Here’s an exercise that I’ve done a lot of in my undergrad – comparing and contrasting cultural “artefacts” or “texts”, as we call them in literary criticism. Guess I just can’t shake the essay bug! Just to let you know, it’s a long one. Seriously. You’ll probably need a coffee break before the end of this post. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!
One evening before Christmas, I was flipping through channels and landed on City TV. In between Mom and Two Broke Girls, oddly enough, the channel aired two Christmas specials: “Toy Story That Time Forgot” and “Prep and Landing“. I have mixed feelings about the “Toy Story” short. My misgivings centre around two main things: The moral synthesis at the end of the movie, delivered by the character Trixie; and potential interpretations of some subtler elements of the film, such as word choice and characterization. “Prep and Landing” left me with a better feeling overall – more on that in another post.
Here’s a barebones plot summary of “Toy Story That Time Forgot”, to provide some context. Trixie is a triceratops action figure who is repeatedly cast as “Baby Reindeer” by her child-owner, Bonnie. Trixie wants her dinosaur identity to be realized during the play sessions, but when Bonnie finally decides to play “dinosaurs”, she takes a kitten-angel ornament off the Christmas tree and makes it the dinosaur. When Bonnie takes the toys to a playdate at another child’s house, the children play video games and the toys are left to explore. Trixie’s dream comes true when Bonnie’s toys meet a group of warrior-dinosaur action figures, the Battlesaurs.
Ok, now for the analysis. At the end of the movie, Trixie says that the meaning of a toy’s life is…not friendship or love, as I anticipated, but: “Surrender to your child” (the word “surrender” comes up several times, developing into a central theme for the film). The Battlesaurs have a horror of surrender and employ brutality as a binary alternative; Trixie’s monologue in the denouement offers an alternative to this harsh way of life. While this is all very poetic (surrender to love, surrender to your inner child, allow yourself to be vulnerable, trust), and re-imagining one word (“surrender”) has aesthetic and rhetorical appeal in certain situations (Luce Irigary’s mimesis is a concept that has interested me for years), I would have gone with a different choice of words due to the denotative qualities of “surrender”. Although there can be positive interpretations of this wording (such as those mentioned above), I’m concerned by other interpretations which, to me, seem more overt in the movie. Trixie says that it’s up to the child who the toys will be during playtime – which to me suggests radical disempowerment, on a physical level (the toys have to feign being inanimate when held by the children, mirroring Rex’s physical disempowerment in the remote-controlled armour; the children’s names are written on the toys’ feet – disturbingly similar to a brand), and also on a psychological and ontological level of self-identification (the child gets to decide what the toy “is” during each play session, even if that means the toy never gets to enact – to realize – their core identity). Doublethink, anyone?
So, maybe I’m overthinking a kids’ movie? It’s all in good fun, right? And there are positive messages that can be taken from this film, as I’ve said myself earlier in this post. The thing is, as a rhetorician, that’s a very difficult stance for me to accept. From my memories of my own childhood, from my work experience with children, and from other observations of children’s behaviour, I strongly believe that kids do take messages, often subtle and profound ones, from pretty much everything in their world – TV, clothing, figures of speech, you name it. In fact, as a semiotician, that’s my basic premise for how individuals and societies together construct socio-cultural context.
Now, do I think that means we need to sanitize everything to the point of having no personality whatsoever? No. Does it mean I think all global citizens and interconnected individuals have a vital responsibility to be deliberate and reflexive in their acts of communication, and to engage in continuous reassessment of said communication acts? (Or “periodic reassessment”, if “continuous” sounds too exhausting.) Yes, indeedy. And I would further say that I think children, even more than adults, present an intriguing mix of questioning everything and taking things at face value. How kids interpret something depends on the kid, the issue, what day you catch them on, how they’re being told to behave and think by the people around them – so conscientious communication is especially important with children, I think. They’re definitely sharp enough to pick up little things, but they may or may not be able, or encouraged, to question a particular issue or speaker – or to articulate questions that do arise in their consciousness.
All of that being said, there’s another element of “Toy Story That Time Forgot” that also makes the pop culture critic in me squirm. Maybe it’s the associations I have with the word “cleric”. I would definitely have chosen a different word in this case, too. At first, the Battlesaurs put me in mind of a Lord of the Rings/Star Wars cross, and to be honest I was tickled pink. But as soon as the Saruman/Chancellor dinosaur was referred to as a “cleric”, I became very uneasy. Of course, denotatively, a “cleric” is simply a member of the clergy (Dictionary.com), and if the term was coming up in Chaucer or Johnson, I’d probably be a happy camper, at least as regards word choice. The thing is, the socio-historical context for “Toy Story That Time Forgot” is the present day, and “cleric” has some different connotations at present. In particular, what came to mind for me were Western (or certainly North American) media portrayals of the Middle East and of Islam. Google “cleric” in the regular Google search bar and you get word definitions like the one I’ve linked above. But search “cleric” in Google News and I bet you’ll get different results. When I did, seven out of the ten news stories were about Muslim clerics. The other three were about Christian clerics. But in day-to-day speech, it’s very rare that I hear “cleric” used to refer to a Christian religious official. “Priest”, “minister”, “reverend”, there are different terms that come up depending on the denomination, but “cleric” isn’t usually one of them these days. So, for me as someone consuming popular culture in North America, the word “cleric” connotes (a) a Muslim religious official, rather than simply a religious official in general, and (b) due to the pervasive media spin on Islam for the past thirteen years (or come to think of it, since the Gulf Wars? Or maybe the Crusades? Hmm…), links to “extremism” and “fundamentalism” – which, in a scholarly sense, are different things, but which seem to have become equated with one another in the popular understanding of the topic.
A little bit more about plot and characters: The cleric dinosaur is the evil mastermind behind the Battlesaur society. While the child who owns the Battlesaurs focuses on his video games, the Cleric uses an Eye-of-Sauron-like device both to distribute propaganda and to spy on everyone. He has Woody, Buzz, and the Angel Kitty taken prisoner when Bonnie’s toys enter Battlesaur territory, then pits them against his deadly warlord dinosaur, Reptillus Maximus, in a gladiator arena. He uses remote-control armour to force Rex to (almost) kill his friends, and orders Reptillus Maximus to stop (i.e. kill) Trixie, to whom Reptillus Maximus is emotionally attached. When Trixie confronts the Cleric, he gleefully admits to his nefarious acts and tries to have her friends thrown into an air vent with lethally sharp fan blades at the bottom. Clearly, this is an unsavoury character.
Now, here’s a word in the movie’s favour. I’m not trying to paint a picture of “Toy Story That Time Forgot” as simply engaging in a two dimensional perpetuation of racial prejudice. The film critiques religious rule and military rule. It engages with some of the horrendous acts of cruelty of the Roman empire (through the gladiator scene and Reptillus Maximus’ Romanized name), and by extension, imperialism in general; with the habit of governments around the world, including our own, of “disappearing”, detaining, torturing, and executing people (the Cleric’s abduction of Buzz, Woody, and the Angel Kitty); with gender roles (perhaps an occluded reading, but I think the movie’s gender critique has some strengths); and with materialism (“Everyone needs an apartment shaped like their own head!”). These themes are prevalent and problematic in North American society and worldwide. So I think there are tons of things the film does that are extremely interesting in a very positive way.
And I also think that the creators’ choice of the word “cleric” was probably deliberate, because of its vague denotative meaning. If you go by a dictionary definition, “cleric” is much less loaded than a lot of other names for religious officials. If they had chosen the word “priest”, for example, they would likely have run into a similar problem to the one I see with using “cleric”: “Priest” could be construed to be hinting at Catholicism, since although it may be used to described some non-Christian religious officials, within a Christian/Western context it most often refers to Catholic clergy. But from a popular culture point of view, from the angle of the associations – conscious or unconscious – that many viewers may link to that word, its connotative meaning, this choice of wording seems like bad public relations to me.
Ok, so what’s my alternative, if I’m going to complain so much about how the movie’s creators did things? Well, if I was working on the movie, I might have had an authoritarian character who bore similarities to a religious official, without actually naming him or her as one. My reasoning is as follows: It seems to me that it’s generally authoritarianism and other forms of abuse that are the problem, not spiritual belief itself. Most religious texts that I’ve encountered have some passages that resonate with me and others that I find troubling; and I always meet some people who interpret the text in ways that are nurturing towards others, and other people who behave abusively and use the same spiritual text to justify this to themselves and to other people.
Anyway, for the most part, I think the movie’s creators have done a good job of not making references to any one religion, but as I’ve been arguing, there are a few problematic artistic decisions. For example: Add present-day connotations of the word “cleric” to the fact that the Cleric is the movie’s antagonist, throw in the movie’s Christmas setting, and for me you have a substantial problem. Again, I’m not saying everything should be sanitized – I don’t have a problem with movies having Christmas themes, whether they focus on the Santa side of things or the holiday’s religious aspects. Those things are part of one of Canada’s many component cultures, and should have a space to speak into, just like all the other cultures that make up this (ostensibly) multicultural society. The issue for me is that in some ways, the movie portrays Christmas as the morally-sanctioned binary opposite of the Cleric’s world of death and psychological enslavement (notwithstanding that Bonnie’s toys are pretty much enslaved themselves, with this crystallized in Trixie’s monologue, as discussed above). The Christmas theme and all-American characters are juxtaposed against the hints of Otherness in the Battlesaur society: The Cleric, the non-present-day-Western-sounding name (Reptillus Maximus), the desert landscape.
Of course, for many subcultures in “Western” society, these things are not Other at all – but the society overall Others them because they’re not considered mainstream. (This Othering closes out both immigrants, such as my family, and people who supposedly belong to the mainstream but live in non-normative subcultures based on geography, religion, historical cultural influences, and other factors – physically / linguistically / culturally “visible minorities”, and also “invisible minorities”.) I’m not saying things have to be this way, just that despite good changes that have been put into place over the decades, there is still an Othering tendency – not only in the West, but in most societies that I’ve encountered. In a society with a lingering backdrop of binary normativity, the juxtaposition of “familiar” and “Other” invites viewers to engage in hegemonic interpretations of their world. In doing so, the film sets up messages that can’t be effectively dismantled in the denouement, because it binds its (attempted) moral message of kindness and tolerance to its (probably unintentional) message of hegemony and normativity in the character of the Cleric. The film fuses a message of “Other” and “bad” (cruel, tyrannical, etc.) to the only Othered character who is implicitly linked to Islam (a) through the use of the word “cleric” and the things modern-day Westerners associate with that word, and (b) through the juxtaposition of all this against the Western, Christian Christmas tradition (and a very North American representation of that tradition, to boot). Again, it’s not the individual elements themselves that are a problem (discussing or portraying Christmas, religion, authoritarian rule, accountability, etc.) – it’s how these things are put together, how they interact with each other and with the viewer’s assumptions.
For example, there’s the scene where Trixie confronts the Cleric. She admonishes him by saying, “It’s only two days after Christmas!” I’m able to appreciate the universal theme of holidays as holy days, days of mercy and moral uprightness, etc. But again, within the context that hails viewers through the word choice in the work, Christmas as the measure of goodness becomes Christian-ness, Western-ness, Anglo-diaspora-ness as the measure of goodness. And specifically (within the context activated by the use of the word “cleric” and other Othering elements in the film), this is contrasted against Islam, non-Christian-ness and non-Western-ness as the measure of what is Other, dangerous, and just all round bad news. Well, ok, not all bad news – many of the individual Battlesaurs are portrayed as decent sorts who have been brainwashed. But they aren’t on solid moral ground, or safe to be around, until they assimilate into Bonnie’s toys’ worldview.
And then there’s the scene where Rex is being forced to march Woody, Buzz, and the Angel Kitty to a bloody death-by-vent-fan. The Angel Kitty starts playing “O Come, Emmanuel” on its bugle, until the instrument is snatched away and thrown into the vent fan: This incarnation of Christmas, goodness, and peaceful wisdom (on the rare occasions that the Angel Kitty speaks, it’s to deliver aphorisms) is to be slaughtered on the orders of the Othered Cleric. Again, while this type of scene could be a good rendering of current affairs on a kid-friendly level, the way that it brings religion into the mix massively detracts from what’s really the issue – cruelty and abuse (in this case, institutionalized abuse through authoritarian rule). And as I’ve been arguing, it’s particularly problematic within a Western context because of the particular religions that have been contrasted, and the roles assigned to characters from each camp.