If you are not at all familiar with the Marxist method of critique, read the first two paragraphs from my Skyrim piece:
Explaining the things I look for when considering these topics seems like the obvious place to start. Marxists view literature (and variants of it like film and video games) as an artifact of the time in which the individual piece is made. This may seem intuitive to everyone, Marxist or not, but specifically we must interpret literature with two overarching questions constantly in mind: What is the creator attempting to convey intentionally and what is the creator unintentionally conveying? These motivations, conscious and unconscious, are intricately tied to the ideology of the time and culture of the creator(s).
What are the class relations like in the piece? What stage of history are the societies featured in and how are the people working towards patching up the class contradictions? Who is oppressed, who is the oppressor, which of the two is painted in a positive light (if either)? Does the work reinforce the existing ideological structure in society or does it work to undermine it?
Social Roles in the Toy Story Universe
It might have been a long time since some of us saw these movies so a few minor details about the Toy Story universe are worth pointing out before diving too deeply into this. Recall the plot of the first two films. In Toy Story, which we watched as small children, the main contradiction of the plot lied in competition between Woody and Buzz to be Andy's favorite toy, a conflict which led to the entire series of events in the second half of the film for the two to get back to Andy before he moved to his new house. In Toy Story 2, Woody gets taken by a heartless collector of old toys and has to fight to get himself, Jesse, and Bullseye away from this dude and the Prospector to reunite with his owner and family again.
Throughout the entire series, one overarching message is present in regards to the relationship between toy and owner: the toys exist to make the owner (Andy) happy. It is entirely a one way relationship, as humans (aside from Sid) are not aware that toys are even conscious, and flippantly go about their lives using the toys for their own enjoyment. This particular relationship brings to mind a passage written by Zizek, explaining the relationship between liberals and the systemic violence of the world. The passage here is not essential to this article, but you will probably find it interesting if you have an extra 3 minutes:
In 1922 the Soviet government organised the forced expulsion of leading anti-communist intellectuals, from philosophers and theologians to economists and historians. They left Russia for Germany on a boat known as the Philosophy Steamer. Prior to his expulsion, Nikolai Lossky, one of those forced into exile, had enjoyed with his family the comfortable life of the haute bourgeoisie, supported by servants and nannies. He
"simply couldn't understand who would want to destroy his way of life. What had the Losskys and their kind done? His boys and their friends, as they inherited the best of what Russia had to offer, helped fill the world with talk of literature and music and art, and they led gentle lives. What was wrong with that?"
While Lossky was without doubt a sincere and benevolent person, really caring for the poor and trying to civilise Russian life, such an attitude betrays a breathtaking insensitivity to the systemic violence that had to go on in order for such a comfortable life to be possible. We're talking here of the violence inherent in a system: not only direct physical violence, but also the more subtle forms of coercion that sustain relations of domination and exploitation, including the threat of violence. The Losskys and their kind effectively "did nothing bad." There was no subjective evil in their life, just the invisible background of this systemic violence. "Then suddenly, into this almost Proustian world . . . Leninism broke in. The day Andrei Lossky was born, in May 1917, the family could hear the sound of riderless horses galloping down neighboring Ivanovskaya Street." Such ominous intrusions multiplied. Once, in his school, Lossky's son was brutally taunted by a working-class schoolmate who shouted at him that "the days of him and his family are over now ... " In their benevolent-gentle innocence, the Losskys perceived such signs of the forthcoming catastrophe as emerging out of nowhere, as signals of an incomprehensibly malevolent new spirit. What they didn't understand was that in the guise of this irrational subjective violence, they were getting back the message they themselves sent out in its inverted true form. It is this violence which seems to arise "out of nowhere" that, perhaps, fits what Walter Benjamin, in his "Critique of Violence," called pure, divine violence.
Opposing all forms of violence, from direct, physical violence (mass murder, terror) to ideological violence (racism, incitement, sexual discrimination), seems to be the main preoccupation of the tolerant liberal attitude that predominates today. An SOS call sustains such talk, drowning out all other approaches: everything else can and has to wait... Is there not something suspicious, indeed symptomatic, about this focus on subjective violence-that violence which is enacted by social agents, evil individuals, disciplined repressive apparatuses, fanatical crowds? Doesn't it desperately try to distract our attention from the true locus of trouble, by obliterating from view other forms of violence and thus actively participating in them? According to a well-known anecdote, a German officer visited Picasso in his Paris studio during the Second World War. There he saw Guernica and, shocked at the modernist "chaos" of the painting, asked Picasso: "Did you do this?" Picasso calmly replied: "No, you did this!" Today, many a liberal, when faced with violent outbursts such as the recent looting in the suburbs of Paris, asks the few remaining leftists who still count on a radical social transformation: "Isn't it you who did this? Is this what you want?" And we should reply, like Picasso: "No, you did this! This is the true result of your politics!"
"Misguided Rebellion" Against the Status Quo
This particular exchange may seem shallow at first glance, but consider parallels for a moment. The reason why revolutions typically only take place in poorer nations is because of something Marxists call the labor aristocracy. In short, this is what occurs in the United States and other "wealthy" nations as a result of imperialism extracting profits from colonies, allowing the working classes of the richer nations to live comfortably and thus (in extreme cases such as the United States) even prefer the current system over a more just one. It is here where Woody himself falls: preferred by Andy (the system), he opposes any action taken by the toys (those suffering from the systemic, unintentional violence of the system) to improve their situation.
Their efforts to improve their situation lead them to Sunnyside Daycare, a place that seems impossibly utopian at first glance. Watch the first 45 seconds of this scene, the rhetoric is nearly word for word socialist parody:
Of course, Lotso turns out to be a broken maniac (that trope should be familiar to anyone who has studied 20th century history), using a police force and ideology itself to keep the toys at the daycare in line, even resorting to brainwashing Buzz. The "work" (being played with) is void of meaning and even painful, like in the socialist society trope.
Libertarian Counterrevolution, Brought to You by Barbie™
Realizing their mistake when Mrs. Potato Head sees Andy searching for his old toys with an eye she left at Andy's house, the group attempts to break out of the hellish Sunnyside to return to their old master. This attempt is met with force by the dictator, Lotso, seemingly personally offended by the toys' continued hope for love from their master due to his own history of being abandoned. This anger (by the downtrodden) is portrayed as legitimate yet pointless and misguided. The toys, of course, barely escape and Lotso receives his just desserts on the front of an 18 wheeler.
During this escape though, the ideology of the creators is shown in what amounts to a near fourth wall break, ideologically speaking:
Here, a corporate icon states a basic libertarian "principle," guised as a "basic" human "value" that we have all internalized. The scene receives the proverbial cherry on top when Mr. Potato Head and Ham look at each and shrug, confused at the idea presented, representing most of the audience that would be watching Toy Story 3. Even those slightly more aware would grasp one of the intended themes of the film (I am opposed to dictators and Pixar is saying that dictators are bad, wow!) without looking deeper into the subtexts present, as we have.
Thus we arrive at the question: Is Toy Story 3 a radical piece of art? and the answer is a resounding no, as you've already guessed. At every turn, in the most subtle ways, it reinforces the party line of western liberalism - that you cannot change the way things are, even if you acknowledge problems in the current system.