*The following contains spoilers for Toy Story 4.*
In the first Toy Story, the toy-child relationship is the fun, creative premise: what if your toys came to life the moment you left the room? What if they went on crazy adventures to help you grow up? By Toy Story 4, however, the relationship has also become a metaphor for relational loss, one which confronts us with a more difficult question: what do you do when the people you care about most no longer need you?
Moving on can feel less noble than staying, but it sometimes takes more courage.A lot has changed for our familiar sheriff, Woody. His first kid, Andy, has left for college and given Woody and the rest of the gang away to a new kid named Bonnie. No longer a favorite toy, Woody finds himself collecting dust in the closet. “You watch ’em grow up and become a full person,” he muses wistfully at one point, “And then they leave. They go off and do things you’ll never see.”
Still, Woody is determined to remain useful. He recalls how he would help Andy at school and decides to do the same for Bonnie during her kindergarten orientation. When he sees her struggling to adjust to her new environment, he intervenes, laying out arts-and-craft supplies on her table when she isn’t looking. It works. Bonnie puts the pieces together—a spork body, pipe cleaner arms, and googly eyes—to create Forky, who immediately becomes her favorite toy. Suddenly, kindergarten seems a little less scary.
Forky is living proof to Woody that he can still play a major role in helping his kid grow up happy and safe. The recurring gag, however, is that Forky doesn’t want to be a toy. Despite Woody’s convincing, all Forky can do is blurt out his favorite word (“trash!”) and repeatedly plunge himself into the garbage. Still, protecting Forky and seeing Bonnie’s love for her spork creation gives Woody a renewed sense of purpose. So, when Forky is lost, Woody readily accepts rescuing him as his personal mission.
It would be unfair to say Woody’s desire to rescue Forky stems from selfishness or insecurity. Woody really does care for Bonnie. When he helps her create Forky, he does so for her happiness without any evident intention to regain the spotlight for himself. At the same time, however, he is not completely honest with himself about the true motivations for his actions—that he is being driven, in large part, by a fear of being no longer needed. He has based his identity on being a helpful toy, and if he can’t do that, he feels lost.
Woody’s perspective slowly shifts away from helping Bonnie to preserving his usefulness at all costs. This comes to a head when his fixation with rescuing Forky leads him to recklessly endanger others. When pressed to explain his actions, he finally admits, “Because! Because it’s all I have left to do!”
The toy-child relationship is an effective metaphor for several reasons. It is broad enough to apply to many kinds of relational heartaches: rejections, breakups, strained friendships, empty-nesting (Pixar’s short film Bao come to mind), or stepping away from a ministry, to name a few examples. It’s not hard to map our particular situations onto Woody’s.
At the same time, it captures the feeling of real, painful loss. Plenty of stories show relationships in jeopardy, but most have happy endings. The protagonist learns his or her lesson, and the relationship is better off because of it. Not so for Woody. His loss isn’t imagined; Andy has grown up and moved on without him. What’s more, it is natural and good for Andy to leave behind his childhood toys. No one is to blame, which makes the loss that much more difficult to accept.
The metaphor does have its limitations. A toy’s worth, for example, really does depend on whether or not it’s played with, because that is the purpose for which it is created. Whereas our worth as human beings is not based on our utility to others, but in the truth that we are made in God’s image.
But these limitations are mostly beside the point. The point is we feel like Woody. The whole toy-child setup seems rather cruel, just as God’s call for us to sacrificially love others can feel cruel. Like Woody, we feel as if God calls us to care deeply for others and then suddenly to not care when the people we love leave. And if we resist, then we are the bad guys or the needy ones unable to face reality. We understand Woody’s frustration and why he clings to usefulness—usefulness is the only way he can remain a part of Bonnie’s life.
In Woody, Toy Story 4 paints a compassionate picture of the complex emotions that come with losing a dear friend. Thankfully, the film doesn’t stop there; it also presents us a way forward through those emotions. In particular, the film uses two foil characters—Bo Peep and Gabby Gabby—to spur Woody (and us by extension) to move past lost relationships in a healthy, balanced way.
Bo Peep, Woody’s former flame from the earlier Toy Story films, shows Woody there is life beyond Andy. She is a “lost toy”—that is, a toy without a kid. Being a lost toy is unthinkable to Woody; becoming one would mean losing his entire reason for existing. But Bo Peep is doing just fine. She is happy, independent, and free in a way that makes Woody seem timid and cautious by comparison. Woody’s reunion with Bo Peep is his first exposure that there could be more to a toy’s identity than belonging to a kid.
Bo Peep’s free spirit is counterbalanced by vintage 1950s doll, Gabby Gabby, who captures Forky and holds him hostage. She represents the extreme version of Woody’s longing to be useful. Her obsession with being chosen by the store owner’s granddaughter, Harmony, shows Woody how a good desire to love and be loved can morph into an unhealthy fixation. She is convinced Harmony will imbue her life with meaning and, as a result, is willing to do anything to secure that relationship, including harming others.
But in a surprising turn, Gabby Gabby also helps Woody rediscover the goodness of the toy-child relationship. After being rejected by Harmony, Gabby Gabby becomes hesitant and withdrawn. Even when she finds another child in need, she is afraid to put herself out there out of fear she’ll be rejected again. Sensing her reluctance, Woody reminds her of something she once told him: “The most noble thing a toy can do is be there for a kid that needs them.”
The most noble thing. Woody understands exactly how Gabby Gabby is feeling: useless and forgotten, wanting to close herself off so she’ll never be hurt again. It’s how he’s felt the entire movie. But through these words, Woody affirms the toy-child relationship and everything it represents—not just to Gabby Gabby, but also to himself.
In effect, he is saying this: we are not foolish or naive to be vulnerable and pursue relationships wholeheartedly, even if we might get hurt in the end. It is noble and courageous to be selfless and care deeply about others, even though they may someday leave. In Woody’s words, we hear echoes of the Savior’s own: “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).
By the end of the film, Woody’s journey has come full circle. Bo Peep and Woody meet up with the rest of the gang with Forky safe and ready to be returned to Bonnie. Woody has grown as a character. He has relinquished his fixation on usefulness and is content to be a side-character—to give up his sheriff’s badge so another can have the spotlight. All is well, except for one thing: Bo Peep and Woody, clearly in love, must once again bid each other farewell. The two embrace and part ways.
But in another striking moment, Buzz Lightyear, Toy Story’s other iconic protagonist, looks to his old friend and says, “She’ll be okay.” There’s a brief pause and we’re left wondering who he is referring to. Then, the music swells (Randy Newman’s “Parting Gifts and New Horizons” is truly lovely), and he clarifies: “Bonnie will be okay.” Realization dawns on Woody’s face, and for a moment he’s unsure what to do. But then he stops, reverses course, and returns to Bo Peep.
Bonnie will be okay. Buzz’s words resonate deeply with Woody. For Woody, leaving Bonnie behind isn’t the easy way out, despite how hard the relationship is for him. It is a painful decision because he cares so deeply for her. Leaving would mean always wondering about her well-being with no way to check in or help her. Staying is simpler, even if it might be personally detrimental.
But Buzz, Woody’s longtime partner, who knows him better than anyone, gives Woody the permission that Woody struggles to give himself—that it’s okay to move on. It is okay for Woody to part with Bonnie and his dear friends to embrace a new adventure with the one he loves. Moving on doesn’t mean you’re a lost toy. Moving on doesn’t mean you’ve stopped caring deeply about those you say goodbye to. Moving on can feel less noble than staying, but it sometimes takes more courage.
Toy Story 4 is able to walk a fine line of affirming the goodness of both vulnerable love and moving on from a treasured relationship. The film could have easily pitted these two things against each other: in defending the toy-child relationship, it could have framed Woody’s choice to become a lost toy as cynical and callous. Or in defending the importance of moving on, it could have subtly looked down on the toy-child relationship as idealistic and foolish. That’s our struggle. We often feel trapped between caring and healing. The realization that we don’t have to choose one or the other is freeing and in itself a kind of grace.
Finally, Toy Story 4 models the fact that while farewells may be bittersweet, they can also be hopeful and filled with fondness. At the end of the film, it is Woody’s turn to say goodbye. There is a sense that as Buzz and the other toys say goodbye to Woody, we are also saying goodbye to Woody for perhaps the final time. Of course, we are sad to part with this toy cowboy, whose adventures have made us laugh and smile for so many years. But we are mainly happy—happy because Woody felt forgotten and discarded throughout the film, but the very opposite was true the entire time. He was being given a loving, caring sendoff from the creators of his story. And in that realization, we find a comforting echo for ourselves: that God’s call for us to love may often hurt, but in the end, he is working everything—both the joys of relationships and the heartache of saying goodbye—for our good.