Volume VIII, Number 1, Spring 2012

"Blinded by the Desk Lamp: Object Values and Consumerism in Pixar Animations" by Nóra Borthaiser

Nóra Borthaiser is a PhD candidate at the University of Szeged, Hungary. Her wider research field is cultural studies, with special attention paid to visual culture and film studies. She has recently completed and submitted her doctoral dissertation with the title: “Performing New Cosmoses: Environmental Matters and Disability Issues in Disney Animations Between 1990-2010.” Email:

I. Introduction

Animations coming from the Pixar Animation Studios1 generally depict anthropomorphized objects. The studio’s obsession with mass-produced (and often mass-mediated) commodities is such an endless source of inspiration that six out of their so-far twelve feature-length animations star objects: Toy Story (1995), Toy Story 2 (1999), Cars (2006), WALL-E (2008), Toy Story 3 (2010), Cars 2 (2011) are all centered around objects from our everyday lives. While traditional Disney animations are more inspired by nature (they often star anthropomorphized animals and lead the audience to spectacular natural sceneries), Pixar animations are interested in technology, and they often take place in urbanized settings best known to the audience. From the very beginning of the studio’s history, Pixar is busy producing short films as well as feature films narrating stories about objects. Luxo Jr. (1986) is Pixar’s very first computer-animated short film, starring two desk lamps (the bigger one is observing the smaller one playing with a ball). The character of Luxo Jr. is now in the logo of Pixar, symbolizing the studio’s strong connection to objects and commodities. After many short films, Pixar came out with Toy Story (1995): being the first feature film exclusively made with CGI (computed-generated imaginary) technology, Toy Story is a milestone in the history of animations. It is the first in the long line of Pixar films entertaining the idea of sentimental subject/object relationship by endowing various objects and commodities with life and emotions.

The aim of the present paper is to analyze the status of the represented objects in the light of consumerism in the films’ diegesis. Even though they are mass-produced and purchased in an imaginary consumer society, the objects in Pixar films are described as sensitive individuals, having an identity of their own. Such a characterization of anthropomorphized objects emphasizes their unique status and appreciates the personal attachment to these objects. In this respect, the films advertise a strong critique on throw-away culture and consumer society. Needless to say that exactly these types of object characterization generate an increased desire in the primarily young audience to purchase the merchandise related to the films, thus propelling real-life consumerism. Pixar’s anti-consumerist message involves several aspects: the critique on use- and exchange-value versus the celebration of the intrinsic values of the objects; the preservation of subject/object relationship; the role of mass-media and mass-production; the environmental and ecological consequences of consumerism and throw-away culture; etc. All these aspects appear in the films to a certain degree: the early feature films highlight the individual nature and intrinsic values of objects, whereas the negative environmental and political consequences of today’s and the future’s (dystopically imagined) consumerism are depicted in animations produced towards 2010. I am focusing on Toy Story (1995) and Toy Story 2 (1999) as they both open up new questions concerning the status and value of objects (in this case, toys); as well as WALL-E (2008), which is a dystopic vision of the future provided today’s consumerism develops in the same pace and direction. I have chosen these films because they nicely exemplify the poles of Pixar’s anti-consumerist spectrum: from subtle references to the emotional attachment to our belongings to the massive social and environmental effect excessive consumerism could have.

II. The celebration of individualism in consumer society

American animations tendentiously highlight and celebrate the autonomy of the individual. Earlier – according to Tibor Hirsch, thirty or thirty-five years ago – animations worked in a “from outside to inside” fashion, teaching the targeted child audience the importance of a tamed individual, desirable social subservience and conformity (5). Hirsch, however, observes that contemporary animations – and contemporary culture as it is – function in the opposite direction: “from inside to outside” (ibid). A virtual or transcendental “pointing finger” (let it be E. T.’s finger to Elliot, or Uncle Sam’s to You) aims at an average character who is now chosen to accomplish a special mission. The only way to do so is to break the rules, be different and go beyond one’s limits. As opposed to earlier animations, those produced in the last three or four decades celebrate difference, otherness and the autonomy of the individual (ibid). M. Keith Booker claims that the promotion of individualism in Disney and Pixar animations is actually a “central constitutive component of the official ideology of the United States as a nation and of capitalism as a system” (175). Disney and more typically, Pixar do not hesitate to further the concept of individualism even if the protagonists are not human characters any more but objects of our everyday lives.

As more and more animations started to take place in urbanized settings, the presence of consumer society and mass-produced commodities could not be avoided any longer. With the appearance of consumer society as a recurring social setting in contemporary animations, preserving the individual nature of characters becomes problematic. Pixar innovatively made use of mass-produced household appliances, toys, cars, robots and so on, never forgetting to endow these characters with an intrinsic value much similar to humans. This value makes the otherwise average everyday objects lovable, friendly and most importantly, individual – making the audience fascinated by them. Following Booker’s observation, this enthusiasm about manufactured objects can be easily interpreted in light of Marx’s concept of commodity fetish (80). In Lee’s understanding, “the nature of this fetishism of commodities [is] that the value of the commodity assumes the guise of a value independent of human determination and thus appears to reside as an intrinsic property of the commodity itself” (14). In other words, a mystic inherent value is associated with commodities, which is completely detached from the value originating from labor. Since the value of labor that produces the item is invisible, the value of the commodity is supposed to be inherent. This concept functions diegetically as well as extra-diegetically: a character’s fascination about an object describes commodity fetishism; the positive reaction of the audience to an (anthropomorphized) object on screen is also similar to Marx’s concept.

The Toy Story films perfectly illustrate this double mechanism. Considering the fact that these films discuss the psychological relationship between children (subjects) and toys (objects) the question of identification is also addressed on several levels. Toys function as an extended self, changing the identity of children in the act of playing. However, these films are composed in a fashion to make the audience feel sympathy with the toys themselves, making it possible to show how the imaginary identity of a toy is changed in relation to other toys and to people.

Emphasizing the intrinsic value of objects and thus underlining the importance of individualism leads to a rather anti-consumerist attitude, aiming at keeping objects and commodities and not throwing them away. Pixar animations, with an increasing degree, tend to warn against commodity culture, consumerism and mega-corporations. Besides referring to the impersonal nature of commodity culture, Pixar films underline the negative environmental consequences, as well. WALL-E (2008) exhibits not only an ecological catastrophe but also the loss of individualism due to the rise of consumerism and throw-away culture. The film also scornfully depicts what cultural industries and consumer society celebrate: the ideology to “relax, to have fun, to behave and consume in accordance with the advertisements” (Marcuse 8). Advertising and mass-media are present in most Pixar animations: their appearance is subtle but constant in the Toy Story films, whereas in WALL-E, advertisements create a dystopic world of simulacra which – in lack of human ability – guarantees the survival of mankind.

Even though anti-consumerism and the negative critique on throw-away culture and mega-corporations are always present in Pixar films, let us not forget that the studio itself – let alone its parent, Walt Disney Pictures – are mega-corporations themselves, making enormous profit from the merchandise sold parallel with the films. In other words, the anti-consumerist ideology helps to form individual characters of mass-produced objects, which are easier to identify with. Considering the fact that these characters are actually commodities and their merchandised figures are available in the next toy store, these films successfully create a demand in the child audience, who are still under the impression of the movie and the identification with the characters. The (parents’) investment in any of the merchandise (toys, board games, stationery, clothing items, bed sheets, books, DVDs, etc.) serves to prolong the child’s feeling of identification with the object character, on the one hand. On the other hand, these mass-produced and mass-mediated commodities become part of that consumerist lifestyle the films warn against. With the release of a new animation, new merchandise appears on the market, new demand is created and the previously purchased item is replaced with the new one. This process is a perfect example of how throw-away culture functions. Having a close look at the profit Pixar films make, it becomes obvious that “tricking” the audience into buying the merchandised items is essential for the studio: Cars (2006) – with a production budget of $120 million – has already made a worldwide lifetime gross of $461,983,149 (“Cars (2006) – Box Office Mojo” 2011) in theaters but “merchandise for the first Cars film sold $10 billion worth worldwide” (“Pixar boss reveals…” 2011). In other words, it is not an exaggeration to say that the films are the mass-media platform on which the demand is created to buy the merchandise – a much bigger business.

III. YOU! ARE! A! TOY!!! – Object value, identity and the fantastic in Toy Story (1995) and Toy Story 2 (1999)

Toy Story (1995) was a milestone in the history of Pixar Animation Studios and in the history of animation production. Besides being the studio’s first feature film, it is also the most popular, having two sequels as well (Toy Story 2 (1999) and Toy Story 3 (2010)). The film, however, was also the first animation completely produced with CGI technology. Booker claims that Toy Story is as much of a technical revolution in the genre of animations as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was back in 1937 (78). Apart from Pinocchio (1940) and The Brave Little Toaster (1987, originally produced by Hyperion Pictures, a “pre-Pixar” studio), Disney always starred human or anthropomorphized animal characters in its feature animated films. Pixar, however, started a new tradition with Toy Story, bringing objects to life and thus devoting a special status to technology and electricity, rather than to magic (ibid). A constant technological development characterizes the studio’s work, as well, making it possible to create the characters and the scenery in every Pixar film as natural as possible.

Toy Story (1995) leads the audience to an average American suburb, more precisely to the bedroom of an average 5-6 year-old boy, Andy. The toys in Andy’s room are typical American toys: a cowboy doll (Woody), Mr. Potato Head, a dog with springy body (Slinky Dog), a dinosaur (Rex), a pink piggy bank (Hamm), a lady doll with sheep (Bo Peep), and so on. Although no human character in the film knows about it, these toys come to life when no one sees them. The film starts with Andy’s birthday, which – like every birthday and Christmas – causes huge stress for the toys in the bedroom: they are afraid of being replaced by newer, better, shinier toys. Actually, Andy does get a Buzz Lightyear, a spaceman action man, equipped with laser and wings. Buzz’s appearance in the bedroom causes several problems. First of all, Andy stops playing with his all-time favorite toy: Woody, which first leads to heated arguments between Woody and Buzz, then to jealousy, and finally to physical revenge. Secondly, Buzz experiences an identity crisis when he realizes that he is just a toy, a commodity advertised on television, and not the Buzz Lightyear, who has to save the galaxy. Despite the numerous action scenes, the story is rather simple (Woody and Buzz become friends), leaving enough dialogues about the status (in this case, individual nature) of commodities in consumer society.

Toy Story 2 (1999) entertains the very same questions, focusing now on economic object values, as well. After being stolen by a collector, Woody learns that he used to have his own western TV-series (“Woody’s Roundup”) in the 1950s-60s and now he and three other character dolls (Jessie, The Prospector and Bullseye) form a complete collection, bringing a fortune to the greedy collector. This fact – and seeing himself in the TV series – makes Woody so mesmerized that he experiences an identity crisis: he would be ready to leave Andy and be shipped to a Japanese museum to be an exhibit item. Buzz, however, convinces Woody to come back, using Woody’s own words from Toy Story: “Woody, you’re not a collector’s item. You’re a child’s plaything. You are a toy!” (Lasseter 1999, 1:04:09)

The values of toys as commodities are interpreted at several levels in the films. Even though the toy-characters are depicted with some intrinsic value and deep personality the films do not hide the fact that they are, in the first place, commodities and people treat them as such: they buy them, sell them, re-sell them, steal them or take them out of the flow of the commodity-circle (by throwing them to the top-shelf or under the bed if they cease to function; or they simply destroy them by blowing them up in the garden). The life of these toys is thus described as full of danger, thrill and fear, all because their values can be interpreted in many ways. Taking Baudrillard’s theory on functional, exchange, symbolic and sign value, the many layers of toy values can be easily understood.

In a functional sense, the use-value of these objects is that they are toys, playthings in a child’s bedroom, and being completely passive (in the presence of people), they are exploitable and controlled tools to act out a child’s imagination in the act of playing. A recurring scene in both Toy Story films is when Andy acts out little stories in his bedroom, involving most of his toys in the play. The exchange value of these toys is their actual economic price. When Mom collects old, non-functioning toys for a yard-sale, she throws them in a box with a sign: “25˘.” When Woody wants to save Wheezy (a penguin figure whose asthmatic condition has been aggravated by dust, making him unable to squeak) from the yard sale box, the other toys start panicking: “What is he doing? / He’s selling himself for 25 cents. / Oh Woody. You’re worth more than that!” (Lasseter 1999, 0:17:40-0:17:49) The money that the toy collector hopes in exchange for the full collection of “Woody’s Roundup” is the one and only reason why he steals Woody. Indirectly, all TV commercials of toys refer to their exchange value, as well.

Baudrillard defines a so-called “symbolic exchange value,” which can be best exemplified with the idea of gifts:

it is inseparable from the concrete relation in which it is exchanged, the transferential pact that it seals between two person. […] Once it has been given – and because of this – it is this object and not another. […] The gift is unique, specified by the people exchanging and the unique moment of the exchange. (64)

This is the seed of the individual characterization of toys in the Toy Story films. Andy gets new toys for every birthday and Christmas (Lasseter 1995, 0:9:12), that is, they are gifts, therefore unique. At this point, it does not matter that there are hundreds of mass-produced, “cloned” Buzz Lightyears on the shelf of Al’s Toy Barn (Lasseter 1995, 0:45:53), the Buzz Lightyear in Andy’s room is a birthday gift from Mom to Andy, making Buzz unique. Moreover, Andy makes the uniqueness of his toys official: “Your chief, Andy inscribed his name on me” (Lasseter 1995, 0:22:30). Andy’s name on Buzz’s boot serves as identity proof in Toy Story 2 when both Andy’s Buzz and another Buzz escaped from the toy store – correctly – try to prove that they are Buzz Lightyear. Andy’s mark, however, gives an individual status of his Buzz because exactly this piece of plaything was given to him on his birthday.

Baudrillard’s fourth type of value is the sign value: “the object-become-sign no longer gathers its meaning in the concrete relationship between two people. It assumes its meaning in its differential relationship to other signs.” (66) Baudrillard calls these objects “objects of consumption,” and draws a parallel between the unique wedding ring (a symbol) and an ordinary ring (an object of consumption): “It is a non-singular object, a personal gratification, a sign in the eyes of the others. I can wear several of them. I can substitute them.” (ibid) As previously mentioned, Pixar animations, in general, are rather anti-consumerist, therefore, this value is not presented as a positive aspect. Andy’s toys are deprived of their sign value since all of them are characterized as unique and un-replaceable. Most of the toys that belong to the neighbor kid (Sid), however, are characterized as having a sign value. Sid is a strange and aggressive child whose hobby is to explode toys in his garden. Since he considers all the toys replaceable and dispensable, his toys are depicted speechless, frightening but most importantly without any kind of individual characteristics. They are objects of consumption (Sid is actually shown in Pizza Planet by the claw vending machine getting a zealot (mass-produced, green alien clones, characterized without even a touch of individualism)). All the toys Sid possesses are objects of consumption and as such described in a rather negative and horrifying way.

The symbolic value of Andy’s toys functions as a jumping board for the toys’ uniqueness and identity. Once they are characterized with an identity, they can and they do have identity crises, mostly because their values have so many aspects. They all know (except for Buzz in the beginning) that their function is to be a toy: “This is what it’s all about: to make a child happy” (Lasseter 1999, 1:06:27). They also all know that they are Andy’s toys as his name is written on them, and in this sense, they are unique. Their identity, however, needs to be re-constructed every time they see themselves as objects of consumption. Buzz is convinced that he is an astronaut on an intergalactic mission (the spaceman identity seems to be programmed in all Buzz figures) and feels completely lost when he finds out from a TV commercial (!) that he is a simple object of consumption:

The world’s greatest superhero! Now the world’s greatest toy! Buzz has it all! Locking wrist communicator! Karate chop action! Pulsating laser light! Multi-phase voice simulator! And best of all, high pressure space wings! (NOT A FLYING TOY!) Get your Buzz Lightyear action figure and save the galaxy near you! Available at all Al’s Toy Barn outlets in the tri-county area. (Lasseter 1995, 0:45:22– 0:45:57)

Picture 1.

Depressed of being an object of consumerism, Buzz coins himself as “a stupid, little, insignificant toy” (Lasseter 1995, 0:55:55). Woody convinces him that it is much better to be a toy than a Space Ranger because being a toy means belonging to somebody: “You are his toy” (Lasseter 1995, 0:56:12). In other words, Woody makes Buzz forget about his sign value (being a mass-produced Buzz Lightyear commodity) by pointing out his symbolic value (his unique status as Andy’s Buzz). Woody goes through a similar crisis in Toy Story 2 when he learns that he is “valuable property” (Lasseter 1999, 0:29:47), and he and his TV series used to be a “national phenomenon” (Lasseter 1999, 1:03:47). Woody, Jessie, The Prospector and Bullseye are about to be sold to a Japanese museum for a real fortune. Woody is amazed at his special status (which is expressed in his increased exchange value) and at the fact that his show had numerous merchandised commodities.

Picture 2.

Woody thinks about giving up being Andy’s toy but Buzz convinces him to return to Andy’s room (using Woody’s words from Toy Story) by reminding him of his symbolic value as Andy’s toy.

The brilliant trick of the Toy Story films (and all the Pixar films starring objects) is that they make the audience forget about the sign value of the toys, that is, they stop seeing them as objects of consumption that would talk about the owners’ financial and social status. The Buzz Lightyear toy, for example, is a “hype” in the diegetic consumer society but that exact piece of Buzz which belongs to Andy is not characterized as a mass-produced, dispensable commodity item. Andy’s Buzz has individuality, a subjectivity with which the audience can identify. Pixar films with object-characters challenge the conventional cultural imagination by offering the fantastic: a position where the object is a subject. The films apply this mode of expression to encourage the audience to identify with the objects endowed with subjectivity. In other words, the subject in the audience positions itself into this false, created subject-object position. The false promise of a position where subject and object are not differentiated, a position before the thetic break, revives “a search, an experiment to regain the lost or unreachable totality,” which is so typical to the working mechanism of the fantastic (Kiss 28, translation mine). Woody and Buzz’s repeated lines of “Reach for the sky!” (e.g.: Lasseter 1995, 0:00:55) and “To infinity and beyond!” (e.g.: 0:19:21) can therefore be interpreted as (false) road-markings towards the Real, full semiosis and self-transparency.

This promise creates an enormous energy in the microdynamics of the subject to retrieve the Real. The created desire is the “hook:” showing the object with its own subjectivity makes us believe that a position like this exists and we want to retrieve this position when we buy the merchandised items outside the cinema. Selling the fantastic as commodity functions exactly because the film revived our desire to find the position where subject and object do not differ. The business of selling merchandise can make such an amount of profit because consumer society celebrates the fantastic and posits it as the primary object of desire (Kiss 31). Kiss refers to Slavoj Žižek’s concept of repressive desublimation, which

succeeds in getting rid of this autonomous, mediating agency of ‘synthesis’ which is the Ego: through such ‘desublimation’ the Ego loses its relative autonomy and regresses towards the unconscious. However, this ‘regressive’, compulsive, blind, ‘automatic’ behavior, which bears all the signs of the Id, far from liberating us from the pressures of the existing social order, adheres perfectly to the demands of the Superego, and is therefore already enlisted in the service of the social order. As a consequence, the forces of social ‘repression’ exert a direct control over drives. […] The agency of social repression […] assumes the form of a hypnotic agency that imposes the attitude of ‘yielding to temptation’ – that is to say, its injunction amounts to a command: ‘Enjoy yourself!’ (Žižek 16)

This command in consumer society would be “Consume!” – a message which supports the purchase of the commodity of the fantastic. Once the desire is made to retrieve the Real, and the social command is to enjoy ourselves through consuming, no wonder that merchandising brings back a lot more profit than the films themselves. Through purchasing the merchandise sold parallel with the films, we try to prolong the promise that we can find the Real. The merchandised item, however, lacks exactly what we bought it for: its (cheated, created, illusionary) subjectivity. The subject of the object does not exist, it is just the effect of the fantastic, a fata morgana. The empty object has no intrinsic value any longer, and as soon as a new film comes out, creating again a desire to reach for the Real in the form of buying its merchandise, the empty object will be thrown-away. This is the underlying logic of throw-away culture and of the profit animation studios make solely through merchandising.

IV. “Must follow my directive” – the authority of objects and the loss of individuality in WALL-E (2008)

Pixar’s feature film from 2008 is WALL-E, a science fiction animation taking place in the far future (about 800 years from now). The film presents the Earth being completely uninhabited and destroyed: after making life on Earth unsustainable by producing too much garbage, people left the planet on a spaceship (Axiom) and they are waiting there for Earth’s renewal. The ecological catastrophe of the Earth has been preceded by the totalitarian reign of the mega-corporation “Buy N Large” (BnL). The corporation exercised power over trading, banking, transportation, the media and also functioned as the government. After BnL arranged the evacuation of mankind, they left robots on the planet to clean up the garbage: in around the year 2800, there is only one functioning Waste Allocation Load Lifter – Earth Class (WALL-E) robot, still diligently producing garbage cubes. WALL-E collects old commodities and stores them up in his container. He proudly shows these objects to EVE (Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator), a robot sent to Earth to check for proof of vegetation. Besides the numerous gadgets, WALL-E proudly presents a plant that he has found under the garbage dump. EVE’s directive it to search for and return to Axiom with a “confirmed specimen of ongoing photosynthesis” (Stanton 0:43:10). As EVE is leaving the Earth with the plant, WALL-E (in the meantime, “falling in love” with EVE) climbs up on the space-shuttle and arrives on the main spaceship, the Axiom as a stowaway.

The appearance of the plant on the Axiom means the end of an era: after 700 years spent in the spaceship, humans can return to Earth. Even though the captain of the ship is really enthusiastic (people by this time have forgotten everything about Earth and their once existing culture), the autopilot (AUTO, a pre-programmed robot) does not let the spaceship return. As it turns out, AUTO was given directive to remain in space and never to return to Earth. This standoff is solved when man overcomes machine: the captain object to AUTO, makes his first moves (people have lost their ability to walk as everything is automatized) and switches the autopilot off. After returning to Earth, mankind needs to learn everything from the beginning (land cultivation, for example) and recreate their culture.

WALL-E is a rather dark vision of the future, in which technical development and the comfortable consumer lifestyle leads to an ecological catastrophe and to the complete loss of individualism. The environmental degradation is accelerated by excessive consumerism and garbage production, which did not prove to be sustainable after a time in the finite space provided by the planet. In a similar fashion, Garrett Hardin’s influential publication “The Tragedy of the Commons” (1968) describes a social trap, explaining why every single person’s interest leads to a collective catastrophe. Hardin’s article is focused on the exponential growth of human population in the finite space on Earth but his concept can be applied to various other ecological and social problems and situations. According to János Tóth, the idea of the tragedy of the commons can be applied to three basically different ecological scenarios: (i) the problem of renewable natural resources that are available in a finite quantity; (ii) the general problem of commonly used natural or artificial resources; and (iii) the situation when resources, so far in a plentiful supply, become insufficient (69). The per capita quotient of the collective negative effect on the environment is so minute compared to the personal profit (financial advantage, need and wish fulfillment, comfort-preferences, etc.) that the rational behavior for every single person is not to change the course of events. The tragedy is that everybody follows the same logical pattern, thus slowly but surely ruining natural resources (Hardin 1244).

Tóth describes this process in four steps (71-74): the Golden Age, the Silver Age, the Bronze Age and the Iron Age. In the Golden Age, natural resources are plenty and they can supply the maximal number of people in an optimal quality. The Silver Age begins when these two factors cannot be increased simultaneously and supplying an increasing number of people is only possible with weakening quality. This general negative effect, however, is almost invisible for the single individuals, making it very difficult to realize the problem. The Bronze Age is already the era of crisis, where the individuals realize the problem (mostly because they experience rather negative consequences). Still, they keep on using the resources because of the power of tradition or because they do not know any other way. This leads to the Iron Age, that is, to the complete destruction of natural resources. Considering the fact that sustainability of life is not possible without natural resources, people have to look for other territories where resources are still exploitable. This expansive and nomadic lifestyle has been always present in the history of mankind but given the fact that the present natural and ecological crisis is a global phenomenon, expansion on Earth would be no option any more.

The exact same process is illustrated in WALL-E. The film starts with presenting the remains of the Iron Age: the Earth is covered with garbage, there is no vegetation and humans have disappeared. The massive garbage production is suggested to be a consequence of significant consumerist and commodity accumulating practices, accelerated by the monopolistic Buy N Large mega-corporation.

Picture 3.

The ecological crisis and the human exodus from Earth are told through the contemporary media: the headline of a 700-year-old issue of “BnL Times” says “Too much trash! Earth covered – BnL CEO declares global emergency” (Stanton 0:04:42); a propaganda video also from BnL advertises moving to space: “Too much garbage in your face? There’s plenty of space out in space! BnL starliners leaving each day! We’ll clean up the mess while you are away” (Stanton 0:05:30-0:05:36). Originally, the evacuation of mankind was meant to last for five years while special robots clean the Earth and restore the sufficient natural condition so that vegetation can restart. The “five-year cruise,” however, turns out to be nothing else but a nomadic resettlement – as Tóth envisions it on the basis of Hardin’s article (74). The expansive nature of the mission is aptly characterized in BnL CEO, Shelby Forthright’s commercial slogan (“Because at BnL, space is the final FUN-tier!” (Stanton 0:06:10)), hinting at Frederick Jackson Turner’s thesis of the American Frontier (1893); at Kennedy’s “New Frontier” policies of space missions; and at the opening line of the Star Trek TV episodes and films. Forthright’s pun of the “fun-tier” points out the luxurious lifestyle offered on the starliner: “… your captain and autopilot chart a course for non-stop entertainment, fine dining, and with our all-access hoverchairs even grandma can join the fun! There’s no need to walk!” (Stanton 0:05:45-0:05:50) BnL’s commercial is in line with Žižek’s concept of repressive desublimation and the social imperative of “Enjoy yourself!” (Žižek 16)

The imperative of consumer society in 700 years’ time, however, causes significant changes. As people are constantly encouraged to consume and they dutifully do so, the inhabitants of the starliner are shown without any individual characterization. They eat the same food, they have the same outfit (moreover, of the same color), all of them are seriously obese and sit in hoverchairs, making them lose the ability to walk or to reposition themselves without technical assistance. The envisioned life of people on the Axiom shows no struggles or challenges as everything is provided due to the immense technological development. The constant physical presence and ideological status of hoverchairs, robots, the computerized hologram atmosphere and most importantly the autopilot are signs of a reverse order: in a dystopic consumer society, objects wield power over the atrophic, disindividualized human race. People on the ship therefore completely depend on objects and on the holograms which show/are their (simulated) atmosphere. Instructions and imperatives are given through advertising (“Time for lunch, in a cup!” (Stanton 0:37:22) – robots bring cups to people who start slurping right away; “Attention, Axiom shoppers! Try blue, it’s the new red!” (Stanton 0:37:35) – people press a button on their chairs after which their red outfit changes to blue in a hologram manner). Drawing a very similar picture, Martyn J. Lee summarizes Baudrillard’s concept of a cultural order defined by the sign-value of commodities:

Individuals have here been reduced to the status of mere consumers, and consumers have become nothing but the vehicles for the transmission of controlled and predetermined differences between consumer objects which function to classify the social world according to the demands of advertising and the mass media. […] Changing their sign-values, consumer objects [are] able to effect changes in consumer needs and behaviors. The manipulation of needs and behaviors in this manner has made the consumer little other than a hollow shell into which the system of commodity production may deposit whichever needs are required for a given moment. (23-24)

The representation of consumer objects and the reaction of consumers in WALL-E fit perfectly this description although the film goes some steps ahead and shows how governmental functions are taken by objects. Even though the spaceship does have a captain, his only assignment is to make a morning announcement – a rather formal job. The éminence grise however, is AUTO, the autopilot robot whose original directive was to control the ship with the captain and lead it back to Earth after five years when vegetation on Earth is restored. As “Operation Cleanup” had failed, Forthright sent a message to AUTO:

Wouldn’t you know, rising toxic levels have made life unsustainable on Earth. Darn it all, we’re going to have to cancel Operation Recolonise [returning to Earth]. So, just stay in the course […], it’ll just be easier for everyone to remain in space. […] Go to full autopilot. Take control of everything and do not return to Earth! (Stanton 1:05:55 – 1:06:16)

From here on not even Shelby Forthright can control AUTO as – right after sending the message – he leaves the Earth, murmuring in the oxygen mask: “Let’s get the heck out of here!” (Stanton 1:06:18). AUTO dutifully takes control of everything, and cruelly punishes and tortures everything (e.g.: WALL-E) and everyone (e.g.: the Captain) who do want to return to Earth. AUTO “lacks the imagination to go beyond its programming” (Booker 105), which would already be a sign of individual will and act.

Individuality as a sign of character has disappeared on Axiom: neither the people nor the robots on Axiom are depicted with their own ideas or personality. As Lee states above, consumers are hollow shells and the robots follow their pre-programmed directive. WALL-E, however, develops some kind of individuality despite the fact that he does not even have a name (“WALL-E” refers to the robot type and not the individual machine), and he still carries out his directive – 700 years after his programming. WALL-E has a cockroach friend; he gets emotional by the music from an old copy of “Hello Dolly!,” he “falls in love” with EVE and – objecting to his directive – he leaves Earth to follow EVE. Even though WALL-E is a pre-programmed robot, he is the only character who is presented with some individuality from the beginning on. His individual behavior sets an example to some robots on Axiom (EVE, M-O, a group of malfunctioning robots, etc.) and to some people as well. The Captain overcomes AUTO by seeing WALL-E’s bravery and he “rises from his automated chair and takes his first steps, thus signaling a declaration of independence from machines” (Booker 107). John and Mary – two average people on the ship – get to know each other through WALL-E, who accidentally shows them how to switch off their hologram screens (an interface for advertisements and thus control), and see their environment with their own eyes. In other words, WALL-E’s, an object’s individuality, brought from a place where consumerism destroyed everything and left a vacuum behind, sets an example to people and robots disindividualized by the working mechanisms of consumerism. The only way to return to Earth and to get the chance to start life afresh is to overcome the reign of objects by acting as individuals.

WALL-E celebrates the importance of individualism by painting the darkest picture of consumer society ever made in Pixar animations. Besides destroying the macro (natural) environment, consumerist practices make the micro environment, the individual self, disappear. The authority and imperative of objects over people is a dystopic vision of the future in WALL-E but Baudrillard and Lee’s interpretation of today’s consumerism does not differ at all from the prophecy of the film. The best example for it is the film itself: the audience functions as “hollow shells” into which the demand for merchandised items is situated. The underlying mechanism, therefore, has the same pattern as it has been described above concerning the Toy Story films.

V. Conclusion

In a rather anti-consumerist manner, the Toy Story films and WALL-E (as well as most Pixar animations) have successfully managed to breathe life and individuality into objects. Characterized in urban settings, these objects have various layers of value in the matrix of consumer society. As the importance of individuality has always been in the focal point of Disney and Pixar animations, these – often mass-produced commodities – are depicted as unique and valuable, having feelings and subjectivity with which the audience can identify. However, the vision about an object with subjectivity functions as an example of the fantastic: the false promise about a position where subject and object have not split yet brings about an instinctual search for this totality, for the Real. The consumption of the films’ merchandise is triggered by the experience of the fantastic. In other words, these fairly successful films are merely psychological tricks functioning as commercials for the merchandised mass-produced commodities.


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Picture references

  • PICTURE 1: Lasseter, John, dir. 1995. Toy Story. Written by John Lasseter and Pete Docter. Pixar Animation Studios and Walt Disney Pictures, 0:45:58.
  • PICTURE 2: Lasseter, John, Lee Unkrich and Ash Brannon, dirs. 1999. Toy Story 2. Written by John Lasseter, Pete Docter and Andrew Stanton. Pixar Animation Studios and Wald Disney Pictures, 0:29:50.
  • PICTURE 3: Stanton, Andrew, dir. 2008. WALL-E. Written by Andrew Stanton and Pete Docter. Pixar Animation Studios and Walt Disney Pictures, 0:05:06.



1 Since 2006, Pixar Animation Studios has been owned by The Walt Disney Company, its parent is Walt Disney Pictures.