Woody’s Struggle from Mania to Freedom
Pixar Animation Studios’ twenty-first film, Toy Story 4, came out in theatres in the USA on June 21, 2019. Although many—including yours truly—get more excited about new stories from the tried and true studio, it is also exciting to see how they craft a moving story through a familiar cast of characters. Toy Story 4 doesn’t disappoint—especially since it follows suit from the other Toy Story films in not simply rehashing the same tired plot outline in new clothing (as other, lazy sequels tend to do), but pressing the characters in new and surprising ways. And while the lush, buttery, glowing cartoon world and the pitch-perfect comedy are all worth remarking upon, what concerns us here is why this story is so compelling. (Though I must say that the crazy credits which present the ontological questions of the universe—”how am I alive?” asks a newly minted toy—are also compelling ones to ponder. But, another time.)
[SPOILER ALERT: I talk all about the plot of the film (and the first three films of the franchise). So don’t keep reading unless you’ve seen them! And trust me, you don’t want it spoiled.]
This installment of Toy Story is about Woody’s crisis of meaning, as he moves from generously caring for Andy to harmfully obsessing over his care for Bonnie, before discovering his own freedom through his encounter with Bo Peep. We see Woody face-to-face with the question of the meaning of life, and though we see disastrous consequences when he makes the wrong decision during the first beat of the film, the end of the film lets us witness a generative and happy ending when Woody meets the question of self-worth head-on.
Let’s begin by seeing what Woody has lost, before we dig into the story of the new film, which is his overcoming of that loss. Woody’s passion in the first three Toy Story films is his loyalty to Andy: “What matters is that we’re here for Andy when he needs us; that’s what we’re made for, right?” Simone de Beauvoir in The Ethics of Ambiguity calls the passionate man the one who dedicates themselves to a project in the world, and thinks that they, themselves, are in a special place to take on that project. Woody’s life has meaning because Andy needs him. In the world of Toy Story, a toy is created to care for its child—to comfort them and be played with. Woody is passionate about being Andy’s toy, and we can see in the first Toy Story film that this is a generous passion, as he sincerely cares about Andy and uses this care to make Andy’s Room a better place. While Beauvoir would rather Woody decide freshly in each moment what he values most rather than deciding that Andy is what gives him value once and for all, Woody does not get lost in an obsession for Andy, but instead uses the project of care to better himself, his world, and those around him. This is why he is our hero. All of the toys in Andy’s Room care for Andy and get self-worth from their devotion, but Woody believes that he alone knows what is best for Andy, and takes it upon himself to lead the other toys in “being there” for Andy. Woody is not only Andy’s toy, he is his favorite toy.
The drama of the first film finds Woody as a well-equipped passionate man struggling with a world that no longer aligns with his passion: Buzz Lightyear is now Andy’s favorite toy. Woody’s care for Andy becomes selfish as he doesn’t want another toy to share in being what’s best for Andy. The meaning of Woody’s entire life was to lead the toys and to be Andy’s favorite, and once this is lost, he must cope with the question of meaning. The story of the first Toy Story is Woody coming to realize that his own generous passion is also selfish—he may be in the best position to care for Andy, but sometimes care for another can mean stepping back and compromising, making space for others (in this case, Buzz), to step in, too. Or, rather, to fall in with style.
The drama of the second film is no longer about the world misaligning with Woody’s passion for Andy, but find’s Woody losing his passion for Andy when he is presented with new possible meaning in the world. When Woody gets stolen by Al and added to Al’s special collection, Woody discovers that he is a rare antique. The villainous Prospector convinces Woody that being preserved and put on display for thousands of children might have more meaning than being just one child’s toy; while the first film planted an obstacle to Woody’s passion by giving Andy a new favorite toy, the second film’s obstacle is a newfound passion that may replace Woody’s care. But, with that trademark heart that Pixar does so well, Buzz encourages Woody to remember the name written on his foot to convince Woody of what he taught Buzz in the first film: that a toy’s true meaning is to be there for their child. Woody is convinced to embrace his original passion, as he decides to keep Andy at the heart of his purpose in life. (The rest of the film after that dramatic character climax is an exciting, old-West romp around a runway.)
The third film finds Woody excited to go to college with Andy, where he can continue to find value in caring for the boy whom he’s been with all his life. But when Woody ends up at a daycare center by mistake and must escape to return to Andy, he discovers Bonnie and learns that he must let go of Andy to remain relevant as a toy (in the accepted world where a toy’s world is one of caring for a child). Woody’s meaning is called into question as he must re-evaluate what he was made for—his meaning has been to care for Andy, but it is the life of a toy to find new children to care for. The heartfelt goodbye at the end of Toy Story 3 finds Andy and Woody growing up together, as they part ways after three films of generous, mutual support. Woody still thinks a toy’s purpose is to care for their child, but he now realizes that children grow up, and a toy must move on to the next child.
Toy Story 4 sets up different stakes when we open with Woody in a closet full of forgotten toys and his “first dust bunny.” He is not as respected by the other toys as he was in Andy’s Room—they have a new leader—and Bonnie doesn’t care for Woody, so he cannot fulfill his function of “being there” for her. Woody never had to struggle for meaning before—life is easy as a toy when you’re your kid’s favorite toy, but Woody didn’t realize that until now. Woody is put in a place where his meaning has been taken from him, similar to Buzz’s arrival in the very first film; Woody may still be passionate for supporting his child, but Bonnie is different than Andy: she doesn’t need his support. So, rather than letting go of this passion as what gives worth to his life, Woody takes it upon himself to care for Bonnie, even if it is not his place anymore.
Repeatedly in the film, Woody has to justify his actions to other toys, who don’t think he should be doing what he is doing. Woody sneaks into Bonnie’s backpack, even though she might get in trouble. Forky desires to be put into the garbage, and even though many of the toys think that it will be OK for Bonnie to lose a toy, Woody obsessively keeps Forky by Bonnie’s side. When Forky jumps out of the RV and Woody jumps out to follow him, they have a heart-to-heart talk where Woody convinces Forky of what he convinced Buzz of in the first film: being a toy means being there for your child, and that is the most important thing you can do. Funnily, Forky only understands this when Woody compares the comfort Bonnie gets from Forky (her new favorite toy) to Forky’s feeling of comfort from the trash. (There is an interesting way that Bonnie’s comfort from Forky is a kind of allegory for existentialist freedom: that which should be the most important to us is what we make ourselves.) We still love Woody for the devotion he has for his child, but the film asks us to wonder whether Woody really has Bonnie’s best interest at heart or if he simply cannot stand being irrelevant to his child.
After all, Woody used to be Andy’s favorite toy, and it’s hard for him to cope with that loss. The generous passion Woody had for Andy becomes what Beauvoir calls a maniacal passion for helping Bonnie as Woody obsesses over making himself needed. Buzz offers to help Woody, but Woody refuses since he alone must help keep Forky with Bonnie. Woody says that he holds the secret key, on his own, to the project, even though we can see how much he and those around him suffer from how he goes about his supposed care. Woody’s crisis mirrors that of parents with “empty nest syndrome”—he cannot cope with the loss of meaning that comes with his kid, Andy, growing up, so he manically (passionately) directs that attention to another project. The stakes are absolutely at their highest—this new project, no matter what it is, is the new life-goal. And since it is there to distract from the gaping loss of the prior one, it feels ever-more pressing and important. Woody desperately tries to do something that he believes has meaning, and in the world of toys, the thing that has meaning is caring for your child. This new venture becomes all the more manic and obsessive since Woody is not used to having to look for new meaning anywhere. Woody’s crisis here works so well since we have been with him for three films and seen him grow into the passionate man he is—and, indeed, laud him for it. No matter how frustrating Woody’s arrogance is, as Bo Peep says in the movie before she returns to help, you have to love him for his loyalty. Beauvoir may look down on passion since she doesn’t want us to give our lives meaning once and for all (by dedicating ourselves to caring for a child, for instance), but there are still aspects of it that are worth admiring, as we saw from the first three movies.
So, we find Woody wholeheartedly dedicated to protecting Bonnie, whatever that role entails—his generous passion to be the best toy for Andy becoming a maniacal passion for caring for Bonnie. He stays up all night and goes in harm’s way multiple times just to ensure Bonnie stays with Forky. The only thing that can distract this passion is his desire for Bo Peep, when he sees her lamp in the middle of his rescue. This, I think, is the true call to adventure for the film: the antique store. We meet our villain, Gabby Gabby. She is obsessed with finding a kid to love her. An important fact of the “toy” universe is that the absolute, given purpose and meaning for a toy is to be loved by a child. The toy villains of the Toy Story universe all share a backstory in being lost (Lotso), forgotten (Prospector), or, in Gabby’s case, withheld from finding a child to love to begin with (due to a technical malfunction that she creepily wants to harvest Woody’s voice-box to remedy). The heartfelt, tragic stories of other toys we encounter also relate to their being left behind or lost (Wheezy is dusty on a shelf and has given up on life—what Beauvoir calls the “sub-man”—while Duke Caboom was given away by his child for not living up to a commercial, giving Duke a deep sense of low self-worth, which we get to see him overcome). Woody buys into the given meaning of a toy’s life from the outset, and that’s why his attachment to Andy grows as deeply as it did—Woody’s personal buy-in to the meaning of what it means to be a toy became part of his very self-identity.
What is so interesting about seeing the plot of Toy Story 4 unfold is that this is an overcoming of the given meaning to a toy’s life, and therefore Woody must re-evaluate his entire purpose for living. Bo Peep has seen that being a “lost toy” is actually a freeing prospect. After being given away by Molly, seeing her next child grow up, and then sitting on a shelf for years Bo Peep realized that you cannot wait for the world to deliver on its promise for giving you and your life value. If a toy sits around and waits for a child to care for, then life may simply pass that toy by. Bo Peep has discovered the insight of existential freedom: you cannot let the meaning of your own life come only from other people, but it must come from you. You must create your own value—and that is what Bo Peep has done.
When Woody and Bo Peep meet outside, there are telling, tightly written moments when Bo Peep discusses her life as a “lost toy” and while Woody sees this as a horrifying life which defies the very meaning of toyhood, Bo sees it as freeing and worthwhile. Woody cannot fathom how someone could be happy if they don’t have a kid to love them—that is all a toy could ever ask for. Bo Peep defies the worldview that Woody has held for his entire existence by finding the life of a lost toy to be a fruitful one. Woody doesn’t see how playing with a child could be meaningful without a personal, long-lasting connection, yet dozens of toys at a playground near a traveling carnival get excited to play with new busloads of children every day—and they get personal worth from that, despite Woody’s inability to understand it. As Bo smartly tells him: maybe he’s the one that’s lost.
The story of Toy Story 4 is Woody learning from Bo Peep that being a child’s toy is not all there is to life. Woody discovers existential freedom: that true freedom is doing something that gives you value, as you choose to do. Before this discovery, Woody repeatedly botches their shared rescue attempt of Forky, as he selfishly indulges his passionate attitude—he must save Forky, and it must be him, since he will only value himself if he cares for Bonnie. Even though it risks the entire operation and the safety of his friends, Woody wants to be the one who does the saving; in these moments, Woody is clearly more interested in himself than in actually helping Bonnie or Forky. Woody cannot cope with his lack of meaning at the start of the film; Bo Peep experienced the exact same crisis, but used it as a motivation to go out on her own and see the world and create a wholesome community of other lost toys, whereas Woody’s first reaction is to try and force his prior meaning onto circumstances which don’t fit.
Importantly, notice how Woody is presented a similar existential question in Toy Story 2 and Toy Story 4, but with opposite outcomes. In both films, Woody has the choice to remain a child’s toy, or to reject this life and begin again without connection to a child. In Toy Story 2 this new life means being on display in a museum, and in Toy Story 4 it is to lead an adventurous life with Bo Peep and her friends, which seems to include helping lost toys to find owners that they can care for. In Toy Story 2, Woody would be trading his generous passion for a selfish one—Woody basks in a sea of paraphernalia that bears his name, looking forward to the attention he’d get as the center of an exhibit. But simply “being looked at” doesn’t clearly create value beyond a superficial level. Since Toy Story 2 still finds Woody in a world where he is capable of having a generous passion for Andy, choosing this passion—following the Sharpie on his foot—is the right choice. But when the choice is between his maniacal passion for Bonnie and a life with Bo Peep, Woody must turn his back on the given meaning of a toy’s life. Another of Beauvoir’s central insights can be felt here: true existential freedom relies upon the empowerment of others in our shared world. We are the most free when we are enabling others to be free and to create their own value. In reuniting toys with children, Woody and Bo Peep are allowing these toys to create worth and meaning from these new relationships—they, too, can develop generous passions for their children. Further, Woody and Bo have a wholesome community of other, lost toys that they can create a world with. Woody wouldn’t be producing anything new on a shelf in a museum, just as he was useless collecting dust bunnies in the closet. Now, he is doing something worthwhile. True, Woody must leave Bonnie, Forky, and all of his friends—even Buzz Lightyear—to stay with Bo. But the most important decisions in life are never easy, and Buzz encourages Woody to stay. Even though the gang will miss him, everyone could see that his maniacal passion was not a fulfilling way to live.
Most importantly, Woody and Bo Peep weren’t told as a fact of their universe that they ought to do this, but they began doing it on their own, creating value where there wasn’t any before. The ultimate decision of life is the worth and meaning that you give it—the first three Toy Story films adamantly reiterated the fact that a toy’s purpose in life is to be there for their child. This final (?) installment questions this fundamental premise of the series by having Woody confront the purpose of his own life, and choosing to defy its given value. And, as we can see from the joy of a happy ending, this is the life that we, too, should be leading. It isn’t that the toys ought to all run away and not have their own children—even Bo Peep doesn’t regret the meaningful years she spent with Molly and the other children who loved her. But we should not become so attached to our roles in life that it is all that we can ever know. Bo Peep learned when it was time to let go and turn to other projects in the world—and Toy Story 4 sees Woody, the ultimate favorite toy who would do absolutely anything for his child, learn to let go and find a life beyond Andy, beyond Buzz, beyond being the leader of the gang or caring for any child. And, if we believe Beauvoir, we can all learn to create our own meaning, too—as Buzz says, to infinity and beyond.