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In the Toy Story films it seems like nearly all toys know that they are toys meant for children to play with. However Buzz Lightyear (and other Buzz Lightyear toys like him) thinks he's a real space ranger and nothing short of his own arm breaking off convinces him otherwise.

At one point Buzz even reverts back to believing he's a space ranger, not a toy.

[Lotso] resets him to his original space ranger persona, which also resets his memory.

- Toy Story 3

How is this possible? Why is not knowing he's a toy Buzz's default setting while every other toy's default is to know they are toys? Why doesn't Buzz know he's a toy?

  • 20
    Aside from the Buzz Lightyears and the Zorg, do we actually meet any fresh out of the box new toys? All of the Buzz Lightyears and Zorg believe they are real, so it's not just him in specific. The only other boxed toy is the Prospector, and he's been around long enough to know the truth. – phantom42 Nov 29 '15 at 21:14
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    I personally believe Only the Claw Knows. – Pᴀᴜʟsᴛᴇʀ2 Nov 29 '15 at 21:40
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    @RogueJedi there are other toy story questions that nobody closed and there are tags for toy story 1 and 2. – RedCaio Nov 29 '15 at 23:11
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    @ArturoTorresSánchez It means that the community consensus is (or at least was) that they're on-topic for the site though. – Anthony Grist Nov 29 '15 at 23:49
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    @ArturoTorresSánchez Although set in an otherwise contemporary world, the existence of toys that are "alive" is definitely a supernatural and/or magical element and so qualifies as fantasy in my view. – user22478 Nov 30 '15 at 18:52
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As phantom42 points out in comments, the other Buzz Lightyear and Emperor Zurg dolls believe they're real, but we do meet some other toys that might qualify as "fresh out of the box": the aliens in the claw machine.

BUZZ: Who's in charge here?

ALIENS: The claw!

They certainly don't seem to know they're toys. Their worldview is based entirely around the mechanics of the claw machine; it's all they know.

Similarly, it looks like, prior to being bought, all Buzz knew was the Buzz Lightyear line of toys:

The aisle full of Buzz Lightyear toys at Al's Toy Barn

The aisle seems to be filled on both sides with Buzzes. I'm surprised they even know who Zurg is! He must be described on the back of the Buzz Lightyear box.

From these examples, it looks like toys aren't aware of the human world, or of their existence as toys, by default. We can infer that, after they first "come to life" (in the place where they're to be sold, or on the Target delivery truck) their understanding of the universe is a tabula rasa that they fill in with whatever clues are available: product packaging, giant godlike claws, etc. Once they get purchased and unboxed, and get to interact with the world a little more, they develop a more nuanced worldview and culture like the one we see in Andy's room.

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    An alternate explanation: All toys have their various personalities and worldviews (and the ability to speak English) installed at the factory, by their manufacturers, and Hasbro, Mattel, & co. are the only humans aware of the secret lives of toys by virtue of having bestowed those secret lives upon those toys in the first place. My support for this theory is: I do not have any support for this theory. – Ryan Veeder Nov 29 '15 at 22:42
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    One thing that bothers me about this answer is that, if toys start out with broken/incomplete/fabricated memories, then Woody wouldn't have been so surprised (and amused, and frustrated) that Buzz thinks he's a space ranger when they first meet. "You actually think you're the Buzz Lightyear? Oh, all this time I thought it was an act! Hey, guys, look! It's the real Buzz Lightyear!" – AverageUnknown Nov 30 '15 at 15:11
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    Zurg is indeed described on the back of the box. When the toys introduce themselves to Buzz in the first Toy Story, he says that he is a space ranger out "...to defeat Zurg, sworn enemy of the Galactic Alliance!" and Woody realizes that he's reciting the text from the back of his box. – Thunderforge Nov 30 '15 at 18:34
  • @AverageUnknown That's probably because Woody was jealous of Buzz since the moment they first met (Buzz nearly replaced Woody as Andy's favourite toy). – Sumit Dec 1 '15 at 16:25
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    @Sumit Jealousy wouldn't just make him forget that this is how toys work. It might have convinced him to be flippant with a confused and disoriented Buzz, but none of the other toys had any apparent reasons to avoid the subject, and none of them bothered to say anything. – AverageUnknown Dec 1 '15 at 17:59
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I think the idea is that no new toys realise they are toys initially, particularly ones that come with a backstory like Buzz and Zurg. They come to the realisation they are toys after children start playing with them. If you watch the Toy Story special "The Toy Story that Time Forgot" the new Battlesaurs toys also exhibit this behaviour - they believe their own backstory until one of them is convinced otherwise.

  • Do the Battlesaurs have any outside reason (e.g. viewing their own commercials) to believe their own backstory, or do they spring to life with the Battlesaur lore fully-formed in their heads? If it's the latter case, my answer may be unsatisfactory. – Ryan Veeder Nov 30 '15 at 4:27
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    I think new toys spring to life with the lore in their head. This is backed up by Buzz's behaviour when he first gets out of the box. – GreenAsJade Nov 30 '15 at 5:35
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    It's noted in the special that the Battlesaurs have not yet been played with, hence they still believe their backstory. – user22478 Nov 30 '15 at 18:26
  • If the Buzz range of toys aren't an anomaly, the other toys would show more understanding and probably have a support system in place to help new toys. – FunkTheMonk Dec 1 '15 at 16:12
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Because I love advancing alternative theories...

Buzz thinks he is Buzz Lightyear because he was programmed to think he was Buzz Lightyear.

(Disclaimer: I am software programmer.)

Consider:

  • Woody has no programming. He has no electronics at all except a random drawstring that plays back a sound.
  • Woody does not think he is a toy.
  • The aliens do not think they are toys. They have only established a belief structure around a pusedo-random event occurring in their lives.
  • Zurg has programming (like Buzz) and is programmed to use that programming the express that he IS the Emperor Zurg.

Separating out belief systems (the Claw) from personalities, we can infer that Woody was programmed with nothing, and thus has no personality. His personality was formed through his play with Andy. Had Andy constantly portrayed Woody as the evil Sheriff, it is likely what this is who he would have evolved into. But 'out of the Box' Woody had no understanding of who he was at all.

Consider, to support this, the case of Hamm and Mr. Potato Head. One has evolved into a Know-It-All, the other into a cynical Worry-Wart. Both are primarily featured as villians during Andy's playtime. Or the army men - who behave very closely to how real soldiers would behave (despite being armed with only plastic weapons). This is learned behavior, from their playtime with Andy.

You could further infer that the more realistic the toy, the more likely it is the toy will believe he is 'real'. Buzz HAS a Laser. Buzz HAS a Space Helmet. Buzz HAS wings. Buzz believes he is real. Woody was dropped onto the scene without a horse, without a rope, without a gun.

This advances the stark differences between 'space toys' and 'cowboy toys' presented in the film and in it's sequel. Space toys are NEW. Space toys are FLASHY. Space toys have LASERS. And because they are so new and so different, they behave in inherently different ways when they are un-boxed.

A contrasting example, and why it doesn't hold up: Stewardess Barbie from Toy Story 2 is obviously not programmed, and yet still behaves as a tour guide. This is a special case, and it's important to know why. She was already out of her box in the film (unless I am terribly mistaken, much of my expertise comes from repeated watchings of Toy Story with my now seven year old). But she doesn't take them on a tour of say, Hollywood, she takes them on a tour of the story. She was familiar with the store - despite the Barbies all being located on only a single aisle - in a way that only someone interested in behaving as a tour guide of the store would be. This must have be learned behaviour. Fresh out of the box, she would have no idea what aisles were where in the store.

Source: I have two kids. How many times do you think I have watched these movies?

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    Interesting theory - however, we don't know Woody's backstory. Toy Story 2 establishes that he was the 'Buzz Lightyear' of his day - huge merchandising catalog, TV show, etc.... so Woody is not a one-off, homemade toy, he was mass-produced as well. So, it stands to reason that in the 1950's - Woody would have initially exhibited the same behaviors as Buzz. To me - it seems like all toys are 'born' thinking they are 'real' and it is only through play (or personal trauma i.e. Prospector) that they discover their true identity. Ultimately, only older wiser toys have awareness – NKCampbell Nov 30 '15 at 19:48
  • I personally think that Toy Story all happens in Andy's mind. He has such a vivid imagination that he creates a story of what his toys do when he can't see them. When Andy sees them, they are frozen and he must incorporate this fact into his story. At some point during the move, Andy loses Buzz and Woody, and imagines them scaring his neighbor, Sid. – Thirsty Kitty Dec 7 '15 at 9:17
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Maybe it's because the toy is mimicking whatever the person who plays with it thinks about them.

Andy is really into Buzz and really keeps up the fantasy that he is buzz lightyear, whereas after one has played with a toy for awhile, one starts to change up the storyline and break the fourth wall.

The personality of the toy is actually in the imagination of the person playing with them.

This hypothesis neatly covers the older toys as well as the prospector guy from the 2nd movie, as his owner is a collector.

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    This falls apart when you consider all of the buzz lightyears and zurgs who believe they are real and have never been played with at all. – phantom42 Nov 30 '15 at 6:40
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    Mr & Mrs potato head were bad guys during Andy's play, but they are still good character throughout the movie @tenCupMaximum – Sourabh Dec 1 '15 at 10:58
  • @Rahul Mrs. Potato Head was actually the baby's toy, and as such, probably would have picked up more of the mothers behavioral traits towards the baby (which certainly fits what we see in the movie) as for Mr. Potato Head...isn't he the one leading the crowd confronting Andy when Buzz falls out the window? I am not sure I would characterize him as a 'good' guy. – Mark Dec 1 '15 at 17:50
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At some level, Buzz must know he's a toy. He freezes when Andy walks into the room. Also, if he truly believed he were a space marine, he would probably try to escape Andy's room, and find a way to communicate with star command.

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    He had fix his ship before he could get back. He was trying to communicate with star command using the 'communicator' on his arm. – DickieBoy Dec 1 '15 at 14:59
  • The first dimension is toy identity awareness, and the other dimension is cloaking sentience (never let humans become aware that you are more than lifeless) which seems to be independent of the first dimension. – maxpolk Dec 1 '15 at 16:26
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I'm sorry if I'm reopening something that's been forgotten but I've been doing some research on a project of mine and this topic is a direct result of my research.

From reading all of the responses, I'm partial to the programming idea from the basis that this Buzz and all his creations are at least, in partial, computer based. However, I have read an article that gives an interesting perspective on the story as a whole, not about the child and his development, but how the toys are, in a way, a parent to a child even though they are solely dependent on his playtime.

Did Disney Ruin Pixar

While the article isn't about the paradox of the toys being like parent to Andy; the mention does detail a good flip notion of how the toys are so important and why they act the way they do.

This leads into my point that maybe this isn't about programming but more about psychological development of the mind, like the mind of a child. Given that these toys don't have brains, but their thinking processes are similar enough to human development that it would lead one to think that perhaps coming out of the box is similar to a child going to his first day of school.

Taking Buzz as an only child, his whole existence up until now is of being Buzz Lightyear, "THE Buzz". The reinforcement of who he is from the TV show, the advertising on the box and Andy's belief when playing with him are conditioning behaviors that help Buzz maintain his identity. It changes when he enters a room full of other toys, that give him the opportunity to expand his mind, though like a stubborn child he will naively hold onto his belief as long as possible until he has a tantrum.

While the plot maintains that this is something of a menace to the group (especially Woody who has to at least keep the toy Buzz within Andy's reach, as is shown in his attempts to get him back in the car at the Pizza place despite his angst feelings about the new favorite) there is nothing (to my memory) that gives the audience evidence that this is a phenomenon or a unique experience. It could happen with every toy they encounter out of the box.

Another case would be of Mrs. Potatohead; she was a new toy that came out of the box during Christmas time at the end of the first movie so we don't know about her situation and acclimatization to the group between movies 1 & 2. In fact, it could be that she never came out of her phase as she was doing/acting as a loving caring wife in the second movie, helping her husband pack his bags before going on a trip. So with the reinforcement of having a husband, Mr. Potatohead, she is able to continue her role without much converting.

Theoretically, the more reinforcement there is the harder it is to break the spell into understanding that they are toys to be played with; hence the toys in the store maintain their composure or predefined roles. The barbie tour guide is only a tour guide (she could be a guide of a museum of which it seems she is displaying, or any other location that employed guides). Therefore the toys that have yet to be bought will maintain their identity for as long as they are at the store.

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