A Toy’s Telos, Chapter 2: How the Vision Was Won, and Lost

maxresdefault

Thesis and Antithesis

In “A Toy’s Telos, Chapter 1,” I argued that the Toy Story trilogy presents a moral vision for what it means to be a toy, and I outlined the key tenets of this vision as they are embodied by Woody in his relationships with Andy and Buzz. Woody has a vertical telos: to be there for Andy. He also has a horizontal telos: to be there for Buzz and other toys so that they too can be there for Andy. But Toy Story, as a story, presents this moral vision through narrative, not exposition, and narratives require conflict and resolution. The films establish their moral vision through the challenges Woody faces as he seeks to live according to his telos. It is through Woody’s resilience in the midst of these challenges that the films vindicate the idea of a toy’s telos. Another way to put this is that Woody has a thesis, an argument. In each film, he is presented with an antithesis, a counter-argument. His ability to repudiate these objections are what prove the strength — and what is more, the goodness and beauty — of his argument. 

As is the case with most stories, the conflicts that drive the plots of the Toy Story films arise from three sources: from people, from circumstances, and from within. Woody, the protagonist, is on a quest to fulfill his telos as a toy, and to succeed in his quest he must overcome the antagonists who are enemies to a toy’s telos, the natural obstacles that come between a toy and its telos, and most significantly his own inner doubts that sometimes hinder him from even wanting to seek his telos.

Villains

In the moral order of Toy Story, a good toy is a toy that is there for its owner’s happiness, and a good owner is a human that both plays with its toys and protects them. Woody is presented as the ideal good toy, and Andy is presented as the ideal good owner. To underscore this point, the villains of Toy Story are foils to Woody and Andy. The villains are toys or owners that do not understand or else reject their given telos, and they want to stop Woody and his friends from fulfilling theirs.

There are four villains in the Toy Story trilogy. In order of appearance, they are Sid, Al, Stinky Pete, and Lotso. What is striking about this order is its symmetry and progression. The first two, Sid and Al, are owners; the second two, Stinky Pete and Lotso, are toys. This means that midway through Toy Story 2, with the revelation that Stinky Pete is a greater threat to Woody than Al, there is a crucial shift. The films shift away from exploring the dangers posed by bad owners and shift toward emphasizing the far more tragic dangers posed by bad toys. However, there are different kinds of bad toys, just as there are different kinds of bad owners. Stinky Pete and Lotso are both opposites of Woody, just as Sid and Al are both opposites of Andy, but they are opposites at different extremes.

If the golden mean for a toy owner is to both play with and protect a toy, then a toy owner could err in one of two directions. On the one hand, an owner could play with a toy but not protect it. Sid plays with his toys, but his idea of playtime is perverse and destructive. On the other hand, an owner could protect a toy but never play with it. Al treats toys with the utmost care, but only to make money off of them as collector’s items. Either way, what Al and Sid share in common is a complete disregard for the bond between toys and their owners. If Sid ever noticed the name written on Buzz and Woody’s feet when he won them from “The Claw,” it only intensified his desire to desecrate them. Likewise, when Andy’s mom tells Al that Woody is a family heirloom and not for sale, he retorts, “Everything is for sale.” Al is so callous and cowardly — he is the “Chicken Man,” after all — that he steals Woody from Andy (and Andy from Woody) without a second thought. Neither Sid nor Al can grasp the concept of a toy’s telos because both are thorough materialists. Toys do not have souls, do not have needs and wants, do not have a purpose other than being manipulated for a human’s gain. Toys are just crude matter, either to be blown up or cashed in for “big buck-buck-bucks.”

We will study the toy villains, Stinky Pete and Lotso, in more detail later. For now it should be noted that they are both, like Woody, toys that lead a household of other toys. Yet whereas Woody loves his telos and leads toys toward theirs, Stinky Pete and Lotso hate their telos and prevent other toys from seeking theirs. When others turn on him, Stinky Pete declares, “Children destroy toys!” In the same situation, Lotso cries, “We’re all just trash, waiting to be thrown away! That’s all a toy is!” But here, too, there are opposite errors, and they are echoes of the errors of Sid and Al. Stinky Pete and Al are so aligned in perspective — toys are trophies — that it is fitting that one is owned by the other. Likewise, Lotso and Sid are so aligned in perspective — toys are trash — that Sunnyside is just a rainbow-colored copy of Sid’s room, bringing the trilogy’s sequence of bad homes full circle. It is also fitting that these two nihilists, as inheritors of the curse of Sisyphus, find themselves stuck in the never-ending cycle of driving around the Tri-County Area in trash trucks.

Obstacles and Doubts

But as important as these villains are to the plots of the Toy Story trilogy, they are not Woody’s greatest problem. Sid, Al, Stinky Pete, and Lotso help dramatize the struggles Woody must face, but they are not the struggles themselves. Moreover, Woody’s struggles are not unusual. They are the same as what would be experienced by any toy with any young owner. All children get new toys that, for at least a few hours or days, take all their attention away from their old toys. All children dent, scuff, and break toys. And all children grow up. Long before and long after Woody’s imprisonment at Sid’s house, Al’s apartment, or Sunnyside Daycare, these were and always remain the incontrovertible realities of his existence. These are the natural obstacles that stand in the way of all toys on the path of their telos.

Up to this point I have written much in praise of Woody and his virtues. Along the way, however, I have also dropped hints that Woody is flawed. What makes Woody such a compelling and complex character is that he can be both heroic and cowardly, selfless and selfish, confident and confused, gentle and belligerent. I’m impressed by how Pixar has maintained a balancing act of keeping Woody morally upright while also making it painfully clear that he can often be a self-righteous jerk. Whenever Woody is dead certain about how a toy should live out its telos, and whenever others don’t see things his way, he uses his strong convictions as a weapon to browbeat those who wrestle with doubts. But Woody has his own doubts. In each film he is slow to fully accept the implications of his cherished belief in a toy’s telos. He is not always there for Andy and for Andy’s toys as faithfully as he should be.

In each chapter of the Toy Story trilogy, these three sources of conflict — villains, obstacles, and Woody’s own doubts — combine to express a set of questions about a toy’s telos that double as counter-arguments against that telos. The plot of each film is a narrative means of formulating these questions and counter-arguments, and then reconciling their concerns with the trilogy’s central claim. 

What If I Am Replaced?

The main question that drives the first Toy Story is, “What if I am replaced by another toy? How can I pursue my telos of being there for a child if another toy is there in my place?”

Woody assures everyone at the Staff Meeting that no one will get replaced by any of the toys Andy might receive at his birthday party. He says they should content themselves with always being available for whenever Andy should need them. But this is easy for him to say, because he has always been the favorite and has never known neglect — until “from out of the sky, like a bomb, comes some little punk in a rocket.” It turns out that Woody does not really believe what he preaches. He is the only toy who is jealous of Buzz, for he is the only one at any probable risk of being left behind in his wake. Woody doesn’t say, “I don’t care who gets the most attention as long as Andy is happy.” Instead, he actually defies his telos. He does not help Buzz see how it is a good and beautiful thing to be a child’s plaything and not a space ranger. Rather, he bullies Buzz, puts him in harm’s way, and turns him into a lost toy. By putting his own happiness first, Woody’s reckless actions also hurt Andy, who is now distraught that Buzz is missing.

As punishment for his transgression, Woody gets a taste of his own medicine. Andy’s toys banish him just as he banished Buzz, and together they wind up at Sid’s house, an environment that is hostile to any toy. Here, there is every incentive not to be the toy that catches Sid’s interest. Clearly it would be better to be an unpopular toy in a good kid’s room than to be trapped in a bad kid’s room. Woody owns up to his failure when he confesses that it is he, not Buzz, who should be strapped to Sid’s rocket. By the end of the film, Woody grows in selflessness. In rescuing Buzz and helping Buzz get back to Andy, Woody is risking the possibility that Buzz will continue to eclipse him as Andy’s favorite toy. But his long-standing commitment to Andy’s well-being, and his new-found commitment to Buzz’s well-being as Andy’s toy, overrides his own preferences. When toys seek the happiness of their owner and other toys, they will not be concerned with whether they are more or less popular. Concern for the good of others drives out the fear and insecurity of an unruly ego.

What If I Am Misused?

With the subplot involving Sid and his Frankensteinian toys, the first film also asks, “What if I am misused? If my owner mistreats me, won’t fulfilling my telos mean putting myself in danger?”

In a way, the toys in Sid’s room are fulfilling their telos. They are still there for Sid’s pleasure, but Sid’s pleasure is sadistic.These toys have not abandoned their posts, but they cannot flourish there because the person who is supposed to protect them is the very one who abuses them. To belong to a child like Sid would be worse than being a lost toy, and this presents a serious challenge to the idea of a toy’s telos.

The film responds to this challenge by demonstrating that toys should not put up with abuse as a part of their job. Here the film makes a Jeffersonian argument. A king forfeits his rightful authority to lead when he mistreats his subjects, and his subjects are therefore justified in rebelling. Similarly, Woody’s credo — that toys should be there for their assigned children — has an exception clause. Because Sid has missed his telos, Woody galvanizes his toys into staging a full-scale uprising. (It is never explained whether Sid’s toys remain at his house or leave to seek better owners.) The Jeffersonian element resurfaces in the third film when Barbie tells Lotso, “Authority should derive from the consent of the governed, not from the threat of force!” Barbie’s stand for democratic governance is included more as a throwaway joke than a serious moral statement, but it is certainly not out of place. 

What If I Am Damaged?

Toy Story 2 revisits the last question (“What if I am misused?”), but complicates it. There are bad kids like Sid who destroy toys, but the sad truth is that even good kids like Andy will damage them. And so the question is revised: “What if I am damaged by an owner, even if they love me?”

The paradox of a toy’s telos is that to be played with always presents the risk of being hurt, and therefore of being discarded. This is literally Woody’s worst nightmare. Toy Story 2 broods over a stark realization: A toy that embraces its telos always lives with the terrible possibility of being undermined or destroyed by it. As Andy’s mom says ominously at the beginning of the film, “Toys don’t last forever,” and this is precisely because of what they are. 

For some toys, the realization of this paradox encourages nihilism. The shelved penguin Wheezy asks, “Why prolong the inevitable? We’re always just one stitch away from [Andy’s room] to [the garbage can].” For other characters, this paradox leads to a denial of telos. Stinky Pete despises the purpose for which he was made and runs from it. After being ignored by people for decades, he desperately wants to be seen and valued, but he also wants to be shielded from further rejection.

Because Stinky Pete knows he will only get to the Toy Museum with Woody’s help, he offers Woody a Faustian bargain: “You can stay and last forever, and be adored by children for generations.” Later, Buzz is incredulous that Woody could ever find such a proposition attractive. “Watch kids behind glass and never be loved again? Some life.” The word choices of Stinky Pete and Buzz are significant: love is contrasted with adoration. Woody can either be loved by one person, and accept the suffering that love may involve, or be admired by hundreds while being isolated from all harm. The choice is between a real life and a hollow imitation of immortality. 

But Woody finds the offer attractive for multiple reasons. First, he has just experienced what it’s like to be physically harmed by Andy, and he has also just witnessed how easily Wheezy was forgotten on a shelf and then put up for sale by Andy’s mom. Second, he is drawn in by a competing narrative of identity. The Woody’s Roundup TV show and memorabilia give him a glimpse of a world in which he is not a toy but a phenomenon. As a cultural artifact, Woody might find longer-lasting value and acceptance than he would as Andy’s toy. (Incidentally, this is the same kind of marketing-driven mythos that made Buzz delusional and kept him from embracing his telos.) Third, the Roundup Gang hijacks Woody’s innate sense of duty. When Jessie finds out he has an owner and therefore cannot go to Japan, she is outraged and treats it as a betrayal. “It’s not fair! How could you do this to us?” Woody decides to stay, for “Who am I to break up the Roundup Gang?” The claims placed upon him by a fictitious community overrule the claims placed upon him by his true community.

What brings Woody back to his telos is the same thing that brought Buzz back in the previous film: the wise words of a friend, and the name on his shoe. Woody realizes that, despite all the risks involved, a short time with Andy is worth more than a long life without. “I can’t stop Andy from growing up, but I wouldn’t miss it for the world.” Toys cannot slow time or prevent their own decay, but that does not mean their lives cannot be full, fulfilled, and meaningful. “It will be fun while it lasts.”

What If I Am No Longer Needed?

The knowledge that Andy will grow up hangs over Toy Story 2 like a darkening cloud. Jessie’s story illustrates one probable outcome of a child outgrowing a toy, and one of Stinky Pete’s ploys to make Woody stay is to ask him what will happen when Andy goes to college. However, the implications of Andy’s growing up are not fully explored until Toy Story 3. The third film asks, “What if I am no longer needed? How can I pursue my telos of being there for a child if the child is no longer there either?” 

Toy Story 3 has two plots: the story of Andy leaving for college, and the story of Lotso’s reign of terror at Sunnyside. The link between these two storylines is the question of who will own Andy’s toys henceforward, and whether they can fulfill their telos under that owner. Over the course of the film, the toys are presented with three options.

First, Andy’s toys could stay in the attic and hope that Andy will one day return for them, perhaps to pass them down to his children. Even as Woody acknowledges that other toys have left Andy’s room and found good owners elsewhere, he insists that he and his remaining friends must remain in Andy’s attic — or more precisely, that they should remain in the attic while he goes with Andy to college. But while Andy’s toys would still be owned by him and would have better protection in the attic than almost anywhere else, they would not be played with, and so their telos would be unfulfilled. The film does not say so, but life in the attic would be little better than life in the Toy Museum. Ironically, Woody is urging his friends to make a decision rather like the one he once rejected. Meanwhile, if Woody were to go to college with Andy and still not be played with, he would not be fulfilling his telos either.   

Second, Andy’s toys could go to Sunnyside Daycare, where Lotso proclaims radical individualism and self-determination. Evoking “Invictus” almost verbatim, Lotso boasts, “We don’t need owners at Sunnyside, we own ourselves. We’re masters of our own fate. We control our own destiny.” Lotso responds to all the nagging questions surrounding a toy’s telos by rejecting the telos entirely. All the questions have to do with a toy’s relationship to its owner. Remove an owner from the equation, and the questions cease to be relevant. “No owners means no heartbreak.”

But the way Lotso has rigged Sunnyside reveals how desperately toys do need owners, and good ones. In reality, toys at Sunnyside still have an owner, and it is Lotso. But Lotso is a bad owner, for has no desire to protect his toys from the toddlers who have not yet learned to treat them with dignity. Instead, Lotso has created a pyramid scheme to ensure that he will always be safe from the cruelest of children, while nobler or newer toys further down the food chain are broken and thrown away well before they can challenge his authority. Toys at Sid’s house lacked protection, and toys at Al’s apartment lacked playtime. At Sunnyside, protection and playtime are pitted against with each other. A toy cannot flourish in any of these environments.

The third, final, and best option for Andy’s toys is to go live with Bonnie. Of the three owners — Andy, Lotso, and Bonnie — only Bonnie can offer the three things most essential for a toy: belonging, playtime, and protection. Woody has always reminded his friends that “this job isn’t about getting played with, it’s about being there for Andy when he needs us.” But Woody needs to rediscover the joys of playtime, which he does while he is at Bonnie’s house. Moreover, Woody needs to realize that, once Andy no longer needs him, it would be best to find a new owner. Though Sarge the Toy Soldier and Buzz both tell Woody that their “mission” is over, Woody responds with self-righteous stubbornness. However, thanks to Bonnie and the near-death experience in the furnace, Woody admits, “Maybe the attic isn’t such a great idea.” He also confesses that he was in the wrong for abandoning his friends at Sunnyside. By trying to put them in the attic, and then by leaving them at Sunnyside, he failed his horizontal telos.

What is so profound about the final segment of Toy Story 3 is that although Woody has to choose between Andy and his friends, he does not have to choose between his telos and abandoning it. Moreover, it is crucial to note that Woody lets Andy, as his rightful owner, make the decision for him. In the last few minutes of the Toy Story trilogy, there is a beautiful exchange that occurs between Woody, Andy, and Bonnie. Woody asks Andy — covertly, but I suspect Andy knows it was him — to take his toys to Bonnie’s house. Andy entrusts his toys to Bonnie, and Bonnie promises Andy that she will take care of them. Finally, in declaring Woody to be a faithful friend, Andy is charging Woody to be a faithful friend to Bonnie.

To move from one owner to another does not hinder a toy’s telos but maintains its continuity. In being adopted by Bonnie, Woody and his friends are not failing their life-long mission, but renewing it, revivifying it. In two different scenes, the filmmakers subtly suggest the idea of new life. First, it cannot be an accident that Bonnie picks Woody from a tree. Second, in the furnace sequence, the toys are symbolically reborn from the ashes.

However, Bonnie’s room is not necessarily the only place where Andy’s toys could fulfill their telos. The montage that plays over the end credits of Toy Story 3 shows how Sunnyside is redeemed to be a place where toys can once again function and flourish. Woody seems to think toys should not be in daycares at all, and the films stress that the ideal situation for a toy is to be owned by one particular, dedicated individual. Nevertheless, once Lotso is deposed from ruling Sunnyside, the daycare toys start to look out for each others’ well-being. They take turns bearing the brunt of the toddlers’ reckless energy, instead of crawling over each other to survive. All this occurs, we might add, under the rule of a good king and queen: Ken and Barbie. In such a situation, toys can still live according to their vertical and horizontal purposes, albeit under different and less optimal conditions.

Toy Story 4

For three films, Woody and his belief in a toy’s telos were subjected to trials of increasing severity and consequence. Although Woody never bore up under these trials perfectly, he always emerged from them stronger and with his faith in his telos more sure. The Toy Story trilogy never sugarcoated the difficulties of living according to one’s assigned purpose, but it always reaffirmed that such difficulties are worth the cost.

What, then, are we to make of Toy Story 4, especially its ending, when Woody leaves behind his owner Bonnie, his best friend Buzz, and the rest of Andy’s old toys to become a lost toy with Bo Peep? Can this development be read as consistent with the previous films and their moral vision, or is this a dramatic and problematic departure?

In a lot of ways, Toy Story 4 is cut from the same cloth as the previous films. There are a number of points at which it confirms the interpretation of Toy Story that I have presented above. First, from the opening rescue mission to the post-credits sequence, helping other toys fulfill their telos continues to be Woody’s vocation. Second, in the first few minutes, Bo’s departure (by Molly’s decision) and the musical montage (replaying the transfer of Andy’s toys to Bonnie) both reiterate that toys belong to owners, and it is owners who decide when to give them away. Third, as if these films were not uncannily pseudo-theological already, Forky is created ex nihilo by his owner and stamped with his maker’s likeness (and later this Adam even gets his own Eve!). The film uses this strange new toy to reintroduce the trilogy’s core belief that toys are happiest when they are with their owners. Fourth, just like the previous films, Toy Story 4 is unflinching in portraying the rejection and heartache a toy’s life can involve. But the film agrees with Gabby Gabby (until it doesn’t) that nothing could be more noble for a toy than to be there for a child.

All this would make it seem like Toy Story 4 would end in much the same way as each of its predecessors. Woody, after being separated from his child and encountering external and internal obstacles to his sense of purpose, finds his way back home and is more committed than ever to seeking the good of his owner and his friends. But that is not what happens. After getting Forky back to Bonnie and finding Gabby Gabby an owner — a lost toy for a lost child — Woody somehow concludes that, unlike them, he no longer needs an owner. This decision is inconsistent with everything the film seemed to affirm earlier, and it contradicts the moral vision that the Toy Story trilogy so painstakingly developed and defended.

To justify Woody’s decision to leave Bonnie for Bo, the film uses a number of tactics:

First, the film overplays Woody’s difficulties fitting in at Bonnie’s house. It is perfectly natural that Woody should still be grieving the loss of Andy. It makes sense that Woody would have a hard time grasping that Bonnie is not a clone of Andy and will require him to practice a different kind of “being there.” Moreover, since Woody is no longer the leader of the room, it is to be expected that he would feel out of place. But Woody has been here before, and has been through worse. In the first film, he overcame his jealousy of other toys by dedicating himself to Buzz and Andy’s happiness and not his own. In this film, Woody is similarly dedicated to Forky and Bonnie’s happiness, and yet he is upset with how little Bonnie plays with him. Woody was neglected by Andy for several years but never left him, yet here he is relegated to Bonnie’s closet for only a few days and concludes he should leave. His sudden lack of perseverance and constancy in the face of the mildest adversity is baffling, and it undercuts this film’s frequent invocation of the virtue of loyalty.

Second, the film underplays the problems of the life of a lost toy. To make Woody’s abandonment of Bonnie palatable to audiences, the filmmakers stack the deck in favor of Bo and her fellow lost toys. The previous films were more nuanced. They would frankly address the challenges of being a toy with an owner, and the second and third films would present ownerless alternatives that seemed appealing. However, the earlier films would go on to expose why the life of an ownerless toy would actually be less meaningful, if not outright miserable, and then they would finally restate a toy’s telos with resounding conviction, all without brushing aside the original challenges. But apart from the one time her arm breaks off — a problem fixed in seconds — Bo’s life as a lost toy is portrayed as entirely care-free. There are a few fleeting moments when it seems Bo’s facade of blissful independence is ready to crack (pun intended), but any longing she may have to be owned again is quickly swept under the rug. (Meanwhile, Gabby Gabby’s life as a lost toy is portrayed as tragic, adding to the film’s internal contradictions.) If the film makes it seem plausible that Woody should go with Bo, it is because its treatment of Woody’s options is one-sided.

Third, the film makes an argument for being a lost toy while ignoring that Woody is still an owned toy. If this film presents a counter-argument like the previous films did, it is “Do I really need to belong to just one child? Isn’t that limiting? Couldn’t I experience my telos more fully if I was there for any and every child I can find?” But whereas the other films repudiated their counter-arguments, this film seeks to validate it so that Woody would give up on his insistence on being there for one specific child. However, the problem with Woody becoming a lost toy is not that being a lost toy is categorically bad. The redemption of Sunnyside already proved that ownerless toys are still able to fulfill their telos in some way. Instead, the problem with Woody becoming a lost toy is found in the film’s opening scene. Molly has released Bo from her obligation to be there for her, but Andy has not released Woody to do the same. At the end of this film, neither has Bonnie. Bonnie’s name is still on his shoe, and she hasn’t given him away. Until she does, his mission with her is not complete.

It seems that Woody is already fearfully anticipating the day that he will lose Bonnie the way he lost Andy. And this is fair, for loving others is hard. We all know that forging bonds takes time, and that breaking them can be so painful that we become wary of forging new ones. But in leaving Bonnie, Woody is trying to save himself from abandonment by preempting it. In the opening scene of Toy Story 4, Bo asks Woody to do the same thing Stinky Pete asked him to do in Toy Story 2: to leave Andy before Andy can leave him. Woody refused this request both times. It is uncharacteristic of him that he should follow such a risk-averse logic now.

Fourth, the film completely disregards the ending of Toy Story 3 and its implications. The ending of Toy Story 4 is especially alarming considering that it was Andy who made Bonnie promise to take care of Woody, and pledged Woody to be there for Bonnie. In becoming a lost toy, Woody is putting Bonnie in a position where she cannot keep her promise to Andy, and he is breaking faith with Andy himself. That Woody would disregard a mission given to him by Andy — the person in the world he loved most — just doesn’t work. It is also illogical that Bonnie, after making her parents move heaven and earth to find Forky, would not do the same upon realizing that Woody — the toy she promised to protect — is missing. And if she does not even realize that Woody is missing, then the film denies its predecessor’s claim that she is a good owner.

Fifth, the film abandons the vision for friendship espoused by its predecessors. Buzz may have gotten short shrift in Toy Story 3, but here he is reduced to a complete joke. The running gag about Buzz’s “inner voice” is funny at first, but it is grossly inappropriate for this character and quickly grows annoying. This is not the same Buzz that went on a heroic quest to save Woody in Toy Story 2 without a second of hesitation. This is not the same Buzz that wisely counseled Woody to come home to Andy in Toy Story 2, and to move on in Toy Story 3. This new Buzz is unable to make any decisions based on common sense or offer any advice based on a moral compass. The old Buzz told Woody that going to a museum to avoid abandonment would be a tragedy, but the new Buzz encourages Woody to stay with Bo, likewise to avoid owner abandonment.

In the Toy Story films, friendship used to center on a shared cause. Buzz and Woody were friends because they loved Andy and Bonnie and wanted to help each other help them. One could argue that Woody is leaving Bonnie for a new cause that he shares with Bo: to help lost toys find owners, just as they help Gabby Gabby and the carnival toys. In this shared cause, Bo could be Woody’s friend in the same way that Buzz was his friend. But Woody’s desire to go on a mission to save lost toys is never as clear and pronounced as his desire to be with Bo. He is not staying with Bo to save lost toys. He is staying with Bo to stay with Bo. Whether or not they help some toys along the way is an afterthought. Friends should be helping friends grow in the maturity they need to properly pursue their purpose, but this does not seem to be Bo or Woody’s priority.

Sixth and finally, to justify Woody’s departure, the film subtly and dangerously conflates impulses with the conscience, and emotions with principles. Ironically, the egregious “inner voice” bit is one of the means by which the film inadvertently betrays its own faulty thinking. What Woody means by an “inner voice” is not at all like Buzz’s misunderstanding of the inner voice. The former is consistent and rational. The latter is unpredictable and irrational. The former keeps Woody on a straight and steady path. The latter tosses Buzz back and forth on every wind and wave. When Buzz tells Woody to trust his inner voice and stay with Bo, he does not mean (and Woody does not understand him to mean) that Woody should listen to his conscience and his principles. Woody is no longer asking, as he once did, “What is the right thing to do, even when I don’t feel like it is right?” Here, Woody decides that what feels right is right. I disagree with Buzz’s final statement: Woody really is lost, for he is no longer tied to the steadying anchor of a toy’s telos, but has cut himself loose to redefine his telos as he sees fit.   

Conclusion

At the beginning of this two-part article, I claimed that the Woody of Toy Story 4 is a counterfeit Woody, and that the moral vision of the Toy Story trilogy has been highly diluted in Toy Story 4, and is at risk of being lost. I recognize that reactions to the ending of Toy Story 4 have been divided and that my argument will not persuade everyone, but I hope that I have given my claims a thorough and compelling defense.       

To be fair, I must acknowledge again that a lot of the old magic of Toy Story can still be found in this latest film. Forky and Gabby Gabby are examples of how this series has not entirely abandoned its soul. The filmmakers behind Toy Story 4 — some of whom have been involved with this series from the very beginning — have not explicitly rejected the idea of a toy’s telos. But the contradictory ideals of their own film suggest that they are sadly confused about what that telos is. Whereas these films once enjoined us to sacrifice our temporary happiness in order to experience lasting joy on the path of our telos, now they have been made to preach a different message: our telos is to pursue whatever we think will make us happy in the moment. And if the popularity of the Toy Story trilogy indicated our culture’s wistful desire for a renewed sense of purpose, the popularity of this revised ending to Woody’s story signals something else. Just as Woody has been replaced with a convincing counterfeit, so also the meaning of purpose has been redefined without our noticing.

Robert Brown is a culture critic and academic living in Southern California. After growing up as a missionary kid in Hungary, he moved to California to study Cinema and Media Arts at Biola University and become a director. Instead — plot twist — he graduated with a B.A. in English and now attends graduate school. Robert co-hosts the In the Margin podcast, and publishes his various creative projects at www.robertbrownpresents.com.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *