The City of God we are presented with a cosmic drama involving a tale of two cities, the earthly city and the city of God. These cities, says Augustine, “were created by two kinds of love: the earthly city was created by self-love reaching the point of contempt for God, the Heavenly City by the love of God carried as far as contempt of self” (City of God, xiv, 28). Toy Story 2, while less epic in scope is no less profound in its subject. Unlike its perfidious predecessor, Toy Story, which sets out a tale of disillusion and de-conversion, Toy Story 2 is a meditation on the true nature of love and how the ordering of what we love shapes us as persons.Augustine’s epic
In Toy Story 2 God takes the form of the boy Andy, who for most of the tale is present by his absence. The toys understand that they are created to love Andy. Putting love of Andy first gives rise to a genuine solidarity where each toy can be a valued member of this community and the interests of others come before self-interest. Or at least, this is how the film is resolved. This resolution is reached through Woody’s pilgrim’s progress through various temptations and entanglements in the earthly city.
We first meet Woody as a member of Andy’s household. He is willing to sacrifice himself for a weaker member of that society, exhibiting the virtues of courage and fortitude in order to rescue an ailing and discarded penguin from being sold off. In the process he is stolen by Al, the unscrupulous owner of a large toy store. Al plans to sell Woody as a collectors item to a museum in Japan. Through Al, Woody is introduced to the Roundup Gang, which consists of Jessie the cowgirl, Bullseye the horse, and Stinky Pete the prospector. Woody is the missing piece in the collection who will enable Al to finally make the deal with the museum.
In his encounter with the Roundup Gang, Woody learns to see himself differently. No longer is it the loving gaze of Andy, and participation in a community of different toys, that forms him. Instead, he learns to see himself through the mirror of consumer objects. These reflect back to him a vision of the world where he is the centre and in which there are no others to take account of. He stares, like Narcissus, at branded products which all bear his image. In the Roundup Gang he meets his own tribe, a niche market of those who are like him. The common story that binds them together is not one of mutual support and common love, but a TV show.
Unlike Andy’s household, the Roundup Gang is a community formed around commercial gain and the quest for celebrity. But as with so many gangs its day is now past. Like aging rock stars, its members have entered a living death, preserved by the embalming fluid of retro fashion and an interest in kitsch. Its organizing principle is now self-preservation. Its members have no hope beyond this life and so life must be maintained at all costs.
Woody thinks he has found his true home, his true identity, yet in reality he is being invited to join a community where there is no play, no touch, and no real society or relationship. The Roundup Gang are to be items in an exhibition, cryogenically frozen in glass in order to keep them pristine. The extent to which Woody is transformed by this is marked by the arrival of the cleaner. The cleaner is like a toy plastic surgeon who removes all marks of wear and tear, repainting and re-stitching Woody so he looks as good as new. Yet in the process, the marks of true love inscribed upon Woody’s body are erased.
Like the rabbits in that other pilgrim’s progress, Watership Down, Woody finds himself in a community that avoids death by making death its life. The tragic and emblematic figure in the gang is Jessie, whose life is dominated by the rejection she experienced from her former owner and who therefore cannot imagine a future other than isolation.
It would be easy to paint the store owner, Al, as the anti-hero. He is a couch potato, an entrepreneurial member of the remote-control classes who exhibits all the vices of self-love: pride, envy, anger, greed, sloth, lust, and gluttony. The real serpent, however, is Stinky Pete—his “stinky” tag a reference to his sulphurous and demonic character. Like Dante’s depiction of Satan in the Divine Comedy, Stinky Pete is frozen and immobilized in his box. Isolated and utterly self-contained, he is unable to form true relationships or know what love consists of because he has never known either. His social interactions are reduced to manipulation and domination. For Stinky Pete, there is no such thing as society, only a utilitarian calculation about what will best serve his desire for self-preservation.
The turning point of the film comes when a rescue party led by Buzz Lightyear finally locates Woody and calls him back to his true vocation: that of being a toy. Woody is faced with a choice between staying with the Roundup Gang or returning to be a member of Andy’s household. Woody must choose between freedom from necessity and death—in many ways the dream of modernity—and freedom for loving relationship—with all the risks and possibility of tragedy this involves.
In this choice a conflict between two economies is at work—the economy of gift in which our identity is shaped in and through relationship with others and an economy of works in which we are valued not for who we are but for what we do. In this instance the work to be done is to secure money for Al, provide security for Stinky Pete and Jessie, and draw visitors to the museum. Thankfully, virtue overcomes vice and Woody realizes that the worst thing that can happen to him is not death but the renunciation of his true vocation to be loved and to play as a toy.
One of the film’s subplots underscores the central drama. As Augustine points out in the City of God, all communities seek peace, but the nature of the peace each community finds is determined by the love that animates it. Augustine saw the earthly city as organized around self-love. In this city, peace is achieved through the imposition of one’s own will by the exercise of force, and is at once costly in its creation, unjust in its character, and unstable in its existence. For Augustine there was at heart no difference between a gang of robbers and the Roman empire, for the peace of each was characterised by a lust for domination. In Toy Story 2 the central drama takes place at the level of the gang. However, a subplot is played out between the “real” Buzz Lightyear and the Emperor Zurg. They are locked in a violent conflict where each seeks to dominate the other. As the film unfolds, however, a conversion takes place and Zurg and Buzz discover that they are father and son, members of a household characterised by loving regard for the other. We last see them engaged in joyful play, their weapons turned to toys.