Talking inanimate objects show up in children’s media from time to time as a sort of tide-me-over from talking animals. But they had a problem that other kids’ movies lacked: They inevitably opened up a whole can of odd philosophical questions about what our relationship with these objects should be if they can think and feel, like us.
People my age were introduced to this problem through The Brave Little Toaster. This disturbing, underappreciated film contains graphic horror-movie style scenes of appliances being dismantled and crushed, portrayed as torture and murder. Suddenly throwing away an old appliance seems morally wrong, regardless of whether it’s obsolete, not needed, or even broken.
Today, of course, the intelligent-inanimate-object genre is filled by the Toy Story franchise. The first film lets the question of people’s relationship with toys take the back seat (except for the easy “don’t torture them for your own amusement” moral), but in later films, it becomes more and more prominent. And the answers start getting confusing. Throwing away your toys, obviously, is wrong, and so is wearing them out so they need to be thrown away. But it’s also wrong to leave them in the package to keep them in mint condition. So you’re supposed to play with them and enjoy them, but so very carefully that you never, ever risk damaging them. Countless odd side questions arise as a result (is it cruel to create ephemeral toys that can’t last, like paper dolls? Is it wrong to give any toy to a baby who can’t be careful?), but the central message, by itself, is already pretty unsatisfactory: Everyone should be an obsessively careful pack rat who saves every toy they’ve ever received and then gives them away to another kid who wants someone else’s 10-year-old used toys.
In short, the underlying message of the Toy Story franchise runs counter to how all of us actually related to our toys and seems designed to make us feel guilty. The Brave Little Toaster suffers from similar problems (unsurprising, since much of Pixar’s original staff worked on it). But is it even possible to send a different message and to portray inanimate objects as intelligent while still acknowledging that we wear them out and throw them away?
It turns out there is. We find this message in Toy Story‘s spiritual ancestor, the 1922 picture book The Velveteen Rabbit. If you weren’t introduced to this story as a child, you can read it for yourself, but if you were, you’ll remember how toys become “real”:
“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.”
The Velveteen Rabbit shows an understanding of how we actually interacted with our toys. The toys that stayed in mint condition weren’t our favorites. The ones we really loved got worn out and fell apart. Unlike Toy Story‘s Andy, the boy from The Velveteen Rabbit doesn’t try to keep his toys in perfect condition. He sleeps with them and takes them out into the garden and does all the things that wear them out and make them worth having, and the rabbit rightly sees these as signs of how beloved he is.
That’s why, even though it’s drowning in sweet sentimentality, I end up preferring The Velveteen Rabbit to Toy Story. If you’re going to write a story about inanimate objects, it should reflect what they’re actually for and how we relate to them, instead of just making us feel bad if we ever break a toy.