The Toy Story Series and the Search for Significance

In 1995, the animation world was rocked with the premiere of Toy Story, an all-CGI film that didn’t rely only on spectacle but also tight writing and storytelling. It spawned two sequels in 1999 and 2010 and many felt that it would rest as a trilogy, arguably one of the best in cinematic history. Occasionally rumors would surface about Disney/Pixar making a fourth installment and many scratched their heads. Toy Story 3 ended so perfectly, why re-open the canon with a new movie?

Eventually the rumor became fact and Toy Story 4 is set to release June 20. I have seen some trailers but read no reviews yet. I’m not sure what some of its thematic elements will be but I can take a guess at part of it: the characters will be searching for significance. Why do I say that? Well, you can see it in the trailers with Forky, but that theme was there in the very beginning when Buzz Lightyear took Woody’s place on the bed and continued through the rest of the movies.

Toy Story

The original movie focuses on Woody and Buzz as they compete for their owner Andy’s affection. Buzz, being the newer toy, is winning easily and Woody’s jealousy flares up to dangerous heights. Soon both wind up in peril and must learn to work together in order to survive.

Woody’s conflict is essentially a doubt as to how significant he actually is. He always took his leadership and closeness to Andy for granted and Buzz swoops in to rock his world. After the action figure comes into rough contact with reality, he suddenly wonders if he has significance. His world was only a dream. Through their trials Woody learns that he still holds a place in Andy’s heart and he should share that with Buzz, who finds value in being a toy and giving his human owner joy. 

Toy Story 2

In the first sequel, Woody is excited to go to camp with Andy…that is, until Andy accidentally rips his arm while playing with him. Woody is left at home and unwittingly winds up in a yard sale. A greedy toy collector steals him and brings him back to his apartment where the cowboy learns something about his past he never knew: he’s based off a popular kid’s show and is actually famous. He meets the other members of his “gang” from the show (Jesse, Bullseye, and Prospector) and finds out they are being gathered into a collection to be displayed in a museum. At first, this horrifies Woody, but the Prospector slowly convinces him that this means immortality and no risk of being torn again.

Once more significance is being sought after. Sure, it’s great being a kid’s toy and all, but what if your value can be raised? Jesse is gung-ho on the prospect after being abandoned by her former owner. Her sense of self-worth is damaged and she doesn’t feel significant, but being on display and adored daily seems like an easy fix. Ultimately Woody and Jesse realize it’s better to live out their days with the risks that come with being a toy rather than living in stasis forever.

Toy Story 3

The third movie finds Andy grown up and moving off to college. His mother wants him to clean out his room and do something about the old toys he’s hung onto all these years. Through an accident, most of the toys wind up on the curb to be thrown in the trash truck. After Woody saves them, they’re convinced Andy is through with them and hop into a daycare donation box. At Sunnyside Daycare, they meet a group of toys under the charge of Lotso, a purple teddybear. Things aren’t as ideal as they seem and turns out they haven’t found heaven but stumbled into hell.

This time all the toys as a group (or family) are seeking significance. Their owner has grown up and doesn’t play with them anymore, so now what? Should they throw themselves at any passing fancy that might fill the hole in their plastic hearts? Should they resign themselves to storage? Through Woody’s resolve and leadership (and the lessons he’s learned over the previous two movies), they learn to accept their lot as Andy’s toys and find their own little piece of heaven that renews their significance.

Lessons from Toys

The struggle of the characters in the Toy Story franchise is one any human can feel. We’re all striving to find our significance in life and we often let jealousy swell in us when someone else is deemed more valuable than us. Most of the time we pin our worth on the one good thing we do (work, hobbies, leisure, etc.) but rarely do we see our significance as coming from the simple fact that we’re alive.

Woody and Jesse reject an easy life behind a glass case to live with Andy, no matter what may happen to them in the end. In 3, the toys fight with the loss of their significance until they accept their fate and suddenly come into a new life. The message Pixar may be subtely imparting to the adults is: loosen up and live life. You are alive, you have significance. Don’t give up on that truth, don’t take cheap shortcuts to feeling that; live now while you have breath.

I will not be in the least surprised if Toy Story 4 continues this thematic trend. As a young adult trying to find my way in life, I find this moral encouraging and freeing. There’s no need to search for significance since I already have it.

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