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?
Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, United States