We all know it’s a boy’s world. And since Hollywood has unofficially become a Pixar world, don’t expect that to change on the big screen any time soon, either. Of course complaining about Pixar films has become something like looking a gift horse in the mouth, especially lately, when their Quality Product seems especially wondrous in light of the astonishing amounts of movie garbage ever-wiser audiences are rejecting week after week. But just because there’s so much to recommend the largely superlative, at times daringly dark (if even strategically so) Toy Story 3, there’s no denying it follows closely in the footsteps of Ratatouille, Wall-E, and Up as yet another boy story. This one, however, has a hopeful twist.
Despite the fact that they’re often tagged as the relatively forward-thinking, progressive alternative to the meek, politically retarded Hollywood slop they’re buttressed up against in the multiplex, Pixar is surprisingly obsessed with traditional gender coding. How else to explain the transformation of Wall-E, a film about a sentient, presumably nonreproductive trash can, into a love story complete with a sleekly feminine robotic romantic interest? Or why the old man and the little Scout in Up get to have their boy’s-own-adventures with the beyond-the-grave blessing of the elderly gent’s deceased tomboy wife? Toy Story 3 is perhaps most egregious in its sexual politicking due to the sheer volume of it. At times this seems like a plastic version of Couples’ Retreat: Mr. Potato Head gets his Mrs.; programmed-to-be-macho man Buzz Lightyear (more superfluous a buffoon than ever before) tames the cowgirl; Barbie finds her fated-to-be Ken, who is, of course, poked and prodded throughout for the feminine touch he brings to his stylish wardrobe. (One can read the Ken-doll jabs as no-brainer jokes about prepubescent female fantasy projection—Ken is, after all, a girl’s toy—but the film’s head-shaking attitude toward his sexuality only reconfirms icky attitudes about feminine men.)
The Toy Story series was always about charting its cast of plastic characters’ growth through the imaginative eyes of their perfectly cherubic, all-American boy (in 3 a perfectly handsome late teen) Andy. Now, Andy is off to college and feeling wistful, a good opportunity to pay especially misty tribute to the rosy days of boy’s playtime, with its outmoded cowboys and spacemen leading the pack of the more gender-neutral Slinky and Mr. Potato Head. It’s no surprise that Barbie has always been a supporting player (or is it because Pixar knows the Mattel figurine is one step too far into crassly specific product placement?). As the woefully brief (and just plain woeful) opening of Up proved, Pixar knows that little girls’ playtime need not be marked by the princess posturing that made the recent “traditionally drawn” Disney feature The Princess and the Frog seem more like an unwanted girlhood relic than a genuine throwback.
So why has it taken so long? Is Pixar aware of its masculine myopia? And is Toy Story 3‘s generous tear-jerker closing scene a mild attempt to right these wrongs? Possibly, and persuasively. Without going into spoiler mode, all I’ll say is that a climactic olive branch is handed to all those girls who make up, oh, half of the series’ audience. Is it too little, too late, or a genuine promise that Pixar’s next film will actually feature a female protagonist? (It’s never been done, and The Incredibles‘ ensemble shouldn’t count.) Whether this happens or not, Toy Story 3 is, finally, a step in the right direction, even though this story comes to a definitive close once a girl is in control. Not that we want another one, but a fourth installment would clearly have been a whole different story.