Failing with Style: Lessons from Toy Story

Possibly a controversial opinion, but I don’t think Pixar has made a film that was more elegant and complete than Toy Story. They’ve addressed bigger ideas, in more ambitious settings; but Toy Story is the building blocks of many of their other stories without any fat.

If you haven’t seen Toy Story, I’m at your door with the DVD* right now. So let’s not bother with recapping the storyline. The film is obviously built around the conflict between Woody and Buzz. Woody is a catastrophist with low self-esteem, and Buzz is the polar opposite: an egotist who is so wrapped up in his own world that he’s basically the only toy who DOESN’T know he’s a toy. Naturally, all the circumstances aside, characters who are opposites tend to clash.

Woody is so tuned into what he believes are his own failings (and come on, he’s got LITERAL abandonment issues) that he simply can’t help trying to poke holes in this guy who shows up on his turf with bulletproof confidence. When Woody can’t see himself as the hero any more, he chooses to see himself as a victim, as an unfairly persecuted party. It’s a desperate attempt to bolster his own self-esteem by tearing someone else down, and it’s a very common pattern in real people. Protip from Woody: basing the entirety of your self-worth on praise from others, or mockery of their failings, is a very unstable foundation to build your life on.

Buzz, on the other hand, believes everything will go his way all of the time. He is the hero of his story. Because he completely believes in the reality of his abilities, when he jumps or falls off something, if he’s lucky enough to land on his feet he’s convinced that he can fly. He knows that he’s making all the right choices, the best at all he does, and bound to succeed. Everything that happens just strengthens his faith that he is the Good Guy and will ultimately triumph no matter what; without having to change anything about what he’s doing, or worry how it might affect others. And, of course, part of the plot of the film is how a belief like this can ultimately be harmful as well – because, sooner or later, things go wrong for EVERYONE, and a fall from that height is going to crush you if you can’t bounce back.

Buzz’s confidence in himself isn’t fundamentally a bad trait, but the flawed nature of his worldview does come back to bite him in the ass by being useless when he’s not in control. Woody’s jealousy and fear get the better of someone who really isn’t, fundamentally, a bad person; and he does some really terrible things that cost him his friends and nearly get Buzz killed. So, the film is about both of them meeting in the middle, and realizing that you need confidence and faith in yourself to get through life – but that too much of anything is bad, too. You need the ability to see where you can improve. Friendship is about compromising to find balance, and so is life.

So that’s one lesson in Toy Story. But let’s look specifically at one scene – the flying scene. The other toys are impressed even though they must know, on some level, that Buzz can’t fly; he’s a toy just like they are. Woody’s angry, and he’s got to get a word in about how much of a poser this guy is. So he says “that wasn’t flying, that was… falling with style!”

That line really got a big laugh when I first saw the movie in theaters, and it stuck with me. It must’ve stuck with the writers, too, since it comes back around at the end of the film, when Buzz uses it – now that Woody believes Buzz CAN “fly”.

Why do people remember that one line? It’s not just because it’s funny, or that Tom Hanks has impeccable delivery. It’s sort of a synopsis of a key idea in the film. Whether you – and other people – see what you do as success or failure has a lot to do with your attitude. If you’re going to fail, fail with style. What does that mean, you say? “Should I jump off a building onto an elaborate system of ramps? Where do you get a giant roller-skate, anyway?”

Let’s go to the personal life vault for an example. Years ago I was at a tiny, first-year convention. It wasn’t a top-flight operation, but they were trying. The panel room signs were on slashed up cardboard boxes; some panelists never showed up and some dudes from the audience just did stuff. The hotel looked like a level from a zombie video game and has since been bulldozed. It was an innocent time. For some reason, some friends and I had decided this was a great con to do a masquerade. This masquerade was probably attended by about 50 people. But we were young and ambitious, so we were going to put on a SHOW with moving wings and an elaborate script.

You can probably tell where this is going. Everything conceivable went wrong. Wigs got messed up and had to be replaced last minute with “bargain clown” ones. The skit’s audio was recorded in the hotel stairwell. The wings didn’t move do to a serious failure to understand physics, and replacement stationary wings got stepped on and partly crushed. By the time we got to the backstage area, we were exhausted, frustrated, and at each other’s throats. Things going wrong stress you out, and stress makes things go wrong, and it’s all a horrible failure spiral, which is the least fun theme park ride imaginable.

Whatever straws were remaining snapped when we discovered minutes before going on that our audio burn had borked, and we had to go onstage without it. And the replacement wings broke. One person was very stubborn and wanted to go on no matter what; one person had never wanted to do it in the first place and wanted to bail so we could go somewhere private and weep. Finally, I said – “we’re going on because otherwise it wasn’t worth it at all. But our skit is going to fail, I’m going to have a person standing behind me holding my wings up; we can’t pretend it was supposed to go this way. So we do the skit, and then we tell the story. Then we at least have proof of one thing – that we had the balls to go on anyway.”

So what happened? The audience was very confused at first, and then they laughed like hell, because one way or another they’d all been there. They’d all been in the flaming car that was going full speed off a cliff, best laid plans scattering in the wind like birds – and some of them had decided they might as well turn up the stereo, too. So darned if we didn’t win a presentation award for having the stones to point right at the disaster. If you can laugh at yourself, other people will laugh with you and not at you.

Let me tell you – this was not the last time anything like this happened. It’s not even the WORST time this ever happened. I don’t want to make a point about learning from your mistakes so you never do it again. There are endless variations on basically the same mistake, and you will learn that the hard way. Again and again.

You don’t want to be Buzz OR Woody, at least at the start of the film. Both of them can only believe in themselves until things don’t go their way. Then there’s nothing to protect you when things go wrong – and they do go wrong, no matter who you are.

So it’s about knowing that when you fail – and you WILL – failing with style is the best answer. It’s still not impossible to stick the landing, no matter how much you feel like you’re in free fall. Many of life’s successes happen when you feel like you’re falling, but you do it with enough style to make everyone else believe it’s flight. And the funny thing is… at some point, it becomes indistinguishable from the real thing.

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 * This is a lie. I have this movie on VHS.

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Anne Darkly
Professional geek, plush artist, movie lover, writer trying to get back on the wagon. Or off the wagon. There's wagon involvement. Everyone told me to get a blog, so I did. Yee-haw.
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