Sunday, August 01, 2010

Made to play: Toy Story 3 film review

A (monthly) film review by Steve Taylor (for Touchstone magazine)

In 1995, a bunch of toys started a cinematic innovation. The toys (Toy Story) were to be followed by fish (Finding Nemo), rats (Ratatouille) and robots (WALL-E), all creations of Pixar Animation Studios. The credits began to roll, with eleven films in the next fifteen years garnering twenty four Academy awards and contributing to the sale of Pixar to Disney in 2006 for $7.4 billion. Such creative innovation was based neither on Hollywood star power nor on clever computer technologies.

Rather, according Pixar cofounder, Ed Catmull, it was the result of a shared commitment to play. Catmull wrote in the Harvard Business Review of a dream, that of making the first ever computer-animated film, only to realize that the most exciting achievement was the creation of a unique collective environment, a team of individuals committed to collective play (September, 2008).

Toy Story 3 is Pixar’s latest offering, and the ethos of creative play continues. When interpreting film, the first scene is often pivotal. Toy Story 3 begins, and ends, with toys at play – historic toys, like Mr and Mrs Potatohead and action toys like Buzz Lightyear – collectively engaged in the sheer joy of imaginative play.

Toy Story 3 marks the third, and final installment. Times are changing, for the toys’ owner, Andy is growing up. Questions of identity begin to surface. What is the place of play in a world grown-up?

The tension in the Toy Story 3 plot continues to tighten. The toys find themselves delivered to a local child-care centre, only to met Lotso the bear, who in the face of change, has chosen to respond with bullying and manipulation. How should we respond as people around us change? Should we play both equally and fairly, or in power-wielding hierarchies?

A theme of collective play are worth pondering theologically. A German 16th century mystic, Angelus Silesius, wrote that, “God plays with creation. It has imagined the creature for its pleasure.” This finds expression in a number of Biblical images of God, as musician and composer, as designer and garment maker, as architect and builder, as crafter and artisan. God plays, not manipulatively nor hierarchically, but in imaginative and joyful partnerships. And so we, as humans, made in the image of God, are similarly invited to play, imaginatively, joyously, collectively.

Using this lens, Toy Story 3 offers a fascinating theology, that of creatures made for play. In the midst of contemporary consumerism, we find toys built not for the purpose of entertainment, but for the purpose of imaginative play. It is a subtle, yet profound difference.

Further play occurs throughout the plot. In a delight twist, Barbie meets Ken. Stereotypes are introduced, only to be playfully subverted. Collective friends become more important than fantasy.

And all the time one is watching computer-generated toys at play. Such is the genius of the Pixar creative innovation. The usual run of Hollywood A-listers, including Tom Hanks (Woody) and Tim Allen (Buzz Lightyear), serve as simple voice-overs. The real stars, the writers and animation artists, are invisible. Is this yet another message about the ethics of collective play?

Such is the playful skill of Pixar, a creative collective drawn together with permission to play. In turn, they create a team of toys at play. In so doing, they offer to children and adults a way of being human, as made to play.

Posted by steve at 03:28 PM | Comments (0)

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