Subtlety, Subtext and Rethinking Toy Story

Subtext and Toy Story

The folks at Pixar are renowned for their story-telling. They have an almost preternatural ability to weave in subtext, tugging at our heartstrings and making us care about the animated adventures of their characters.

Disney Pixar UP
©Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

Think back to the first five minutes of Up, where we see the heartbreaking love story of a childless couple. I almost cried into my popcorn. Without a single line of dialogue, the writers paint a picture so poignant it makes everything that follows matter so much more.

Subtext is all about what you don’t say. What you don’t show. It relies on the active participation of the audience, whether they’re reading a book or watching a movie, to join the dots themselves. Subtext creates the space for that “oh…” moment, when you realise something the writer is telling you without actually saying it.

I had just such a moment the other day.

Disney Pixar Toy Story
©Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

Toy Story has been very popular in our house lately. (Tiny One is a huge Buzz Lightyear fan.) After one particular viewing I had a realisation that made me stop stirring my coffee and stare into space for a good ten minutes.

The emotional crux of Toy Story is that every toy has a fear of being outgrown. Toys live for the children who love them, and they are aware that one day their child will grow up and no longer want to play with them, no longer need them in the way they always have. Toys know that fateful day is coming. Much as they want what’s best for their child, they fear the ineluctable time when they will be put aside. That’s the true paradox of being a toy. All the joy, the laughter, the fun — it has to end. One day, every toy is left behind as their child grows up.

Now re-read that paragraph, but when you see the word toy, replace it with with parent.

See what I mean?

“Subtext creates the space for that “oh…” moment, when you realise something the writer is telling you without actually saying.”

The theme is subtle in the first Toy Story. Sheriff Woody spends half the movie afraid of being replaced by Buzz, the new-fangled Space Ranger toy. In Toy Story 2 it’s clearer. A yard sale strikes terror into the hearts of Andy’s toys, and we see Jessie’s tragic story of being donated to a charity when her own child moved on from cowgirl dolls to lipstick and interminable phonecalls. By Toy Story 3 we see Andy preparing to go to college, and we learn the sometimes ugly fate of toys left behind when their children segue into adulthood.

As a relatively new parent, the Toy Story movies suddenly seemed laced with subtext I’d never noticed.

When Tiny One runs to me with her arms outstretched for a cuddle, or brings me a book to read to her, or offers me a cup of make-believe coffee, I treasure these moments. Like Woody, I know she won’t always want to play with me. Until then I take what I can get, while I can get it. Because one day she’ll grow up, and I’ll be relegated to the dusty shelf next to a penguin with a broken squeaker.


How do you use subtext in your writing? Can you think of a particularly effective example of subtext that changes the way you experience a story?

2 thoughts on “Subtlety, Subtext and Rethinking Toy Story”

  1. Ali, I think it is the job of every parent to make themselves redundant. And, yes that does hurt. With regard to subtext, all I can add is that it’s difficult to include but adds so much depth and nuance to a story.

  2. OMGoodness Alisdair – your post nearly made me cry! I had never thought of Toy Story that way. But I do agree with Karen, it is a parents job to make themselves redundant, something my older children hate at the moment: “Why can’t you do this for me?”, “Because you need to learn to do it for yourself.” My two year old on the other hand is more – “Why can’t you let me do that for myself?”, though her spoken language is not quite at that level, she still manages to express her desire for independence quite effectively.

    Regarding subtext, well, that is tricky to write (or rather, not-write), and as you’ve pointed out, depends so much on the reader’s experiences as to whether they pick it up or not, or even how they might interpret it.

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