Pixar’s Guide to Maturity on Toy Story
It would not be uncultured or unintellectual to say that Toy Story is one of the greatest animated series of all time. Ever since the first movie hit the theaters on Nov. 22, 1995, Pixar has staked its reputation on affective storytelling instead of crude sight gags involving bodily fluids. It is about crafting all the essential elements of compelling character arcs that push all the requisite old-fashioned Disney buttons and real emotions, maybe a little too much emotion that you might expect from a non-animated feature. Sure, kids delight in fun characters and visually astounding animation, but parents also get to invest in a story by an intelligent, thoughtful script that taps into real human drama. It is true that part of the charm of the first film is seeing classic toys like Mr. Potato Head, Etch-A-Sketch, Slinky Dog, and Green Army Men come to life in a way never seen before, but it is the affection these toys have for their children that drives the core tension. The story is not only about the wacky adventures of a pull-string talking cowboy and a souped-up space action figure, it is about what it feels like to watch your child grow up.
From the film's first moments, when we get to see Woody's view of Andy's house as the boy runs around it, what we perceive as a very ordinary environment, but it represents the kind of world that modern kids and adults inhabit. Speaking to IndieWire about the writing of Toy Story 3, screenwriter Michael Arndt says: “…what I realized, the reason it appeals so much across the age ranges is that you have [two] stories going at once: Woody really being this parent, who loves this child and has done everything for this child and watched this child grow up and now he’s got to learn to let go.” In varying degrees over the course of each film, Woody has to learn to let go of the role that defined his existence: being Andy’s toy. And just like with real children, as Andy gets older, Woody grapples with harder and harder losses. In the original Toy Story, Woody struggles with the fact that he’s not his child’s favorite person anymore, and in Toy Story 2, Woody has to come to terms with his own brokenness and accept the reality that one day Andy will outgrow him, and that’s heavy. Back to Michael Arndt, the writer adds: “…at the same time, you have the Andy story: Andy is a much more prominent, thoughtful character in Toy Story 3. He is not just a kid running around, you know, he is — hopefully, reveals himself to be by the end of the film — a sweet, thoughtful guy, he is giving his toys away, he is giving away his childhood. So it is this universal emotional experience, both for kids and parents.”
The genius of Toy Story is that Pixar found a way to tell dynamic, entertaining stories that contain messages for both parents and kids. Children are entertained and hopefully reminded to be thankful for those who take care of them, and parents learn that letting your kid move on is a natural and healthy process. Toy Story 3 reminds Woody that he cannot follow his kid to college, so Woody and the gang adopt a new child. They endured the emotional journey of letting Andy gain his independence. But if you think about it, finding Bonnie only put a band-aid on Woody’s internal conflict. He merely moved his purpose and identity from one child onto another, so in Toy Story 4, Woody has a full-blown identity crisis. All the conflict in Toy Story 4 is completely self-inflicted. Woody cannot accept the reality that he is not needed in the same way he used to be, and this theme is present even with our antagonist. Gabby thinks the only reason she has not felt love from her owner is that she cannot talk. Woody and Gabby are not actually that different, they both ultimately want the same thing: the validation of a child. Their insistence on finding it only creates chaos around them, but the harder thing is to create a new purpose. This is exactly what he learns from his interaction with Bo-Peep. The lost toys did not sit around mopping hoping a child would come to save them. Rather, they forged their own community and purpose. Toy Story 4 shows us all what it looks like for someone to move on and find a new purpose in life. But Woody, Gabby, and all of us have a choice. They can continue to place their purpose and identity in something that is gone, or they can look around them and find the purpose calling out to them.
With its timeless and marvellously creative story, which culminates in an incredibly thrilling escape and a daring rescue, the message of Toy Story is clear: when you cling too tightly to the old, you will miss the new things bursting forth all around you. While this is a lesson everyone can benefit from, it is especially true for parents. So the next time you watch one of these movies, do not think about your childhood or that box of old toys in your basement. Think about your parents and the experience they went through to help you become who you are. Think about all the things in your life that you are clinging to that get in the way of happiness and of new opportunities, because who does not need one more reason to cry at a Pixar film?
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