If you haven’t realized it yet, Toy Story is a rip off. Granted, it’s a touching, practically perfect one, but nonetheless, Toy Story’s heart is ripped from another timeless tale about toys: The Velveteen Rabbit. In it, a toy rabbit seeks to become real and is told, that realness is tied to love:
“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”
“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.
“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”
“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”
“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
Essentially, despite existing in physical form, realness is something much less tangible, a topic that Pixar willingly explores throughout many of its beloved films. This theme is the consistent heart of most Pixar films, and perhaps, the theme that makes their stories appeal so widely, and across audiences of all ages.
In Toy Story, the concept described by Velveteen Rabbit’s Skin Horse almost operates in reverse, though to the same effect. Skin Horse tells Velveteen Rabbit that he will become real once he is loved and Velveteen Rabbit eagerly awaits that change. Pixar’s Buzz Lightyear instead insists that he is real to begin with, denying his true existence as a toy. Only when he accepts that he is a toy does he realize that in being a toy, he is all the more real because of the love he receives from Andy.
Understanding the key elements of realness is a regular theme of Pixar which began with Toy Story. To best understand what it means to be real, and perhaps, human, Pixar starts its journey by forcing nonhuman characters to seek humanity, rather than humans themselves. If anything, the foundation built by Toy Story only grows more nuanced and ambitious with Pixar’s new stories.
In Toy Story, Buzz discovers that one of the most real elements of existence can be found in the love of others. In Monsters, Inc., when faced with the base human elements of fear and joy exemplified adorably in a child, Sully must face his inhumane nature and redefine his identity and career in order to hold onto the realness he experiences with Boo. In WALL.E, love transforms what is often considered anti-human – machinery – into the most humane character in the film. In Ratatouille, a rat recognizes the difference between his existence and a human’s, by saying “[humans] don’t just survive, they create.” And yet Remy’s journey to self-discovery through creativity hinges on the collaboration he experiences with others (rat and human alike), and ultimately, he understands that the joy of creating lies in an outpouring of emotion for fellow beings.
Similarly, Entertainment Weekly reviewer Lisa Schwarzbaum wrote of Cars:
“having fallen in love with a bunch of computer-animated, anthropomorphized vehicles who express emotion with eyes made from windshields and smiles from metallic front grills, I do believe the exemplary Pixar team…could draw a mote of dust and a pair of socks and turn them into characters worth caring about.”
Pixar’s fascination with exploring what makes existence “real,” may be a rip off of Velveteen Rabbit, but it’s resulted in some of our generation’s most beloved film characters, most of which are not human. Toy Story’s most recent installation took Buzz Lightyear and his fellow toys’ exploration to the limits, as it forced the audience to consider what Buzz and Woody’s value would be without Andy’s love. Toy Story 3’s conclusion that love will continue to exist for those who seek it brought a shocking number of the humans watching the toys’ story, to tears.
As Pixar’s canon continues, I can only hope that despite pushing boundaries further to explore the humanity of actual emotions, dinosaurs, and maybe even, a mote of dust and a pair of socks, as suggested above, Pixar continues returning to the concept heralded by a childhood classic: that one of the most “real” things is being loved, and the real story is the countless ways and forms that love can take.