Why Toy Story 4 Makes Total Sense--But is Still Unsatisfying
Updated: Jul 4, 2019
Toy Story 4 is a deeply moving and honest conclusion to the Toy Story franchise. But is it satisfying? Not everybody thinks so. And for good reason. The Toy Story franchise has always had very compelling and complicated themes, and the latest installment's twist ending only further draws attention to the deep and fascinating contradictions in the franchise’s long-running deep religious and cultural concepts.
Spoilers (obviously) to follow.
In Toy Story 4, Woody and the gang go on a road trip with their new child owner. On the way, during some hijinks, Woody runs into his old flame Bo Peep. At the end of the film, Woody decides to stay with Bo who has made a life for herself as a toy without an owner. The film is the usual Pixar magic, with great writing, animation, and moments that will make you laugh and cry in equal measure.
So why is this ending so surprising? Because on its face, it seems to completely go against what Toy Story has always been about. Kevin Wong at Gamespot writes:
We've been told, in multiple ways, that toys' overriding desire is to bring children joy. If they are deprived of this, they will seek it out, even for decades, until they find it. Their love is unconditional; even when they're abandoned or broken, they still remember their owners.
And given the chance to experience this connection more superficially, either in a children's museum or at a daycare where relationships are temporary, a toy would be justified to decline it; it's a poor substitute for the genuine thing. Even if the toy ends up alone, or in a dumpster, it's better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. It's analogous to any loving relationship where one person gives more than he or she receives. It's unconditional, and despite the drawbacks, it's worth it. Toy Story 4 throws all of this away.
Kevin Wong is right. The Toy Story movies have told us over and over since the very beginning that a toy’s purpose is to be played with by a child. This has been their mantra—their “With great power comes great responsibility”. Every toy in every movie desires to be loved by a child more than anything else. In Toy Story, Woody so loses his mind at being replaced as Andy’s favorite Buzz Lightyear that he tries to kill Buzz. In Toy Story 2, Jessie’s heart breaks when her child owner gets rid of her and when she has a chance to have a new child she doesn’t even hesitate a second. In Toy Story 3 Lotso turns evil because he’s lost and replaced by his owner. In Toy Story 4 multiple characters are willing to do violence to other toys in order for the hope of getting a child. Buzz spells this out to Woody explicitly this in Toy Story 2: “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.” And Woody reaffirms this belief at the end: "I can't stop Andy from growing up, but I wouldn't miss it for the world."
But why is being loved by a child the meaning of life for toys? Woody and the gang make a very specific argument for why toys need to play with and be played with by children: teleology.
Steven D. Greydanus at the National Catholic Register makes this point about the franchise’s consistent emphasis on teleology in his review of Toy Story 4:
[T]here’s no getting around the fact that the premise of the Toy Story films has always been rooted in teleology — in the philosophy of design and purpose, the basis for natural-law theory . … To the question “What if toys were alive?” Toy Story proposed that toys would naturally find their ultimate meaning and purpose in doing what they were created and designed for — in realizing their telos or ultimate end.
The belief that everything in life has a “telos”—or built-in purpose—has a long history in The West. Aristotle, one of the most influential philosophers of the ancient world, argued in his Politics and Physics that everything in nature had a purpose, or “end”, and that you could tell what the purpose was by observing its nature. St. Augustine echoed this completely in his works, but he added the argument that the natural end of humans was to love and be loved by God. Yet they both agreed that you could not be happy if you were not fulfilling your telos. As The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy summarizes from Aristotle:
Someone who is not living a life that is virtuous, or morally good, is also not living a happy life, no matter what they might think. They are like a knife that will not cut, an oak tree that is diseased and stunted, or a racehorse that cannot run. In fact they are worse, since they have chosen the life they lead in a way that a knife or an acorn or a horse cannot.
Likewise, in Toy Story, Toys must be played with by kids because of the nature of what they are. They are toys. In Toy Story, Woody makes this argument when he yells at Buzz: “You are a toy! … A child’s plaything.” And in that one phrase he is explaining to him both his nature and his purpose. Further in that film he tells Buzz why that should make him grateful. “Being a toy is a whole lot better than being a space ranger. . . Look, over in that house is a kid who thinks that you are the greatest. . . you are his toy.” In Toy Story 2 Buzz turns that same phrase around and uses that as his argument to convince Woody to come back to Andy rather than be a museum piece: “You are a toy! A Child’s plaything.” It is here that he follows up with his insistence that “life’s only worth living if you’re being loved by a kid.”
Many authors have long noted the deeply Christian parallels in this Toy Story worldview.
Tom Brewer at Mockingbird writes:
“As demonstrated so clearly by Woody and Buzz, the toys derive their value externally through the love and attention of Andy. … In the same way, our value is only found through being loved by God.”
But this is never the only choice the Toy Story films give Woody and the gang. Every film gives the toys an opportunity to abandon their owner to create a new purpose of life other than the one for which they were made. This has been the central conflict at the heart of every Toy Story Film. In Toy Story, Buzz Lightyear has to accept he is a toy and not a real spaceman. in Toy Story 2 Woody has to decide whether he’ll stay his owner Andy’s toy to be played with or whether he’ll be a part of a museum display. In Toy Story 3 the toys have to decide if they are going to stay with their owner even though he’s gone off to college or if they’ll stay in a day care to be played with by lots of children forever. In Toy Story 4, Woody has to decide if he’ll stay with his new owner or venture out in the world with his true love, Bo Peep. In all but the last one, the toys all decide to stay with their kid, and the films call us to cheer that as the happy resolution to each movie.
The reason this conflict speaks to us so deeply is it is our modern day conflict as well. Most people want our lives to have meaning and purpose that beyond ourselves and other human beings. (Even many Americans who reject religion claim to be “spiritual”.) But we also want to have the freedom to decide what meaning of life we want to create for ourselves. As Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote his Planned Parenthood v. Casey Opinion (co-authored by Justices Souter and O’Conner) “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” These two waring ideals are reflected in some of our most bitter “culture wars”. Pro-lifers mainly argue that abortion is wrong because on their view that a fetus is in reality a person. Pro-choicer's mainly argue that abortion is right because of their view that the mother has the right to self-determination (per Justice Kennedy’s quote). Those against calling transgender people by their preferred pronoun believe your gender identity is based on the external reality of your biology. Those in favor of using preferred pronouns believe that you determine your own identity.
This cultural conflict is as old as liberalism itself. Fathers of modern liberalism such as Niccolo Machiavelli, and later Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, all broke from the tradition of Aristotle and Aquinas by asserting that society and politics should be based on an individual’s self-determination rather than their telos. Later philosophers like Rousseau and Nietzsche expanded the definition of self-determination even further. Many then and now tried to argue against these philosophers but to little avail. Authors such as Alasdair Macintyre and Patrick Deneen in their works After Virtue and Why Liberalism Failed lament this change and long for the days where Aristotle reigned supreme, but few people deny that the philosophy of liberalism swept The West and remains the dominant view to this day.
But why? Why were these new ideas so successful? One answer, I believe, might be found in the Toy Story films.
The uncomfortable truth in the Toy Story franchise is that living for a child is bad for toys. Children in the Toy Story films have always been bad for toys—despite the rosy face the previous movies put on it. The children who are supposed to give the toys meaning and purpose are completely undependable. When children are not outright cruel to toys—such as in the case of Sid from Toy Story—they are callously clueless and indifferent to the toys’s wants and needs. Even the rare, idyllic ones like Andy are limited by by their ignorance and nature to age. In fact, the negligence of a human child is usually what starts the conflict. In Toy Story, Andy sets Woody on his conflict with Buzz when he casually replaces Woody with Buzz as his preferred toy. In Toy Story 2, Woody considers abandoning Andy because he realizes that Andy will one day give him up when he gets older. In Toy Story 3, Buzz and the other toys decide to live at the Day Care when Andy leaves for college and puts them in the attic. Lotso, the villain, became bad only when he was abandoned and replaced by his owner. (The dark reality of a toy’s life in the Toy Story Universe has long been noted by the online Pixar fan community, and was even broken down by the popular YouTube star MatPat on his show Film Theory to very depressing effect.
Toy Story 4 leans into this fact even further. The film opens Woody and Bo Peep having to save one of Andy’s toys that he accidentally left out in the rain. Then Andy’s sister Molly immediately gives Bo away to another family. After which we hear that girl got tired of Bo as well and she ended up in an Antique store. When Gabby Gabby finally gets her chance to get a child of her own the child tosses her away without a thought. All the toys have an understanding of this. At the beginning of the film, Bo tries to persuade Woody to leave Andy by casually mentioning that “kids lose toys all the time”. And she’s not wrong.
And so it is with us and God.
Many people in the medieval era had a similarly traumatic experience with God and the church. Widespread church corruption and the subsequent protestant reformation and bloody religious wars had an undeniable psychological and practical impact on Western Civilization. Machiavelli was very open about how he felt about corrupt priests, and John Locke and Thomas Hobbes were both very open about how deeply the chronic protestant v catholic wars of religion drove their project to reinvent politics. Though you can’t take a poll, it’s not hard to imagine that the general population also was disillusioned and ready for new ideas. You may not like what these philosophers came up with, but they were responding to real solutions to problems with the established order. As Dr. Joseph Loconte writes, critics of liberalism that pine for the Aristotelian and pre-Christian eras, “fail to reckon seriously, if at all, with the sins of Christendom: the denigration of individual conscience, the criminalization of dissent, the corrosive entanglement of church and state, the hedonism of clerical leadership and the deeply rooted anti-Semitism. The Catholic medieval project, for all its achievements, ultimately failed to uphold one of the most transformative ideas of the Jewish and Christian traditions: the freedom and dignity of every human soul.”
Another way to say this is that the liberal project was popular because it worked.
Today as well young people often say they are leaving religion because of broken trust. These young people are told by their religious parents and church that living according to traditional religion will give their life meaning, but they only see their life get better once they reject those traditions. A girl’s parents constantly put down feminism, yet when she embraces feminism her life gets so much better. A boy is told that homosexuality is a sin, yet when he hides his sexuality he wants to kill himself and when he embraces his orientation he’s suddenly the happiest he’s ever been. A young woman recently wrote a recent New York Times piece about the trauma she experienced growing up in an apparently oppressive Christian “purity culture” and her subsequent disillusionment with that ethos. “Rather than emphasize the gift of sex within marriage, purity culture typically led with the shame of having sex outside of it. … [i]f I remained pure, then God would reward good behavior with a husband — surely before I turned 30 so that we could have lots of children. Somehow God and I got our wires crossed, because the husband hasn’t arrived. Twenty years later, I no longer subscribe to purity culture, largely because it never had anything to say to Christians past the age of 23.’”
This is why Woody’s choice to leave his child for his lady-love Bo Peep makes total sense. Yes, it undermines the message of the previous movies—but the message of these movies doesn’t make sense if you take seriously the world that these movies created. If you have to choose between living for a purpose that requires submitting to the whims of horrible gods like the children in Toy Story’s universe or creating your own meaning, any sensible person would choose the latter. And if we cheer at Toy Story 4’s ending, part of the reason might be because we relate to the joy of letting go of old, toxic, socials-imposed duties and embracing the freedom to do what makes us happy.
And yet Toy Story 4 can’t quite bring itself to give up entirely on it’s telos. And neither can we. Toy Story 4 ends with Woody and Bo working with their new friends to find child owners for every toy they meet. They may be free, but they spend that freedom helping others achieve the purpose that they have rejected for themselves. Similarly, even those who have rejected their traditional religious upbringing often long for the ideals their parents espoused. The young woman who wrote about purity culture went on in her article to say exactly that:
“Purity culture as it was modeled for evangelical teenagers in the 1990s is not the future of Christian sexual ethics. But neither is the progressive Christian approach that simply baptizes casual sex in the name of self-expression and divorces sex from covenant faithfulness and self-sacrificial love. … While I hate the effects that purity culture had on young women like me, I still find the traditional Christian vision for married sex radical, daunting and extremely compelling — and one I still want to uphold, even if I fumble along the way.”
So Toy Story 4 leaves us where we are as a culture. Conflicted and contradictory. Unable to to trust God but desperately needing what only he can give us. For a religious person, the answer may seem obvious: God is trustworthy, and totally unlike the children of the Toy Story franchise, so we can safely embrace the telos he has put into us. But that is cold comfort for those who do feel abandoned by God and have not seen his trustworthiness demonstrated for themselves.
Therefore the Toy Story 4 ending is perhaps not not the most satisfying or definitive payoff to the questions Toy Story has raised over its 13 year history. But it is a deeply honest one. And that might be more important than being satisfying.