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Toy Story Movie Review

by Kevin Klapstein

A question that commonly arises on atheist news groups and discussion boards is whether the readers know of any "atheist" movies. In some sense, any movie which is not explicitly theistic could be called an atheist movie, but that is surely not what is meant by the question. A closer approach to an answer is given when movies are discussed in which one of the chief characters is explicitly atheist. The movie adaptation of Carl Sagan's Contact a few years ago was such a movie, for example.

I don't think that this is quite what the question is really asking for, though. Rather, what is being sought are movies with an explicitly atheist theme or plot.

A few years ago I found such a movie, in a most unlikely place. I had rented a children's video for my then two-year old son, and sat down with him to watch it. I was amazed and delighted to find it a well-crafted and moving tale which warned of the dangers of blind religious belief and portrayed with eloquence the humanist principle that betterment of our world requires active exertion on our part, because there is no external agent who will solve our problems for us. The video was the Disney/Pixar movie Toy Story.

Of course, as many people have noted, the scene with the little green men in the space ship crane game ("Farewell, my brothers, I go to a better place") is an obvious dig at religion. Beyond that, though, the entire story is an atheist parable. In fact, when I discussed the film with two very literate theist friends of mine, they were thunderstruck. They no longer let their son watch the video.

Begin by considering the characters. Buzz Lightyear starts as a delusion character who thinks he is a "space ranger." The delusion gives him his purpose, and he expends all his energy on fixing what he thinks is his space ship so that he can rendezvous with "star command" and complete his mission. He even recruits the other toys to help him. He is mystified that his attempts to contact star command by radio never receive any answer, but his conviction that star command exists remains unquestioned.

Have you seen such behavior in some theists?

  • Delusional belief, contrary to all evidence
  • An unwavering conviction that their belief makes them superior to others
  • A mistaken but fervent sense of purpose from their delusion
  • Devotion of inordinate amounts of time, energy, and money to their religion and its projects
  • Vigorous recruitment of others to their cause, without the slightest consideration that they may be doing others a disservice by that act
  • Complete confidence in the "power of prayer," in spite of the deafening silence with which those prayers are answered

Woody stands in complete contrast to this. He is clearly aware that Buzz is delusional and is unable to convince anybody of it, least of all Buzz. Look at the way Buzz treats him, just like an extreme theist will so often treat an atheist. Listen to some of the dialogue:

Woody: You are a TOY!!! You aren't the real Buzz Lightyear, you're an action figure! YOU are a CHILD'S PLAYTHING!

Buzz: You're a sad, strange little man, and you have my pity.

Do conversations like that sound familiar? I've never spoken to a theist like that--I couldn't be so rude--but I've definitely felt that way! Certainly Buzz's response is in character with the way theists who are trying to convert me act when they realize that they just aren't going to get anywhere. "You're lost and missing out on so much without the boundless love of God. We'll pray for you."

Later, Buzz learns the truth. He really is a toy. He is cured of his delusions, and what happens?

First, there is the denial. He tries to fly out a window to prove that he is the real Buzz Lightyear, and gets badly hurt doing it. Listen to the lyrics of the song that plays during the scene. The message is that faith and belief don't make a thing true, and mistaken beliefs are dangerous.

Then, Buzz is confused and disoriented. With his world view shattered, he doesn't know what to do. He just goes along wherever he is led. He looses all sense of purpose. If he can't be the real Buzz Lightyear, what is the point of being anything?

How many times have I heard a theist ask something along those lines: "If you don't believe in God, what purpose do you have in living? Why don't you just give up and die now, if you're only going to die eventually anyway?". Such questions are insulting and ignorant, but they do seem to be an accurate reflection of the thinking of some theists. Buzz's behavior is consistent with such a mentality.

There are many other examples in the film which are explicitly atheistic and humanistic, and many more which demonstrate the perils of religious belief and delusion. The theme is consistent throughout the whole, and well worth watching with an eye to looking for the examples.

But what I really like, what makes this an atheist film and not merely an anti-religious one, is what happens near the end. Buzz finds another reason to carry on. He realizes that there are other things worth living for and worth working for. In his case, making a young boy happy is enough of a purpose for life to have.

What better parable for secular humanism could there be? The main character confronts his delusions, rejects them in favor of truth, and finds a purpose in his life by making others, and in particular, a small boy happy. He abandons his delusions, and chooses instead to devote his efforts to improving the real world.

I've read in a few places that Walt Disney may have been an atheist. It has been said that the reason his funeral was kept very private was to hide the fact that there was no mention of God in it. If that is the case, I think he would be proud of this film. It advocates humanism. That, I feel, helps improve the human condition and is therefore a humanistic act. By the mere act of preaching, it practices what it preaches. Well done, Walt.

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