All kids have favorite movies, but autistic children tend to become obsessed with particular films. My 16-year-old son, Danny, who has autism, has chosen the Toy Story series for his main movie obsession. This is lucky for me and my younger son, because they are amazing. Pixar is the one American movie studio that has consistently produced brilliant work over the last two decades, and the Toy Story series is the jewel in the crown.
While so many movies for children are trite and preachy, the Toy Story films have soared above them all because they are deeply emotional and deal with issues of abandonment and love. Of course, the fact that they are funny and cleverly done helps, but I think it’s the underlying emotional pull that draws Danny back again and again (we watch one or two of the films on DVD every Friday afternoon). In the first film, the cowboy Woody doll (voiced by Tom Hanks, his best work, in my opinion) is tossed aside by his owner, Andy, when Andy receives a much jazzier toy for his birthday, space ranger Buzz Lightyear (voiced by Tim Allen). In the sequel, Woody is stolen by an evil toy store owner who wants to sell him, along with a group of other toys who all come from the same vintage Fifties television show, to a Japanese museum for an obscene price. Here, it’s Woody who abandons Buzz and Andy’s other toys (his family), tempted by the vision of eternal adulation by museum-goers, and fueled by the fear that Andy will soon grow up and leave him behind. In the final installment, Toy Story 3, Andy is deciding what to do with the toys when he heads off to college. They are donated to a day-care center that is run like a prison camp until they return to Andy. On his way to college, he stops off and gives them to another wonderful child.
Danny loves to recite bits of dialogue that are especially meaningful to him. From Toy Story : “No one is getting replaced . . . I’m not worried, you shouldn’t be worried.” From Toy Story 2: “[Buzz to Woody] You are a toy!/[Woody to Buzz] For how much longer?”
Now, I may be reading too much into all of this, because, as I’ve made clear, I’ve seen these films hundreds of times, but I think what lurks behind the abandonment fear that colors the films is the absence of Andy’s father.