A Toy's Telos, Chapter 2: How the Vision Was Won, and Lost

Thesis and Antithesis

In “A Toy’s Telos, Chapter 1,” I argued that the Toy Story trilogy presents a moral vision for what it means to be a toy, and I outlined the key tenets of this vision as they are embodied by Woody in his relationships with Andy and Buzz. Woody has a vertical telos: to be there for Andy. He also has a horizontal telos: to be there for Buzz and other toys so that they too can be there for Andy. But Toy Story, as a story, presents this moral vision through narrative, not exposition, and narratives require conflict and resolution. The films establish their moral vision through the challenges Woody faces as he seeks to live according to his telos. It is through Woody’s resilience in the midst of these challenges that the films vindicate the idea of a toy’s telos. Another way to put this is that Woody has a thesis, an argument. In each film, he is presented with an antithesis, a counter-argument. His ability to repudiate these objections are what prove the strength — and what is more, the goodness and beauty — of his argument.


A Toy's Telos, Chapter 1: The Moral Vision of Toy Story


We need to talk about Woody. No, not Woody Allen. Enough people have been talking about him. I mean Sheriff Woody. The Woody who is an intricately-crafted doll, complete with a cow-skin vest, a red bandana, a cowboy hat, and a voice box activated by a pull string. The Woody who displays a child’s name written in Sharpie on the sole of his plastic boot: ANDY — with the “N” written backwards. The Woody who is not just a toy but a soul, a soul that is fiercely devoted to this Andy. The Woody who is voiced by Tom Hanks, with a passion and gravitas that makes Woody rival his finest in-the-flesh performances. The Woody who is the star and beating heart at the center of Pixar’s signature cultural contribution, Toy Story, a film series that has been a staple of American animation (and American childhoods) for a quarter century.


Avengers: Endgame (Review for FilmFisher)

One of the many, many things the Marvel Cinematic Universe has severely lacked is a sense of poetry — visually, verbally, thematically, or otherwise. But what strikes me about Avengers: Endgame is that it is a small but significant step toward reversing that trend. The film contains a surprising number of poetic touches and grace notes, and it also — in a “meta” move fitting for a time-travel movie — retroactively casts the rest of the MCU into something of a poetic form. Of course, like so many of its predecessors in this massive franchise of franchises, Endgame is still a seriously flawed film — and likely never could have been anything but flawed. Even so, I would argue Endgame is one of the finest films in the MCU, mainly because of its poetry.


Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (Review for FilmFisher)

I have dreaded writing this review ever since I left the theater, and don’t think I will get much enjoyment out of it. There is no pleasure to be had in speaking against a group of artists whose work you have always enjoyed — and even been shaped by — in the past. Some take out their frustration on a bad film by hurling ever more clever and cruel epithets at it and its creators, as if to try and get even for an offense. I can relate, and I’m guilty, too. Bad films tend to insult my intelligence, offend my beliefs, take advantage of my goodwill, or all the above. But while I could easily respond with similar invectives, I will refrain out of my respect for writer J. K. Rowling, director David Yates, and their company of talented cast and crew members. I know they have done great work in the past, and I maintain the hope that they may yet do better — at least better than this. (Indeed, as a Christian called to love all his neighbors as God’s image-bearers unconditionally, I should refrain from heaping scorn on any artist, regardless of whether I esteem their previous work or not.)


In Search of True Justice: A Conversation on the Dark Knight Trilogy (Article for FilmFisher, Co-Written with Timothy Lawrence)

Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight – still the unchallenged zenith of bold and brainy blockbuster filmmaking in the 21st century – turned 10 years old this summer. FilmFisher’s own Joel Bourgeois just published a retrospective on the film, and doubtless there are dozens if not hundreds of similar appreciations and analyses popping up all over the internet – and rightly so. However, this is also an ideal time to revisit and discuss The Dark Knight’s less popular and less accomplished older and younger siblings, Batman Begins (2005) and The Dark Knight Rises (2012). Certainly, The Dark Knight is by far the best of the trilogy, but even so, it is all the more striking when framed between the bookends of its prequel and sequel. Taken together, in themes and in story beats, Begins and Rises form a rhyming pair to contrast with The Dark Knight’s singular line – the three form an A-B-A rhyme scheme, if you will. To change the metaphor, the first and third films are like major chords placed before and after the dissonant minor chord of the second film. The hopeful ending of the first film deepens the tragedy of the second, and the third film brings needed resolution and closure.


An Ode to Po: Celebrating Goodness in the Kung Fu Panda Trilogy (Article for FilmFisher)

How’s this for a youth group or team meeting icebreaker: If you could bring one action hero to life, in the belief that their existence in the real world would make it a better place, who would you choose?

Actually, let’s make the question more challenging: If you could bring one action hero to life, solely on the basis of their character, not their fighting skills, who would you choose?

My answer is that — if someone in the room has already picked the Sam Raimi and Tobey Maguire iteration of Spider-Man — I would choose Po the Panda from DreamWorks Animation’s Kung Fu Panda trilogy.


Ant-Man and the Wasp (Review for FilmFisher)

When the first Ant-Man was released three summers ago, it was a refreshing breeze that aired out an increasingly stuffy and stultifying superhero atmosphere. After the previous four MCU entries all ended with a large population barely escaping decimation from some magic stone or tech-turned-terror — and especially after the heady philosophy, jumbled plotting, and visual mayhem of Age of Ultron — it was a relief and a delight to watch a game cast and a novel superpower excel in the service of a simple yet emotionally resonant story. After original director Edgar Wright was replaced by Peyton Reed, apocalyptic predictions ensued, and Ant-Man dropped from being the most anticipated Marvel film to the least. Those lowered expectations, and its own modest aims, actually worked in the film’s favor. While in hindsight I would argue that Age of Ultron was the better Marvel film that summer, there is something praise-worthy about any film that recognizes what it is, accepts what it is not, and then proceeds with quiet confidence to be itself.  


Inside A Scene: The Bourne Supremacy (Article for FilmFisher)

I’m going to cheat a little and write about two scenes. When Timothy asked if I could write an article for FilmFisher’s “Inside a Scene” series, I automatically thought of the Moscow apartment scene at the end of Paul Greengrass’ 2004 espionage-thriller sequel, The Bourne Supremacy. I’ve always been intrigued and moved by this scene, and it continues to be one of the reasons why I’d argue that Supremacy is much more than a serviceable genre exercise. The Bourne trilogy is typically remembered as the brainy, grounded alternative to James Bond, as an action-hero vehicle for Matt Damon, as the proving ground for Paul Greengrass’ later critical hits (United 93Captain Phillips), or as the series that either reinvigorated Hollywood action films or ruined them forever, depending on who you ask. However, I don’t think there’s been as much discussion about how the trilogy — especially Supremacy, the middle film — is rooted in ex-assassin Jason Bourne’s very human struggle to change his ways and make restitution for past sins. This is what elevates The Bourne Supremacy and makes the quiet and understated apartment scene — not a car chase or fistfight — the high point of the franchise.

However, as I began to revisit the film in my mind, I realized that the scene between Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) and Irena Neski (Oksana Akinshina), though powerful in itself, is even more significant when viewed as the mirror image — in purpose, staging, visuals, and themes — of an earlier scene: the Berlin hotel room scene between Ward Abbott (Brian Cox) and Pamela Landy (Joan Allen). The two scenes are halves of a single, cohesive unit.



Peace In Our Time: A Conversation on Marvel and Star Wars (Article for FilmFisher, Co-Written with Timothy Lawrence)

The premise of this conversation is that there are a number of intriguing similarities between the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU for short) and what I’ll call the Star Wars Revival. Hollywood is obsessed with creating cinematic universes right now, and the obsession began with the success of Marvel’s multi-film set-up of the 2012 blockbuster hit, The Avengers. However, so far the only other attempted cinematic universe that has been able to imitate Marvel’s financial and critical success has been the return of Star Wars to the big screen, beginning with 2015’s The Force Awakens.