The Real Toy $tory

By: Susan Linn, Ed.D.

It’s old news that it is virtually impossible to find a movie for kids these days not selling them toys, clothing, food and accessories. But that doesn’t mean we should stop being outraged about it. Particularly egregious is when a film cloaks itself in positive messages while cynically undermining them by brand licensing, product placement and cross promotions.

So I’ll say this for the Disney/Pixar studios: The company does a fabulous job of making films that simultaneously promote and trash socially responsible causes—the former through creative content and the latter through marketing. It’s true that when Pixar execs partnered with British Petroleum to promote Wall-E, the critically acclaimed animated post-apocalyptic environmental fantasy, they couldn’t foresee that BP was going to cause the worst human made environmental disaster ever. But they surely knew, like the rest of us, that drilling for fossil fuels is not exactly a sustainable practice, and that promoting consumption in children by turning film characters into junk plastic toys is not good for the environment either.

And now there’s Toy Story 3—a sometimes poignant rendering of one boy’s transition into adulthood from the point of view of the toys he’s leaving behind. The film concludes with a lovely and pointed celebration of creative play. I get teary thinking about it. I really do. I got teary watching it, too. (Confession: I’m a sucker for “leaving childish things” behind stories. And, as a ventriloquist who has had a long relationship with talking duck, I can and do invest just about any inanimate object with life.) But the marketing of Toy Story 3 does more to stifle children’s imagination than the film does to promote it. Disney expects merchandising to bring in about $2.4 billion, more than any of its other films to date. A search for toys licensed by the Toy Story franchise brings up more than 300 items on, most of which squelch exactly the kind of creative play the film celebrates. One business writer described the number of Toy Story 3 products at Target as “jaw dropping.”

In addition to the faithful Woody and the stupid-but-good-hearted Buzz Lightyear, new characters—and new potential for licensing—have been added in Toy Story 3. There’s a strawberry scented villainous bear named Lotso—whose mercantile manifestation is as an ursine “smart toy” a la Tickle Me Elmo, which can be had for $49.95. And in a blatant attempt to broaden the film’s appeal across genders—and to add completely gratuitous, sexualized double entendre to the dialogue—Barbie and Ken have been added to the cast and the licensing frenzy. Little girls, presumably unmoved by action, adventure, and Trixie, a rather appealing but boringly unsexualized cowgirl, can now rush out to buy the Disney Pixar Toy Story 3 Barbie Loves Buzz Lightyear Barbie fashion doll for $16.99—and other Toy Story 3 Barbies as well.

There are also the inevitable Lego Kits–the Lego Toy Story 3 Great Train Chase, or the Lego Disney Pixar Toy Story 3 Garbage Truck Getaway set. It’s well known that children play less creatively with media linked toys and with kits—but even more damaging are the Toy Story 3 video games for Nintendo, Sony PS3, Nintendo DS and X box. And of course, there’s the preschool educational media market: V-tech has the MobiGo Toy Story 3 Learning Software for children as young as three, and Leapfrog has learn-to-read digital story books. Never mind that screen media already occupies, on average, about 32 hours a week in the lives of two-to- five year olds at the expense of the kind of hands-on play that is so revered in the film.

It’s ironic that the real threat to toys like Woody, Buzz and the gang is not that the child who loved them grows up. It’s that, in real life, companies like Disney/Pixar have commercialized children’s leisure time to such an extent that a preschooler who might be the beneficiary of outgrown creative playthings is likely to have no idea what to do with them.