Team Sid: why the antagonist became my favourite

Week 5 of the Alphabet Sufficiency: F.

A few years ago, a friend’s children were in the target age range for the Toy Story franchise, and he told me with some shock that his eldest had “missed the entire point” of Toy Story in being Team Buzz Lightyear rather than Team Woody. And I nodded sagely, having only ever seen Toy Story 2 and that on its cinematic release. I knew only that Woody is the old faithful toy and Buzz Lightyear the new advertising pushed successor toy.

Well, now I’ve seen Toy Story, and frankly, I’m not Team Woody, and that’s putting it mildly. In fact, Woody horrifies me so much it’s part of the reason I’m Team Sid.

A brief recap of Toy Story for those of you who don’t have children or aren’t playing along with Pixar at home. First, concept: toys are alive and sentient, but only when no one is looking. Andy, child, loves cowboy toy Woody the best of all, but for his birthday he receives space ranger Buzz Lightyear who becomes at least co-equal in his affections. Meanwhile, when Andy is absent Buzz also usurps Woody in the affection of the actual toys. His main weakness is that he is utterly unaware he is a toy, giving Woody an opening to trick him into travelling to a “space port” (a space-themed pizza place). Both toys become separated from Andy’s family and end up in one of those arcade claw machines, and are acquired by Sid, an older boy who is Andy’s next-door neighbour and who mistreats toys. After various mishaps, Sid is about to launch a small rocket with Buzz attached into the sky, when Woody raises all Sid’s other toys in rebellion. Woody and Buzz then pursue the moving van containing Andy’s family’s possessions and eventually rocket into Andy’s car where he finds them as if they’d been left there all along. Aww.

And what I’ve tried and failed to hide in that summary is that Woody is an utter jerk for most of the movie. Before Buzz’s arrival he’s portrayed as the patronising father-figure of the toy room, running it like a corporate office, surrounded by bemused toys and a small number of uncertain sycophants. Really appealing. He displays some real fear and loneliness after Buzz arrives and he’s swept from his prime position on Andy’s bed, but only in complete privacy. Once he discovers Buzz’s weakness he is triumphant and merciless, mocking him to his face. “You think you’re a real spaceman? Oh all along I thought it was an act.” He then proceeds to manipulate every one of Buzz’s resulting traits — singlemindedness, a belief that his mission requires him to return to space — at first trying and failing to get other toys to join the mockery and then realising that he can get Buzz to act based on his beliefs. Sure there’s a sort of redemption arc in which Woody saves Buzz from Sid and turns down a few opportunities to leave him, but by then his fate was sealed. Even Mr Potato Head isn’t as anti-Woody as me.

Meanwhile, Buzz is pretty appealing, as long as all-American (all-Galatican?) hero works for you. He manages the other toys in a loose military model rather than a corporate model, where at least there’s room for improvement rather than the system being set up to manage their (presumed) static inadequacies. He treats Woody as more-or-less an equal (admittedly based on rank; he believes Woody to be the local sheriff) and trusts without question that Woody is transparent and honest; at least it doesn’t make me want to spit in his face. He’s easily manipulated, but his view of the world is very far from consensus reality: if I am actually a sentient child’s toy, I’ve probably been easily manipulated too in my time.

I am not unsympathetic to my friend’s child here. Given a choice between a Woody doll and a Buzz doll, I know which I’d choose. But the narrative point of view, which positions Woody’s behaviour as understandable and forgivable, bugs me so much that I ended up naturally sympathetic to the antagonist.

Let’s re-evaluate Sid. First, to be fair, even from my point of view, he has some serious failings. The most serious is that he’s not at all kind to his younger sister. Which is grave indeed, but I do notice that his sister doesn’t seem to be frightened of him, and when Sid displays weakness (extreme fear of toys, not unreasonable given he’s just discovered they’re sentient and dislike him) she immediately and thoroughly takes advantage. He doesn’t seem to have decisively established dominance in the family and it’s implied that his mother has the final say outside of his bedroom. His other failing (to me) is the scene where he’s shown being pretty brutal with the arcade equipment. He does also do a couple of villain-marked things, like cackling while thunder rolls, but that’s not actually an immoral act. The Doylist explanation for this is pretty obvious — he’s being positioned as the villain — but my Watsonian explanation is that he is playing at being the villain, the bad-boy toy torturer. A lot of his other “failings” from the narrative point-of-view are the atmospherics surrounding him, which look like Pixar straight-out buying into dubious cultural tropes about people who listen to metal. Skull on your t-shirt, evil, not the same thing.

And see the thing is, except when they’re his sister’s toys, what Sid does to toys isn’t actually wrong. He has no reason to begin to suspect they’re sentient. (And the movie does something really annoying here: it’s OK to reveal this to Sid to save Buzz in particular… why? It wasn’t OK to reveal it to save Hannah’s doll, for example.) And what he does with them is frankly rather cool and inventive. A baby doll’s head with mechanical spider-legs? If my kid does that I’ll take photos and puff about it in my parenting blog. He’s also a pretty good actor, what with the thunderclap cackle, and the different voices he used to enact his surgical scenes, in which he appears to be a mash-up of Dr Frankenstein and standard medical dramas.

Consider it this way: Andy’s play is pretty conventional. There’s a stick-up. The woman gasps in fear. The brave sheriff saves the day. Hooray! Sid’s play is more transformative, both physically transforming the toys and mashing together whatever tropes suit him: medical drama, medical horror, ground control, meteorological reports, generic Evil Overlord cackling. Sid is the fan and the hacker. Really Sid’s main mistake in my book was not sending Woody on a one-way rocket ship. It’s OK Sid, you weren’t to know. I’m still Team Sid.

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