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Shelf Life Review

on Wed, 09/26/2012 - 00:00

The Pixar animated film Toy Story imagines a world in which the toys of our youth come to life whenever humans are not in the room to witness the transformation. Devoid of movements or vocal ability while kid Andy plays with them, Woody the pull-string cowboy and futuristic spaceman Buzz Lightyear literally pick themselves up from the floor and interact with each other as friends, colleagues and even competitors for Andy’s affections when left alone. The comedy web series Shelf Life shares a similar premise as Hero Man, Hero Lass, Bug Boy and Samurai Snake remain motionless as action figures until their owner leaves the room, at which point they come to life in the same fashion as Woody and Buzz in Toy Story.

While Toy Story relied on animation to tell its narrative, Shelf Life uses actual actors to fill the roles of its main characters. Toy Story was also geared towards children and billed as family entertainment, but Shelf Life is more of an R-rated version of the classic Pixar film. The action figures of Shelf Life discuss such taboo topics as sex, religion and politics, have no qualms about dropping the f-word and even sniff Magic Markers as a way to make it through the doldrums of their plastic lives. Woody and Buzz Lightyear may have developed into best buddies in Toy Story with a genuine affection for kid Andy, but Hero Man, Hero Lass, Bug Boy and Samurai Snake are not above pulling pranks on one another and do not share the same love for their owner as the toys from Toy Story.

“Dear lord, what is the matter with that child?” Hero Lass (Tara Platt) asks in the pilot episode of Shelf Life. “What isn’t?” Bug Boy (Yuri Lowenthal) replies. “Ten year old sociopath. You little fascist!” In another installment, Bug Boy and Hero Man (Travis Willingham) take turns punching each other in the groin when the Kid (Laura Bailey) is looking away from the shelf on which they otherwise remain motionless. Later in the web series, Bug Boy steals a bottle of alcohol from Barbie’s boyfriend Ken, while Samurai Snake (Bryan Enk) pilfers the plastic female icon’s panties and makes obscene gestures regarding her body parts in an undecipherable language (voiced by Dean Bradley Baker). Shelf Life bills itself as “This Ain’t No Toy Story,” and it is a fitting epitaph indeed.

“We’ve found it impossible not to hold up our show in some ways against the Toy Story mirror,” co-creator Yuri Lowenthal told Forces of Geek in November 2011. “I think, like the characters in Toy Story, they understand their lot in life, but like those characters, and like all of us for that matter, they’re working on different levels of acceptance and possibly delusion. Hero Man sees himself as the Kid’s favorite and better than anyone else and that helps him get through. Bug Boy feels he’s smarter than the Kid and it kills him to be subjected to the Kid’s sadism, but like all of them, he knows that this is his job. Hero Lass manages her frustration with being the target of the Kid’s exploration of his sexual identity and having to put up with three guys on a shelf by becoming a mom to them, but also enjoying being the only chick. And Samurai Snake, he’s the mystery. We don’t know if he’s even bitter about this life.”

In many ways, Lowenthal’s comments reflect the true brilliance of Shelf Life as the web series is more than mere spoof but includes an element of social commentary as well. The episodes are short, ranging from ninety seconds to slightly under four minutes, and contain mini-standalone narratives that feature anti-Toy Story plotlines. In the original Pixar film, for instance, Woody is initially worried that Buzz Lightyear will replace him as Andy’s favorite toy. In the double-episode second season finale of Shelf Life, meanwhile, it is Hero Lass who is replaced by a cheap Chinese knockoff. While Woody and Buzz eventually developed a genuine friendship, the real Hero Lass has no such intentions and pushes the new Hero Lass off the shelf instead. “What?” she rhetorically asks the others. “Like you want some illegal immigrant to come and take your jobs?”

Just like Buzz Lightyear believed he was the actual Buzz Lightyear during the early stages of Toy Story, Hero Man also believes that he is the real Hero Man on Shelf Life. “Do you really think all those guys at Toys R Us who look just like you had exactly the same name?” Bug Boy asks him during “Origin Stories.” The episode then delves deeper from a social and cultural standpoint by bringing a real-world spin to the narrative in much the same way that illegal immigrants were woven into “The New Girl.” During the resulting conversation, the economic background of the characters is explored, including the fact that Samurai Snake was manufactured in a sweatshop in Cambodia while Bug Boy “came from the mark-down bins at Big Lots.”

Other installments of Shelf Life are even more direct in regards to contemporary satire. Racism is given the comedic treatment, for instance, when the quartet of action figures discovers that formerly lost Black Velvet (Phil Morris) is the mysterious “Boogie Man” who lives under the bed. “Please don’t kill me—here, take my wallet,” Hero Man pleads in desperation upon first seeing the African-American superhero. Bug Boy adds to the racial mayhem when he inadvertently remarks that he thought Black Velvet had melted on a radiator. “No, no, that wasn’t me,” Black Velvet explains. “That was Black Panther.” Hero Lass, meanwhile, has to endure sexual harassment at both the hands of her male colleagues as well as the Kid who owns the action figures. “He’s had me sleep in the bed with him a few times,” she tells the others. “Me and the yellow Power Ranger, and that’s all you need to know.”

The original Toy Story was a film for all ages that gave credence to our childhood beliefs that toys were real and had lives of their own. Shelf Life taps into that same mystique but contains the added twist of being an adult version of the fantasy. Just like Woody the pull-string cowboy and futuristic spaceman Buzz Lightyear enabled Andy from Toy Story to rely on his adolescent imagination for entertainment, Shelf Life brings unspoken taboos to life for the rest of us. Playing with action figures can teach a kid many things about adulthood, and Shelf Life proves that toys still offer plenty of entertainment value even after we have seemingly outgrown them.

Anthony Letizia (September 26, 2012)

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