Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Lasers and lassos

I don’t believe I’ve had much cause to mention it lately, but the little guy is still obsessed with the Toy Story movies. Moreover, he is completely and totally Team Buzz.

Which is odd, because there isn’t much of a Team Buzz in the canonical source material. Woody, of course, has the Round-Up Gang which at the very least gives him both a sidekick and a steed in Jessie and Bullseye (and I suppose an antagonist in Stinky Pete). Buzz has Emperor Zerg and … that’s about it. The little three-eyed aliens seem thematically connected to him, but they’re Pizza Planet giveaways, not officially licensed Space Ranger allies. And they end up getting adopted by Mr. and Mrs. Potato-Head anyway. And yes, Buzz and Jessie end up romantically involved, at least to whatever extent sentient toys in a Pixar/Disney franchise can, which just goes to show that “Andy’s toys” is really a fairly cohesive tribe that doesn’t need to broken into factions or anything.

But it’s still interesting that when my Very Little Bro visited and gave the little guy a set of small Toy Story figures including Buzz and Woody and Rex the dinosaur, it was Buzz specifically that the little guy took to carrying around everywhere, with Woody and Rex all but ignored. And yet at the same time, a couple of months ago I sat down with the little guy and helped him brainstorm a list of potential birthday gifts, and he came up with seven, six of which were characters from Toy Story. He wanted the big, 12-or-16-inch tall version of Buzz, as well as Woody and Jessie and Rex and Slink and Bullseye. So it’s not a case of all Buzz or nothing, just a matter of priorities. Clearly Buzz was number one on the list.

So I made sure to order Buzz online well in advance, and then July faded into August and the little guy became more and more of a handful at home because he was bored - our biggest challenge is the fact that he’s still too young to play outside unsupervised, whereas his little sister and baby brother are sometimes too busy napping or nursing or having extra-delicate newborn skin to go outside in the blazing sun very often (or at all) so we have to find ways to accommodate them all. Long story short, we ended up giving the little guy his big Buzz figure early. And that was the right call! His behavior has been much improved of late as he is thrilled to have a fully poseable, sound-effect-and-dialogue echoing version of his favorite character.

My Very little Bro was in town again not too long ago and took the little guy to see Planes (the kinda-sequel to Cars, or really to one of Mater’s Tall Tales all about flying machines). My wife and I had been holding off on buying any more birthday presents for the little guy until after he saw Planes, since we figured it might unleash a rediscovered love for that world between Radiator Springs and Propwash Junction, and a rekindled passion for the toys as well. When we asked the little guy if he liked the movie, he said he did, but when we asked him if he had anything to add to his birthday wishlist, he only shrugged and said maybe he would like a Planes toy for Christmas. So Toy Story remains the order of the day.

This past weekend the whole family trekked over to PartyCo to get some decorations for the little guy’s imminent birthday party, which was a successful excursion by just about every measure (we forgot to get party hats, as the little guy pointed out later, but we have to go back the day of the party to pick up a special-order balloon anyway, so all is not lost). We were looking for Toy Story branded stuff, and despite the fact that the final movie of the trilogy came out over three years ago, that stuff is not hard to find. But that night, after the kids were in bed, my wife pointed out “We’re lucky the little guy’s favorite character is Buzz.”

She was observing that the vast majority of the Toy Story stuff was really Buzz stuff, which hadn’t even occurred to me in the store because I was looking at everything through little-guy-colored glasses, but she was absolutely right, of course. Interesting again, I say. Woody is the leader of the toys and the main character of all three installments, it’s really a story about him grappling with lots of difficult developments and evolving as a result. Buzz starts out as a very earnest toy who believes he’s actually a space ranger and by the end of the first movie is a very earnest toy who understands he’s a toy, and that’s pretty much the way he remains thereafter. Maybe that’s the main appeal to little kids? If you’re looking for a complex, humanly flawed character, you’ll wind up latching onto Woody, but if you just want straightforward WYSIWYG, you’ll look to Buzz.

(For what it’s worth, the little guy, still not quite five, nevertheless does grasp the arc of Buzz’s development pretty well. His new big Buzz doll says lots of snippets of dialogue, but the little guy recognizes that they’re all things he said when he thought he was a space ranger and didn’t realize he was a toy. He has spoken (not in so many words, but getting the idea across all the same) of a different conceptualization of the action figure which would say more self-aware things. Which is kind of a trip.)

There’s also the eternal divide between spacemen and cowboys, which of course is subtly suggested in the first Toy Story movie and really underlined in the second (and then essentially forgotten during the third): cowboys are old-fashioned, spacemen are futuristic, and kids tend to gravitate towards the shiniest new thing around. With every passing year the western genre becomes more and more a part of the distant past, while the potential future of space exploration remains before us, coming closer. The little guy does have a strong fascination with astronomy, so you could make the argument about what interests Buzz and Woody represent, but I think that’s more projection on my part. I’ll stand by my theory about Woody being a more difficult character for a little kid to parse the motivations of, whereas Buzz’s are transparently heroic all the time.

But I’ve been thinking about cowboys a lot lately, too. I was a sci-fi junkie from a very young age, utterly enthralled with Star Wars and Flash Gordon and any comic book storyline involving alien invasions. I grew up thinking of “Cowboys and Indians” as a game my dad played as a kid, while I’d rather play “Voltron and Ro-Beasts”. Which means if you asked me to answer quickly, without giving it much thought, did I ever play with cowboy toys as a kid, I’d say no. Or I would have, before I started giving it some thought, which has instead led me to realize that I had a surprising amount of cowboy stuff as a kid.

One thing that brought this all to mind was the high-profile flop of the new Lone Ranger movie this summer. There was a Lone Ranger movie released when I was a kid, in ‘81, and it was a disaster, too. But it wound up on HBO, so of course I saw it a time or two, and it spawned a ton of merchandise. I remember having Lone Ranger Underoos, which had a Marshall’s star and a bandolier of silver bullets and a red bandana. I had some Lone Ranger action figures (and their horses), too. And I had some generic cowboy six-shooters, chrome-painted plastic cap guns with vinyl holsters, which I remember packing for a visit to my grandmother’s beach house because she always gave me and my Little Bro and our cousins pocket money for the local drug store, which was one of the only places I knew that sold the caps.

So, yeah, cowboys were never too far away, even if they were not my favorite go-to playthings. I guess the cycle repeats itself, again and again.

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