James Wallis levels with you

Every thing is a play thing: Toy Story and transmedia storytelling

I’ve been enjoying the summer movie blockbusters, more or less, and have been struck by a couple that veer off in a decidedly metaphysical direction. And you won’t be surprised to hear that I’ve spent a while thinking about the last few scenes of one film in particular, which may rewrite or redefine the entire narrative you’ve just seen.

I’m talking, of course, about Toy Story 3.

The Toy Story trilogy is being hailed as one of the great film series of all time, on a par with the Godfather series or the original Star Wars movies. Both of those were weakest in their third acts, while Toy Story 3 is a masterpiece. But it’s also the one that pulls together a number of strings that have run through the three films, and threatens—right at its very end—to drag the whole edifice to the ground. And it’s all done with one line of dialogue, that almost everybody else seems to have missed.

Here we go, and beware massive spoilers on the starboard bow. We’re at the end of the film, the very end of the story. Andy is introducing the toys to Bonnie.

Andy: [opens box, and takes out Jessie] This is Jessie, the roughest, toughest cowgirl in the whole west. She loves critters, but none more than her best pal, Bullseye!

[pulls out Bullseye, and makes a whinnying sound]

Andy: Yee-haw!

How does he know their names?

These are two toys that were in Andy’s room when he returned from camp at the end of Toy Story 2, unmarked and without packaging. He has no way of knowing what they’re called—the product names they were originally marketed under. But he does.

Oh, you say, he could have asked. His mom could have remembered. He could have gone on the internet—in fact Toy Story 3 includes a knowing reference to it:

Hamm the Piggy Bank: C’mon. Let’s go see how much we’re going for on eBay.

but if Andy had checked the net, he’d have discovered that Jessie, Bullseye and Woody himself are very rare, very collectible, very valuable toys. That was the central plot-driver of Toy Story 2, and the theme of sentimental value versus financial value that underpins a lot of that film. In fact it’s fair to say that if anyone in the Toy Story world had been able to identify Jessie and Bulleye, they’d have known that these were no ordinary toys.

Yet Toy Story 3 opens with the toys about to be either thrown away, donated to charity or consigned to the attic. Nobody in Andy’s family has the slightest idea that these three toys have any value at all. They have no clue what the toys are, and they don’t care. Oh, perhaps there was an old book about ‘Woody’s Round-Up’ somewhere in Andy’s house? But in Toy Story 2 Woody has no idea of his past, of the TV show about him, of the existence of a single other artefact about the Round-Up Gang. If such a thing had existed to show Andy what Jessie’s and Bullseye’s names are, Woody would have known about it too. Andy’s mum? Too young.

There is only one other way for Andy to have learned Jessie and Bullseye’s names: for Woody to have told him. We see Woody write a note for Andy to find towards the end of Toy Story 3. This violates all kinds of unspoken rules about what toys can and can’t do; but then so does speaking to Sid in the original Toy Story. Nevertheless, it’s an enormous taboo. Would Woody really have taken such a drastic step just to point out a couple of names? Surely not.

There are only one conclusion we can draw. Andy cannot plausibly have discovered these names, and so this scene cannot have happened. It is an imagining. A figment. A dream.

That’s a pretty big thing to have to swallow in the brightly coloured child-friendly universe of the Toy Story films, but becomes a lot easier in the light of one other crucial point. Woody is the central character in the films. He is our viewpoint, our north star. We navigate the films by him, and see the world and its moral dilemmas through his eyes. And he is badly broken. He has persistent amnesia.

Who’s Woody’s owner? Andy. The energy behind all three films is Woody’s desire to get back to Andy, to do the best for Andy, to be Andy’s toy. That’s his whole identity: he is Andy’s toy. This is what makes the opening scenes of Toy Story 3 so heart-wrenching, as he finally comes to understand that the 17-year-old Andy, about to leave for college, has outgrown him and the other toys.

But Woody is at least fifty years old. ‘Woody’s Round-Up’, the TV series that spawned him, we know from Toy Story 2 ran from 1941–42 and 1946–57. If Andy was six in 1995, the year of the first movie, and had owned Woody from birth, that’s still a minimum of 32 years unaccounted for. What was Woody doing in that time? Where was he? Who did he belong to? Why doesn’t he remember? Why isn’t he troubled that he can’t?

Other toys remember. In Toy Story 2 we get Jessie’s memories of her previous owner Emily—Jessie is the same age as Woody—and in 3 we hear Chuckles’ tragic story of being loved and lost by Daisy. Having a new owner doesn’t erase the memory of the previous one: in Toy Story 3 Jessie can still remember Emily, though she is now Andy’s. But Woody doesn’t remember more than thirty years of his past.

It’s not as if this is hidden away. Toy Story 3 has a whole subplot about how easy it is for toys to have their pasts and memories erased. Admittedly it involves Buzz Lightyear, not Woody, but it says to us: how fickle are toys’ minds, how simply they can be changed. And it asks the unspoken question: if Buzz’s mind can be reset so easily, without him remembering anything about what happened, who else is missing a chunk of their lives? Buzz forgets he was ever Spanish, but still responds to Spanish dance music. What forgotten history is Woody responding to? Even in the first film he’s not the Woody of ‘Woody’s Round-Up’, he’s harder, less naive, more prone to harsh emotions like jealousy. What—who—shaped him that way?

So Woody’s mind is damaged, his history missing. Once again Pixar throws us a hint: his TV series was missing its last episode; just as his life is missing its first. Both stories are incomplete. So can we believe this convenient happy ending that Pixar serves up, or are there indications that this may be as much of a dream as the ending of Inception—

(yes it’s a dream, of course it’s a dream, but it’s Cobb’s dream so the top will fall. The clues are there.)

I don’t know. I have no grand theory, no explanation. Given that Toy Story 3 is part of the Pixar universe, with subtle cross-over elements to their other films in the background, then there may be hints elsewhere, a treasure-hunt through Ratatouille, Up and Monsters Inc. I have an unpolished idea that everything we see after the pit sequence is not real, or that Woody is either playing or daydreaming—we know toys do both—and therefore has escaped, like Cobb and Sam Lowry before him, into an internal world where he cannot be restrained. Maybe.

And there’s something going on with Woody’s repeated exclamation that “There’s a snake in my boot!” There can’t be; Woody’s boots don’t come off. But there is a recurring motif on Woody’s boot—Andy’s handwritten name. Come on. You’re telling me that’s not deliberate, that Andy’s not the snake?

So here’s the real theme of the Toy Story trilogy: who was Woody’s true owner?

…okay, enough. That was fun but let’s step away from the continuity. I’ve got two serious points.

Firstly, the Toy Story films are three fantastic movies. However they are not a great trilogy. With the exception of a glorious deus-ex-machina at the end of TS3 that’s prefigured in the first movie, there’s very little that links the three together in terms of plot or development or themes. The Godfather this ain’t.

The Toy Story trilogy has plot holes thirty years wide, which nobody notices—partly because Pixar has done an excellent job of drawing attention away from them, and partly because it’s a cartoon for kids and we have been taught not to look for narrative sophistication or consistency in things that we are told are for children. What else is traditionally seen as a children’s medium? Games. Exactly. Does story in game suck? Yes, it still does. Gosh, I wonder why.

The second point: Inception is designed as a movie that is left for the audience to untangle on its own, over a nice glass of wine after it’s left the cinema. Christopher Nolan deliberately cheats us of an easy conclusion by cutting the final shot instead of letting the camera run: he makes us do the work. (Compare and contrast to the final shot of Tarkovsky’s Stalker, which doesn’t cut away but has similar whoah-shit implications.) The film demands that we discuss and play with its elements to understand what we’ve just seen. And with the growth of trans-media narrative forms, where it’s up to the viewer to track down the different pieces of the story across different mediums and knit them together for themselves—and if you thought that trying to watch something like Heroes or Defying Gravity with the BBC’s bizarre PVR-defeating scheduling was hard then oh man—this is going to become a lot more common.

The thing is, when you lay out a story like a jigsaw and expect someone else to put it together, you’re making it easy for them to spot the holes in it. Even without that, audiences are becoming more media-literate and more playful, more willing to explore and interact with narratives. Ten years ago they’d have accepted a film as a flat piece of passive storytelling: now they want to play with it. You can blame merchandising, blame tie-in video games, blame fanfic, blame cosplay—and then you’re an idiot, because you shouldn’t be blaming these things, you should be embracing them. These people love what you’ve created so much that they want to be involved with it.

For ages (since 1994, actually) I’ve been trying to explain to people the difference between passive and interactive narrative. And if you encourage people to interact with narratives, they’re not going to stop with the bits of your story you’re happy for them to tweak. Fans have been doing it since the 60s. But today geek culture is mainstream. Comicon gets reported on the evening news. We’re all fans now.

If you’re in the business of telling stories, you have to accept that what you do, no matter how hard you try to lock it down and control it, what you produce is now an interactive medium.

And if that scares you, I’ve got an answer. You may not like it.

It’s the name of this blog.

Categorised as: narrative


  1. Interesting analysis, but flawed in a few respects.

    (1) “—but if Andy had checked the net, he’d have discovered that Jessie, Bullseye and Woody himself are very rare, very collectible, very valuable toys.”

    Not necessarily. You can do searches for “Optimus Prime”, discover exactly who he is, and read thousands of words about his history on Wikipedia without ever discovering that rare Optimus Prime figures can be worth hundreds of dollars.

    (2) “But Woody is at least fifty years old. ‘Woody’s Round-Up’, the TV series that spawned him, we know from Toy Story 2 ran from 1941-42 and 1946-57. If Andy was six in 1995, the year of the first movie, and had owned Woody from birth, that’s still a minimum of 32 years unaccounted for. What was Woody doing in that time? ”

    In Toy Story 2 Andy’s mom says that Woody is an old family toy. This explains why he’s not too concerned about the attic: He’s probably been there before, and then been handed down to another member of the family.

    It’s certainly possible that he has no memory of this. But it’s equally likely that it never comes up because it simply never comes up.

    (3) “there’s very little that links the three together in terms of plot or development or themes”

    I would strongly disagree. The three movies represent an essentially complete exploration of the relationship between kids and toys. There’s a strong thematic core to the Toy Story movies.

    It’s why I’m suspicious of Toy Story 4. I mean, it’s clearly going to be made. No media corporation in the universe is going to pass up those kinds of profits. But I’m suspicious because it doesn’t seem to me that there’s any new toy-related territory for the film to explore.

  2. […] Cope » Every thing is a play thing James has written a frankly partly inspired, partly batshit crazy, partly genius post combining two summer movies: Inception and Toy Story 3 AND worked in trans-media. (tags: jameswallis spaaace cope inception toystory play media) […]

  3. “There is only one other way for Andy to have learned Jessie and Bullseye’s names: for Woody to have told him.”

    Orrrr… maybe one of Jessie’s pullstring phrases includes her own name, just like Woody and surely every other pullstring toy. No, Bullseye doesn’t have a pullstring, but doesn’t Jessie always say: “Ride like the wind, Bullseye!”?

    • James Wallis says:

      Interesting idea… I can’t shoot it down as there doesn’t seem to be a list of Jessie’s pull-string phrases anywhere, though Woody’s phrases don’t include his name or anyone else’s. And ‘Ride like the wind, Bullseye!’ is something Woody says, not Jessie.

Leave a Reply