, has fallen forward on his face, does he agree to tell her what she wants to hear.

The third occasion takes place near the end, when a telephone toy (an old school 1970s Fisher Price phone), who is a kind of wisdom figure in helping the main characters escape their plight, shows up pitifully accompanied by guards from the enemy with evident bruises and scratches on his face and body, apologizing to the main characters for disclosing their whereabouts, saying something like the truth had been gotten out of him. (It is clear he is really saying, "they beat it out of me.")

I will leave out many more matters, such as whether we stayed for the rest of the movie, what we talked about on the way home, and what I might be learning about mainstream children's movies, parenting, and myself. But paging through the reviews of this movie available on the Internet, I feel I am about the only one who had this reaction, even though I cannot forget that cringe when the drill is driven into Buzz's back in the interrogation room.

You might argue that these scenes are actually criticisms of torture, since at least in two of three cases a punishing interrogation is used by the "bad guys," but the gratuity of the scenes, combined with Barbie's ("good girl") use of it against Ken, makes that interpretation unconvincing. And I do not think that one movie alone with such images makes much of a difference; but placed in a larger cultural network, especially in a society that has not definitively rejected torture, and these scenes become both more important and potentially more dangerous. No doubt we need to know much more, such as how the audience for this film makes sense of violence, and how this and other films are part of that sense-making.

Parents and anyone else with a stake in what popular culture teaches us: what do you think?

Tom Beaudoin

Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, United States

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Beth Cioffoletti
8 years 7 months ago
The video games are the worst.  When my son was growing up, my fellow mothers&fathers would fret over the increasingly graphic violence that was being played out through these games.  The video games were addictive enough, but the violence accompanied with parental disapproval, made the most violent games like gold to these kids.  The kids whose parents wouldn't allow them in the house would gather at the kids' houses where they were allowed.
I am actually surprised that most of these boys are now fairly normally adjusted young adults.
I sense that the underlying graphic and torture message has something to do with the radical change in our culture the last 50 years.  Some unconscious schism in our collective psyche is now becoming conscious. 
Kevin Jam
8 years 7 months ago
I haven't seen the film yet, but like the previous comments mention, I think our society takes this topic entirely too lightly (to a very dangerous degree). It is absolutely shocking to me that so many people I talk with are acutally undecided about whether torture is wrong in all cases, and even more so when I hear some of the justifications people attempt to make for it. I'll reserve comments about the movie itself until after I've seen it, except to say that it seems like Toy Story could be just as funny and just as good a movie without references of that sort. However benign they may seem to be, we can't accept that. Especially with respect to our children (at the risk of sounding melodramatic), we can't afford to.
"...placed in a larger cultural network, especially in a society that has not definitively rejected torture, and these scenes become both more important and potentially more dangerous."
Absolutely. Thanks for the thoughts.
Andy Buechel
8 years 7 months ago
Interesting thoughts everyone.  Though I have to confess that I think I disagree.  Not about the way that society has become more gratuitous and violent in popular culture (video games being, I think, the most apt example), but the issue of torture and this film.  Like Tom, I have seen Toy Story 3, and, as with every other Pixar film I've seen, found it utterly delightful.  I should also confess that I do not have children.
First, I'm not sure I understand where Tom finds the depictions gratuitous.  The only one that seems to fit that description is the first with Buzz and the screwdriver, but as he says, the children cringed at this.  As they should.  This was intended to convey the depravity of the inflicting toys (a depravity triggered by abandonment) and not as a joke at all.  Secondly, I find no meaningful way of describing the Barbie scene as torture.  Ken is tied up and the goal is information extraction, admittedly, but there is never any threat to his body or loved ones ('real' ones that is, not his preferred fetish of clothes).  It seems that to broaden the definition of torture to include this deprives the word of any real meaning and risks stripping it of its genuine horror, sort of like literary theorists who talk about "violence" to texts.  As for the last mentioned instance, far from being gratuitous, I found it very subtle, and yet disturbing, as I think it is meant to be.
Finally, none of this is new, at least in this genre.  Disney animation (and animation in general)-like the fairy tales on which they are often based-have always had depictions of terrifying violence and cruelty.  The number of Disney villains who have plunged to their deaths is countless...I still remember from childhood the rage and hatred in the eyes of the dwarfs in Snow White as they pursued the witch up a mountain.  The whale attack and (far more disturbing) metamorphosis of children into asses in Pinocchio.  And, of course, the slaying of Bambi's mother which left me as a kid with many sleepless nights.  Yet I don't think this necessarily a bad thing.  There is plenty of banal child entertainment out there that does not let the world be a scary place. I think this is why many kids prefer the Disney variety.......the world is a terrifying place to a child (at least it was to this former kid :))!  Finding that reflected, yet challenged, in a way that also maintains distance (toys or deer versus people) strikes me as a healthy way to show what is possible out there........for both good and evil. 
Carlos Leon
8 years 7 months ago
I have seen all the toy story movies mostly because I have 5 kids of my own, ages 13 to 22. I just don't see the amount of violence that Tom sees. I guess I can sympathize with the view point. After the movies when the kids were younger we'd get some ice cream and they would talk about how funny or cute a character was and were just delighted to have seen a good movie. In subsequent years watching on tape or DVD they are still entertained but see and understand them at a much more mature level. If my child is disturbed by a movie then it is time to leave and never watch sequels. Kids are fragile I agree but they are very resilient also. When we went to movies they enoyed them as a child , I enjoyed them as an adult. My pleasure was to watch them laugh and have them share as a child what was good about a movie, it was usually very simple. It is all a growing process. Just like understanding Jesus, they mature with time and the conversations are not as simple. You make good points but they are far from my observations. God bless
Much Deeper
8 years 6 months ago
Alright... This movie clearly goes over heads of so many people I know.
I really want more to understand what is really happening in this movie.
After watching the short movie ''Day and Night'' right before the movie, you should have known and watched for foreshadowing.
''Day and Night'' was only giving you an obvious look at what they were about to do.
Then the movie started. The ''Day and Night'' was the movie, only this time it had a storyline attached.
Look at any character and carefully watch it. The toys do exactly as each toy is supposed to do.
3 Aliens
The most amazing display of what I'm talking about  WAS the insinerator. When the toys had finally given up... When Buzz had finally given up all hope AND Woody had given up hope and they all accepted death. THE CLAWWW saved them.
The aliens have been in this situation before and their perseption of the claw was that it was the only thing that could save them from death.
Whenever they have been saved from death in the previous movies they have said ''Thank you we are eteranlly grateful'' which shows the level of intensity that they are at.
When stuck in a machine for eternity, in the first movie- (in their eyes) (in their perseption of life itself) (which is what ''Day and Night'' is all about, perseption of life itself from a certain point of view)- the only thing that could save them was THE CLAWWW. When attacked by a dog and nearly getting ripped to shreds, in the other movie,(after, similarly, giving up all hope on being ALIVE) they were saved and eternally grateful!
Toy Story creators blatantly showed you the aliens everyday pereption of life itself.

Buzz held out his hand to Jessie as if to say, ''If it's time for me to die, I have to let you know I love you and if these are the last seconds of my life I want to be holding hands so I can die with you.'' But Jessie was oblivious to it and held her hand out to the next charecter which was another male, showing Buzz and the audience that they were only friends. It went all around until it got to Woody. At first Woody looked mad/disapointed/disgusted at the person who was going to give up, but then Woody looked at Buzz (a best friend/only other hero of the stroyline) Buzz gave him the nod and Woody gave up hope.
Next thing you hear THE CLAWWW.


Barbie and Ken
These are two perfectly stylish, good looking, overly vain, rich, flrity, bubbly people. They are both obsessed with style. Accodring to what a ral lfe ''Barbie'' or ''Ken'' SHOULD be. Right? Aren't they just that in the movie? yes.
So, that being said, after analyzing ''the ripping of the clothes'' scene that is ''torture''... you can ask yourself, ''What is the only, most dramatic thing you can do to Ken as Barbie to make him talk? (while staying in character)''
Rip his clothes, because it is what he loves. This also shows other things like Barbie and Ken are supposed to be the perfect model couple. Right? This is showing that your woman can make or break you, she knows your weaknesses, she can rip your clothes (or your most loved possesions) apart.
That is only a tiny piece of Barbie and Ken. The charecters of Barbie and Ken are perfected and they do everything that they should do... I'll list some things that are major, key things that these 2 charecters do that show how much thought hte pixar creators put into WWBD or WWKD... (what would Barbie/Ken do)
These creators gave a lot of thought to what each charecters' perseption of life really was.
Barbie & Ken
Love at first site (of course) right?

She stuck with her friends when she was about to be imprisoned (exactly what she would do)
But the twist was that she decided she'd play to Ken's soft side by talking love with him (making sure barbie is sly and cunning like the perfect barbie would be)right?
Ken (of course) snuck her out (classic romance).
Barbie almost jumped to save her friends but Ken saved her. (classic)
Ken's message was (they can all die, but i'd die if i couldn't live with you)
Remember perseption of life itself.

This goes on the entire movie!! Every single character!!

The Woody and Jessie is another romance that goes on in the movie...
Along with a subtle Buzz and Jessie ramance (which I hated)

The telephone took on the role of an old 1920's East Coast gangster that knew everything... of course a telephone would know everything. But he watched his own back. He was the hardass that took care of himself and wanted to help people escape from the madness.
What is the only thing that would make an old 1920's gangster talk?
I repeat THE ONLY THING?? A beating.
He says a classic line ''They broke me.''
It makes you say wow!! HE was broken? That is intense.
Which is the same wow that you think if you think about Woody or Buzz giving up hope. Which is the only way to show you how intense the aliens perspective of life is.
Everything in this trilogy goes hand-in-hand.
During that scene where the clown tells the bear's story, they jump on a truck, guess which truck?
The same exact pizza truck that Woody and Buzz rode on. Which shows this was going on in thier life at that time.

I'm saying this trilogy is the best I've ever seen.
Rewatch the movie and watch it as ''Day and Night''
You will be amazed.



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