Friday, July 23, 2010

Fathers And Sons : Toy Story 3

In the ten-or-so intervening years between Toy Story 2 and Toy Story 3, the toys have become an absent presence in Andy’s life, consigned to the toy box. But there is a greater absence: Andy’s father.

As throughout the trilogy, all trace of Andy’s father has been removed. He does not appear in any of the childhood cine-films (we recently watched a compilation of cine-films from my wife’s childhood, and although her father was behind the camera in most of them, he did appear in some), or photographs. There is no reference to his death (“Your father would have been so proud of you”). Even if we are to assume divorce, or simply preoccupation with work, there is neither contact with his son on the eve of his going to college, nor, as already noted, any references from the past. Something somehow has broken, and is resolutely avoided.

Now clearly there are far more compositions of the family than the old ‘dad, mom, son, daughter’ shorthand for ‘family’ in western culture. And undoubtedly single parents need to be affirmed through, and encouraged by, positive portrayals of their ability to raise children. So why does this elephant in the room matter?

It matters, I think, because this is a film that has, on all accounts, profoundly affected middle-aged men – fathers, who feel the loss of their own childhood, and youth. It is the Toy Story 3 phenomenon – men struggling to de-mist their tear-filled 3D glasses – and there is talk of it as a marketing tool to watch out for in a new wave of films to come. I haven’t read of it affecting mothers in the same way. And it matters because the loss felt has no-where to go. While Andy brokers a rite-of-passage for his toys, the role of the father in brokering a significant rite-of-passage for his son is left undone. Disenfranchised rather than engaged, the father in the audience has nothing to do but cry for his own loss of innocence – and lost promise of strength, independence and freedom to do whatever you like at college – where he might have been empowered to enfranchise another with the gift of adulthood. If Shrek 4 is the story of an everyman throwing away what he has, and the struggle through which what is lost is redeemed by love, the story told in the thousandth-of-a-second gaps between each frame of Toy Story 3 is the story of an everyman who never discovers redemption.

This is significant. Andy’s absent father represents a generation of fathers who have failed to launch their sons into their own futures – ‘to infinity and beyond!’ – whether through physical absence, or through trying to be peers to their children in an attempt to stay young (a trajectory that continues with a growing number of younger parents actually seeking to be parented by their children).

As I have previously noted, Toy Story 3 is a perfect parable of the way in which true, and false, identity is constructed. But parables conceal as much as they reveal. It is a shame that Andy’s father does not go on the journey that Woody, Buzz, and – through the toy Woody stepping-up into a father-role – Andy himself go on...

For those who discover their true identity can empower others to do the same. Where fathers are lost, who will step up to take their place? And who will create the stories that will fund our imaginations, enabling us to rediscover what it means to be a dad again?

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