Toy Story 4 is a fugue that begins with a single voice expressing a theme of desire and longing, in this case, Woody’s desire to help his hazel-green-eyed kid Bonnie, along with his longing to be loved.
Other distinct voices restate as they enter one after the other. Each voice defines itself while simultaneously enhancing those around it. Whether quiet or roaring, deliberate or reckless. The voices of lost toys unite in a common cry of isolation. The damned, voiceless, and rejected toys fight their loneliness with violence and depravity. While others with personal satisfaction and fulfillment. As with Woody? His voice is quiet—an intensely personal search for purpose.
A purpose; desire to love and be loved
Beyond the primary imagery of toys coming to life, the first three films wrestled with deeper, more existential questions. What is a toy’s purpose? Woody, Buzz, and his family were toys, above all, designed and imagined from the beginning to be played with and loved by children. This is the reason why they freeze or go limp when humans are present; freezing in the presence of humans is a reflex.
Their toy nature overrides all other impulses, even that of self-preservation. Innately, toys desire to be played with. Moving around without a human around is unnatural, even though it’s very possible with conscious effort.
It takes an extra degree of effort to move around when a human is present, since that urge to freeze and be played with is so powerful. However, toys can override this impulse. Especially, in the case of Sid from Toy Story, if their survival and more importantly, future playtime is at stake.
That desire/need to be played with is within every toy, but in some cases needs to be discovered. A fresh out-of-the-box toy would just think they are what they are made to be (Buzz being an active Space Ranger in Toy Story, or Forky being made of trash and wanting to throw himself away in Toy Story 4), until they experience the feeling of being played and loved by a child.
This is very explicitly shown in Toy Story That Time Forgot. The dino tribe thinks they are a warrior dinosaur tribe with their own culture, but one warrior, Reptillus Maximus felt something inside him when Trixie explained to him what he is and how he can be there for his kid.
Trixie: Maximus, your world is bigger than you know. Let me show you what you are.
Reptillus Maximus: But I’m a Battlesaur!
Trixie: But you can be so much more.
Trixie: You can be a dinosaur, a baby reindeer, anything your child needs you to be. It’s about being there for your child. It’s about…
Reptillus Maximus: …surrender.
After playtime, he states, “That was glorious.” It’s what all toys yearn for: someone to who they can unburden their hearts of its deepest fears. This is why within Toy Story, Sid’s toys don’t just say “Son of a building block!” as they leave to find another kid. To some extent, despite the maltreatment he gives them, they still choose to stay, not because it’s the rule of the universe for toys to stay and make children happy, but because they are his.
Even near the end of the film when they break the “rules”, talking to Sid was their way to correct Sid’s mistreatment of them. There’s no attempt or plans to escape from the house that we saw. They only break the rules so that all the toys can continue to live under Sid’s care.
In Toy Story, Woody convinces Buzz that he’s better off as Andy’s toy than as a Space Ranger. He makes his connotation clear: bringing a child joy is the peak of a toy’s existence.
“Being a toy is a lot better than being a Space Ranger. Look, over in that house is a kid who thinks you are the greatest, and it’s not because you’re a Space Ranger, pal, it’s because you’re a toy! You are his toy!”
The difficulty of change
Buzz Lightyear: Are you still worried?
Woody: About Andy? Nah. It’ll be fun while it lasts.
Buzz Lightyear: I’m proud of you, cowboy.
Woody: Besides, when it’s all over, I have Buzz Lightyear to keep me company, for infinity and beyond.
Next, Toy Story 2 asked those troublesome unthinkable questions. Firstly, what happens to toys when their owners grow up and forget about them, throw them away, or they never get sold in the first place?
We get our answer in the form of two tragic cases: Jessie is traumatized by Emily’s abandonment of her, and the Prospector turns resentful, full of violence and depravity, because he was never sold and never knew the love of a child in the first place. Jessie and the Prospector may have lived with this for decades (assuming they were made in the 1950s, when Woody’s Roundup was on TV), and they still desire to be loved.
“You never forget kids like Emily, or Andy, but they forget you.”
It’s a gloomy but reasoned augmentation of what we learned in the first film: they are toys with a desire to love and be loved. Being played with is the natural, perfect state for a toy. That is when they feel most alive.
“When Andy plays with you it’s like…even though you’re not moving, you feel like you’re alive…because that’s how he sees you.”
This develops into the pivotal question Woody must answer: does he want to become a museum toy where he’ll be loved and adored by children forever, behind glass? Or does he want to go back to Andy?
Will he be satisfied with a restricted, isolated love that lasts forever, or will he risk oblivion for the profound, unfeigned love that Andy gives him, if only for the present? Near the end of the film, we see Woody risk everything for a chance to be loved as Andy’s toy, if only for now.
“I can’t stop Andy from growing up, but I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
Silent suffering and desolate loneliness
Perhaps the most poignant of all, Toy Story 3 deals with the inevitability. Andy is now 17 years old, and his toys are resigned to a life in the attic. Woody, known for his leadership, tells his family that a toy’s job is to be there for the child when they need them, even a young adult. He reassures them, that one day Andy will have children of his own, and they will no longer be forgotten toys.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t work out that way. The other toys get accidentally thrown to the curb. Yet their reaction is not to give in and abandon their purpose, but to find a way to continue it. They donate themselves to the Sunnyside Daycare.
Woody himself gives everything he has to get back to Andy. This is proof of his undying loyalty and love. I refuse to believe he would ever give up on Bonnie, just after three weeks of not being played with, while he spent years in Andy’s attic collecting dust.
Even Lotso, the plush purple villain of Toy Story 3, has the urge to seek out children. After he’s replaced by Daisy (his previous owner), he takes over Sunnyside Daycare to ensure that he’ll always be played with. Every toy in the first three movies gravitated to the same end goal: to be loved by a child.
At the end of Toy Story 3, Andy gives his toys to the hazel-green-eyed Bonnie, a young preschool-aged kid who will love and play with them after Andy’s gone to college. We all grow up, and eventually, we know these toys will get thrown out, forgotten, or lost…but not today. For now, they’re staving off the inevitable. For now, they’re loved again, and they must live every precious day to the fullest.
The first three films in the Toy Story franchise are exemplary in every way imaginable. After Toy Story 3‘s out-and-out satisfying ending, the series arc felt perfectly complete: a varied family of toys belonging to a young suburban boy named Andy, having witnessed his transformation from kid to young adult, got passed on to a new owner, Bonnie.
That film’s closing scene, which provoked more sobs than any Pixar moment, was our goodbye to the beloved toys as much as it was Andy’s. The third film wisely and perfectly brought everyone and everything further to a mature, impactful, and fitting conclusion.
Throughout the first three films, we’ve been told and shown evidence, through various methods, that a toy’s prime importance is to bring children joy. If they are deprived of such desire, they will seek it out, for decades, until they find it. Their love is unconditional; even when they’re abandoned or broken, they still remember their owners.
Given the chance to experience a bond with a child more outwardly, either in a children’s museum or at a daycare where playtime is short, a toy would be justified to refuse as it is a poor alternative for genuine love. Even if the toy ends up forgotten or thrown away, it’s better to have loved and lost than never to have been loved at all.
“You’ve got a friend in me. You got troubles and I got ’em, too. There isn’t anything I wouldn’t do for you. We stick together, we can see it through ’cause you’ve got a friend in me”
Toy Story 4 discarded all of this.
When toys become human counterparts of plastic
I think the main problem with this movie is perception. I think when the writers were thinking about this movie, they took a more literal perception to the idea that “toys are alive”. I always thought that the toys coming to life was more of a metaphor, and that that was a vehicle for exploring our own childhood.
The writers of this movie seemed to have thought, “If toys were really alive, would they have autonomy from their human counterparts?” They thought of it from a more philosophical, science fiction standpoint. It essentially says that a toy caring about and for their child is a burden, one that they truly want to give up.
This is a very modern idea that people should not sacrifice anything for the people they love, and should only live for themselves and their own happiness. This is a betrayal of tradition and family for more individualistic values. This may have a place for exploration within modern media, yes, but just not with this franchise, and certainly not with the character of Woody.
Apparently toys can repress the desire to want a kid. When Bo Peep is given away at the beginning of Toy Story 4, she sits on an antique shelf for years, until she gets tired of waiting for a child to bring her home. She ends up leaving on her own, building a skunk butt vehicle for herself as she teams up with other abandoned “lost toys”.
Bo Peep finds personal satisfaction and fulfillment in her new, rootless life, helping lost toys. At the end of the film, Woody follows in her tiny porcelain footsteps; he stays with Bo Peep rather than going back to Bonnie.
“You should never tangle with the unstoppable duo of Woody and Buzz Lightyear!”
Dismissing that Woody has a closer companionship with Buzz than he ever did with Bo, the ending still invalidates everything we’ve learned so far, within the previous films. Toy Story 4 undercuts the poignancy of the earlier films.
“Somewhere in that pad of stuffing, is a toy who taught me…that life’s only worth living if you’re being loved by a kid.”
— Buzz Lightyear
Being lost versus being free
Following Toy Story 4, the onerous choices of the prior films, between genuine, short-term love and slight but everlasting existence, were binary fallacies. Who knew, all this time instead of suffering the toys, could have left the children all together? Bo and her lost toys still want to be played with, but the ambiance of the bond between toy and child as established by the pervious films has abruptly changed.
In a manner, I understand it was simple to take this “live for yourself after you’ve done your job” and “it’s okay to be a little selfish for yourself” message in the Toy Story series, because Toy Story has always had the themes of parenting and servitude, but it feels so contradictory at times to past messages in the franchise, and Woody changing his life philosophy happened carelessly.
I feel like they could’ve done this same message much more seamlessly in a new, original Pixar film/Pixar universe, rather than the Toy Story franchise/universe. Toy story 4 is just a…well, the word I’m searching for, I can’t say because there’s preschool toys present.
The previous films established the hard choices among toys that played on their deepest, primal fears of being alone, being in danger, and children growing up. Woody no longer has to choose or risk anything; he can find emotional fulfillment away from humans. He never has to risk oblivion. The narrative tension is gone.
It’s not that this is narratively impossible. After all, we were never explicitly told that toys couldn’t escape their initial, functional purpose. But the prior films’ implications strongly indicated what their purpose is. It came at the cost of the franchise’s poignancy and central message.
Imagine the fullness of time, ‘Toy Story 5’
Imagine if Andy happened to be at the carnival and Molly’s there too, next to her nephews. Exhausted from running after kids, they decide to take a look inside the secondhand antique shop…
Several years after surviving lengthy summers and snow-filled winters, in an abundance of carnivals, Woody and Bo are locating yet another lost toy to a child. A pastel nicotine-colored light illuminated the final ride on the carousel. Circular row after circular row of a once unhappy child, now alight with life as she finds a small, and tattered Barbie doll lying next to her feet.
Woody and Bo spend most of their time in a case at the secondhand antique shop. A man, Andy, and a woman, Molly, enter the shop, wandering the aisles, not looking for anything specific. They have three toddlers with them, a boy and a two girls.
When Molly’s eyes catches the china doll, there’s no doubt in her mind that she is the sheep woman that watched her sleep many years ago — cracked by time and use, her arm dangling loose, and the clothes she wears are different, but there’s no mistake.
Molly approaches and picks her up as the memories flood her mind. That’s when she see it, on the same shelf. She calls for her brother. “Andy! Come look at this. You think this is your cowboy doll?”
“Woody?” he says in a soft whisper as he holds the rag doll the way he used to do so many years ago. “Bonnie must have grown up….” He turns Woody around, searching for his back and a gasp escaped from his mouth. “He doesn’t have his cord.” Sadness shades Andy’s features.
“What is that, Dad?” asks the toddler, looking up at his father. For a long time, Andy stayed silent, staring at the cowboy — its sheriff badge is lost too. But the toddler’s presence somehow turns his sadness into hope, bringing up all bliss from a childhood-long past.
“This is Woody,” he answers as he kneels next to the boy. “He used to be my best friend, the most loyal one…and the best cowboy around. We had so many adventures together.” The toddler raised his hands to receive the doll.
“He’s a little busted, but I can fix him, just as I always have. Woody can be your best friend now, son…” The boy nods with a big smile and runs away to show his new toy to his sister and cousin.
Andy turns to Molly, she’s caressing the old porcelain doll as she used to do all those dark, lonely nights. “She has lots of cracks. Some glue will do just fine. But I don’t think I’ll keep her….She should stay with her cowboy, I always thought they do a nice pair,” she says, looking at Andy.
With a growing smile, he replied, “You’re right. Woody wouldn’t like to be separated from her again.”
If only it happened this way.
Perhaps Buzz and the gang could find their way back within the story of our imaginations as well. I do hope so. But if this is truly the final film, then the story ends as a downhearted, inconsistent transitory epilogue, and it has my pity. Farewell.