`Toy Story' and Christmas ... all the vital ingredients for a full- on crisis of conscience

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I spent last week looking for Woody, and I wasn't alone. In department stores, toy warehouses and catalogue shops throughout the land a desperate posse is on the trail of the lanky star of Toy Story. Frankly I didn't think it was going to be so hard to bring him in. I thought I could wander into Toys R Us, casually pick one from a mountain of draw-string Woodies, haggle briefly with my conscience over succumbing to the gorgon of international capitalism (the jury generally crumbles after it is shown pictures of a weeping child) and swap my plastic for theirs. But the cupboard was bare ... no Woody, no Buzz Lightyear - just a few disconsolate Mr Potato Heads, a mere wallflower, it seems, in the childish desiderium. My wife, tensing slightly, rang John Lewis on her mobile. There was wry laughter at the other end. At Selfridge's, Debenhams, Harrods and Hamleys she was barely able to complete her first sentence. The Woody hole was bone dry.

Distant relatives were co-opted to scour their local branches, with similarly dismal results. Then cruelly, there was a glimmer of light. Though the Disney Store in Regent Street had actually posted a man at the doors to announce its Woodylessness to incoming customers, an employee on the phone let slip the fact that Brent Cross's consignment had been late arriving. No fewer than 350 Woodies ("complete with Tom Hanks's voice") were, at this very moment, on their way. The inhabitants of besieged Berlin hearing the faint drone of approaching DC3s could not have been more excited. Fumbling fingers tapped out the number ... but we were two hours too late. Every drawling, plastic-stetsoned reinforcement already had someone else's name on it.

At this point we began to think up alibis for Father Christmas, whose much boasted omnipotence ("He can see what you're doing, you know!") was going to look a little thin on Christmas morning. But what on earth do you say? He didn't get to the shops in time? The elves went on strike for shorter working hours? Disney copyright lawyers raided his workshop? Even worse, how to explain all those other post-Christmas Woodies, perky smiles on their smug injection-moulded faces? And, naturally, that part of my conscience that had argued against enlistment in this childish cargo cult was insufferably cocky. See, it said, see what happens if you stray from the path of righteousness and buy toys outside the Early Learning Centre? You've got just what you deserve - the calculated misery of an embryo consumer.

Should you want to take a hard line there is no shortage of intellectual reinforcement. As my child weeps on Christmas morning, for example, I could turn to DW Winnicott, sanctified guru of paediatric psychoanalysis, for reassurance. In The Child, The Family, and the Outside World he writes: "It seems to be better to provide too little rather than too much of these commodities, since children are able to find objects and invent games very easily, and they enjoy doing so." Simple - gift-wrap a cardboard box, 50 pipe cleaners and a roll of Sellotape, and do the boy a favour. Should I hanker after a more literary version there is a Roland Barthes essay on toys, a piece in which he argues against the miniaturisation of the adult world which then dominated French toy design. "Faced with this world of faithful and complicated objects, the child can only identify himself as owner, as user, never as creator; he does not invent the world, he uses it: there are, prepared for him, actions without adventure, without wonder, without joy."

Barthes is in an unusually dull and pious mood here (he goes on to hymn the advantages of wood in a way that looks irredeemably bourgeois 40 years on) but that description still hits some targets. Buzz and Woody, for example, are desired largely for possession's sake (the Argos catalogue toy section is the newspaper of choice at my son's infant school, its contents discussed over lunch with as much earnest ambition as commodity brokers exchanging titbits from the morning's Financial Times). What's more, they also come complete with dialogue - not just the tinny lines prompted by draw-string and button but the memorised exchanges of the film. They are used for re-enactment, rather than the acting out of some complex internal drama. My son, a completist before his time, has already raised the issue of Mr Potato Head, an actor without whom some crucial early scenes of the movie cannot be replicated. In this, Toy Story has closed the loop - not only has it effectively erased the distinction between character and spin-off (the real toys confirm the exactitude of the computer graphics, their ability to perfectly render the lustre of manufactured objects) but it also instructs its viewers in how to play properly. Watching my son engage with such objects it seems a remoter possibility that his actions might be a kind of private language, "a gateway", as Winnicott writes in a lovely image, "to the native honesty which so curiously starts in full bloom in the infant, and then unripens to a bud".

So, you might wonder, was I consoled? Did I treat this disaster as a happy deliverance which would free my son from his enslavement to Hollywood product? Did I hell. The most distant relative of all finally tracked down a Woody in a Kuala Lumpur toy shop (they've got hundreds, apparently, should anyone wish to arrange an airlift) and dispatched him through the post. He arrived the other day - which means Santa's reputation is safe for another year. Only one thread of anxiety remains, trailing from that dorsal string. If, when it is tugged for the first time, Woody drawls "There's a snake in ma boot" in fluent Malaysian, what exactly do we say?n