Vengeance in Disneyland?!

Toy Story 3 and the Misplaced Psychology of Revenge

Posted Jul 16, 2010

When I was in film school, I remember a teacher told me that the reason Indiana Jones was never up for best picture was because we didn’t love the Nazis – the bad guys were too inhumanly bad.  It certainly would have been a different movie if the bad guys learned the errors of their ways, and made amends with the good guys. But I don’t know if that particular movie really would have been improved if we had seen the bad guys acting like regular people, or we had learned some tragic back-story for how the muscle-bound Nazi mechanic had wound up on the wrong side of the fight. In that case, I’m not sure I could have enjoyed seeing him get chopped up by a propeller. 

In Toy Story 2, though, the antagonist has a very sympathetic backstory. He is a Prospector Pete toy, who spent a lifetime on a dimestore shelf watching all the other toys get sold.  He never really becomes friends with the heroes Woody and Buzz Lightyear, but in the end, he’s not thrown in a pit of lava, he’s simply given to a girl who is going to give him a crayon makeover.  In a sense, he will be ruined, but at the same time it’s clear that he is actually getting what he has always wanted – a kid to play with him.

Because I’m so fond of Toy Story 2, I was incredibly excited for Toy Story 3.  For the most part, Toy Story 3 was another excellent movie. But it had one major problem – in the end, the bad guy, Lots-O’ Huggin’ Bear, seemed to get an unfair sentence.  And this aroused even more dissonance because Lots-O’ had a very sympathetic backstory.  He had been lost by the girl he loved, and after struggling to return, discovered that he had been replaced by another teddy bear.  It’s a major flaw for such a strong movie.  And it’s a particular flaw for a movie from Disney-Pixar, from whom we expect a pure uplifting happy ending, and a clear moral message for Junior.

The Psychology of Revenge and Forgiveness

Research by University of Montana’s Steve Yoshimura suggests that people don’t always feel good after getting revenge on people who done them wrong.  A recent study by Mario Gollwitzer and Markus Denzler compared two theories of what makes revenge bitter or sweet: According to the “comparative suffering”  hypothesis, we will feel better if the person who hurts us has something bad befall him, even if we had no hand in it.  According to the “understanding” hypothesis, we will feel better if our offender signals that he understands why he was being smitten.  Using a measure of implicit goal satisfaction, they found that people felt better only their offender understood the reason for his punishment.  This research suggests that, if a movie-maker wants to make revenge feel good for the audience, the perpetrator should express understanding.  That didn’t happen in Toy Story 3.

There’s of course, another alternative to the revenge route.  It’s going the way of positive psychology– and forgiving your offender.  University of Miami psychologist Mike McCullough reviews evidence that people who forgive are more agreeable and emotionally stable than the unforgiving.  McCullough also reports that we’re more likely to forgive another if we feel empathy, if we make generous attributions about our offender, and if we don’t ruminate on how he or she done us wrong.  Now what do we expect of the ultrastable and ever agreeable heroes Woody and Buzz Lightyear?  Certainly not vengefulness.  And in fact, Woody saves Lots-O’ just as the evil teddy bear about to get consumed by an incinerator.  That would be the perfect ending to a children’s movie, but for some reason, the Disney Pixar folks decided to go black.  Instead of reciprocating, Lots-O’ betrays our heroes and nearly sends them all into the hellish fires.  And then instead of coming back into the fold, or finding a loving owner to heal his scars, Lots-O’ is condemned to an eternal life of misery – chained onto the bug guard of a truck in the dump. 

What we want in a kid’s movie is positive psychology, and that’s what we got in the first two Toy Story flicks.  If you haven't seen them, they're brilliant, about the relationship between a boy and his toys, which come to life and love him back.  Toy Story 3 was still a good, and engaging, movie, with a very touching twist that will bring tears to your eyes.  But it would have been even better without the Count of Monte Cristo angle. 

Coauthored by Douglas Kenrick, author of Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life


Gollwitzer, M., & Denzler, M. (2009). What makes revenge sweet: Seeing the offender suffer or delivering a message? Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45, 840–844.

McCullough, M. E. (2001).  Forgiveness: Who does it and how do they do it?  Current Directions in Psychological Science, 10, 194-197.

Yoshimura, S. (2007). Goals and emotional outcomes of revenge activities in interpersonal relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 24, 87–98. 


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