A Toy’s Telos, Chapter 1: The Moral Vision of Toy Story
We need to talk about Woody. No, not Woody Allen. Enough people have been talking about him. I mean Sheriff Woody. The Woody who is an intricately-crafted doll, complete with a cow-skin vest, a red bandana, a cowboy hat, and a voice box activated by a pull string. The Woody who displays a child’s name written in Sharpie on the sole of his plastic boot: ANDY — with the “N” written backwards. The Woody who is not just a toy but a soul, a soul that is fiercely devoted to this Andy. The Woody who is voiced by Tom Hanks, with a passion and gravitas that makes Woody rival his finest in-the-flesh performances. The Woody who is the star and beating heart at the center of Pixar’s signature cultural contribution, Toy Story, a film series that has been a staple of American animation (and American childhoods) for a quarter century.
Woody is back in the spotlight with the recent release of Toy Story 4, a long-delayed addendum to the Toy Story trilogy that ran from 1995 to 2010. Considering the satisfying resolution of the third film, as well as the typical mediocrity of Pixar’s sequels, this was an addendum that no one seemed to really need or desperately want. But the box-office success and generally-positive reviews that have greeted this unnecessary sequel are a testament to the power of its predecessors, and perhaps a witness to something deeper still. Our movie-going culture may not have needed another Toy Story film, but it could certainly use more films like Toy Story — and if we aren’t getting more films like Toy Story, even a recycled Toy Story film might be better than nothing. Despite all my dissatisfaction with Pixar’s past decade of diminishing returns and squandered potential, even I was suddenly eager to see the new film when I watched the first full trailer. The trailer went beyond appeals to nostalgia. It did not just show clips of Sheriff Woody, Buzz Lightyear, and the rest of the gang, relying solely on the strength of their iconography. Instead, the trailer succeeded in grabbing my attention because it evoked the spirit of Toy Story. That is, it evoked the spirit of Woody.
Woody quite simply is Toy Story. The trailer made the case that this new film would be about Woody just like all the others, and it argued there was still a worthwhile story for this special toy to tell. I was intrigued when I heard Tom Hanks’s voice express all of Woody’s hopes and fears — and with them the entire premise of Toy Story — in two simple, powerful sentences: “I was made to help a child. I don’t remember it being this hard.” Toy Story is about Woody’s belief that he has a telos — a purpose, mission, goal, aim, or end — that was assigned to him. And it is about his struggles to fulfill that telos, for it truly is difficult. However, these films have also insisted that, despite the challenges, Woody can only know true joy when he pursues his telos. The plot of each Toy Story film arises from the tension between these three propositions: the possibility of fulfilling a telos, the pain that comes with fulfilling that telos, and the preciousness of fulfilling one’s telos even in the midst of its pain. This is Toy Story — Woody’s story — in a nutshell. Every part of Woody’s characterization, every stage of his growth and change over time, and virtually every word he speaks and decision he makes, proceeds from his understanding of himself as a being with a telos — or at least, this was what used to define him.
Sadly, Toy Story 4 does not meet the expectations created by its trailer, nor does it live up to the legacy of the Toy Story trilogy. Even though the trailer captured the essence of Woody, and even though for much of the film Woody acts as he always has, in the end Woody makes a dramatic decision that is totally unlike him, and this decision repudiates the Toy Story trilogy’s moral vision of a toy’s telos. We need to talk about Woody, then, because he has gone missing. He has gone missing, not only in the sense that he chooses to become a “lost toy” at the end of Toy Story 4, but also in the sense that, somewhere between 2010 and 2019, he somehow ceased to be the Woody we once knew. If this is really so, it is a tragedy, not only for Toy Story but for us.
Even when we first met him 24 years ago, the old Woody was already an anomaly. Just as in the films Woody is a relic of a 1950s heyday of toy-making craftsmanship, in our secular age Woody is a remnant of a type of person that has become exceedingly rare. We live in an age in which people no longer believe they have a telos. To be sure, most people want to have a meaningful life and a sense of fulfillment. But very few believe they have a telos that is intrinsic to the way they were created, and most would rather create their own telos. Many will not even entertain the possibility that they were created by someone. And when people do posit the existence of a creator, they are more likely to question his intentions in creating them, and to challenge his fitness for defining their telos, than to trust his goodness and wisdom and embrace the end for which he made them.
If this is an accurate assessment of our age, and if Toy Story really has been so preoccupied with extolling the virtues of living according to one’s innate telos, then the popularity of Toy Story in our age is ironic. Actually, it is miraculous. Again, this popularity may be a witness to something deeper. Perhaps it is a sign we secretly want our telos back, even though we are afraid of what that recovery would cost. We are in good company, however, for Woody has faced that same fear more than once. But facing his fear head-on only made his convictions more sure. Woody would make an excellent guide for us through the present wilderness of telos-denying relativism, existentialism, and nihilism. He can sympathize with our doubts and frailties and show us the way home. We need to talk about Woody during this current revival of interest in Toy Story, because studying Woody could teach us much about our own telos and how we can fulfill it.
However, if it is also the case that Woody has gone missing and that there has been a seismic shift in the moral foundations that support Toy Story, then the need to talk about Woody becomes all the more pressing. In Toy Story 2, Andy’s toys mistake an imposter Buzz Lightyear — a newer model of the toy that is still a “delusional” “astro-nut” — for the Buzz that is their friend. This imposter Buzz puts them in danger of getting smashed to pieces because he believes he has an anti-gravity belt. However, the toys do not realize their mistake until the real Buzz proves his identity by revealing Andy’s name on his boot. This incident is a perfect metaphor for the issue at hand. There are two Woody’s. One Woody has a name on his shoe, and his telos is to live for that name. The other Woody has ignored the name on his shoe, and he has forgotten that he is subject to the gravitational pull of his telos. Only one of them can help lead us to our telos. The other means well, but will lead us astray. The differences between the two Woody’s can be subtle, and so we need to study the original in order to identify the counterfeit. I will therefore be devoting the majority of this essay to summarizing the moral vision of the original three films, and then I will conclude with an argument for why this moral vision has been highly diluted in Toy Story 4, and is at risk of being lost.
Woody’s worldview is classical. He would be more at home with Aristotle or Augustine than with the postmodern philosophers who have helped reshape our world. Like Aristotle, Woody believes in an ordered, purposeful cosmos. Within this cosmos, every being and every thing has a designated function, and a person or object is to be judged good or bad insofar as it properly performs that function. The good hammer, Aristotle would say, is the hammer that works, and the good citizen is the citizen that fulfills his duties to his city. Likewise, Woody would say that the good toy is the toy that lives in step with its design.
Throughout the Toy Story films, the design of a toy often indicates its character and behavior, for better or worse. Slinky the Dog is affectionate and protective, just like a real dog should be. Ham the Piggy Bank, being closely related with money and the stomach, is the toy most attuned to the advertisement-riddled, product-driven world of human adults. The Rock’em Sock’em Robots are factory-molded into postures of violence. Tour Guide Barbie is, of course, a tour guide. Stinky Pete the Prospector, enclosed within a box and armed with a gold miner’s pick-axe, cares only for self-preservation and elusive fame. Last but not least, the cowboy Sheriff Woody, as a herder of livestock and a keeper of the peace, has a natural bent toward leadership and moral clarity at best, and toward micro-managing and moralistic pride at worst.
But this is not to say that the cosmos of Toy Story is inflexibly deterministic. An Evil Emperor Zurg toy does not have to be evil. The seemingly benevolent Lots-O’-Huggin’ Bear undergoes a dramatic shift in character and would rather choke and terrorize other toys than embrace and comfort them. Conversely, Buzz Lightyear, the ultimate “cool toy,” forsakes his delusions of self-importance and learns to become a humble servant of others. What truly defines a toy is not the possibilities and constraints of its outer design, but whether or not it chooses to reject its inner design, as Lotso does, or conform to it, as Buzz does.
The inner design of every toy, regardless of its age, attractiveness, or accessories, is to love a child — not just any child or children in general, but the one child that was assigned to them as their owner. Granted, some toys have not been assigned owners or have been given up by their owners, in which case the reality of their telos is experienced in a slightly different way. However, we will address the state of ownerless toys later on, and it is abundantly clear that Woody’s mission, as an owned toy, is “being there for Andy.” This is his primary and most essential telos. It is his vertical telos, for it is dependent upon the presence of someone who exists on a higher plane, someone who is both unlike him and greater than him. Andy is a human, not a toy, and toys exist for the sake of humans, not the other way around.
This hierarchy should not be perceived as repressive, for it is only within this hierarchy that toys can be their fullest and truest selves. In the second film, Buzz recounts how it was Woody who taught him that “life’s only worth living if you’re being loved by a kid.” In the same film, Jessie the Yodeling Cowgirl provides Toy Story’s most eloquent encapsulation of the joys of a toy’s telos. She says, “When [a child] plays with you, it’s like, even though you’re not moving, you feel like you’re alive, because that’s how [he or she] sees you.” Apart from the love of a child, toys would be less alive. The lives they lead would be much less meaningful, if not entirely meaningless. The Toy Story films each examine the various ways that toys experience loneliness and misery when they are not living within their telos. It is in this respect that Woody could be called Augustinian. He would understand what Augustine meant when he famously confessed, “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.” As Travis Kyker hinted at in his FilmFisher review on Toy Story 4, the Toy Story films are essentially a secular meditation on the Christian thesis that opens the Westminster Shorter Catechism: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him for ever.”
However, it must also be clarified and stressed that Andy is not Woody’s god. The analogy between Andy and Woody and God and Man can only extend so far. Indeed, I am indebted to Travis for reminding me that the analogy can be just as valuable when it is inverted. Just as the Creature often ignores the presence and scorns the ceaseless mercies of the Creator, the children of Toy Story are largely ignorant of all the ways that their toys serve and suffer for their sake. But Woody should not be called Andy’s god, either. Moreover, though the Toy Story films have never introduced us to a toymaker — this series loves its movie references, but it has yet to pay homage to The Truman Show — even a toymaker would be an insufficient analog for God. Woody could not relate to a toymaker in the way Augustine and the Westminster Divines related to God. A toymaker’s relationship to a toy would be deistic: the toymaker winds up the clock — or the toy — and is never seen again, never having any further say or control over the toy’s ownership and well-being. In sum, while Toy Story presents a worldview that is often uncannily similar to the Christian one, we should beware of drawing rigid parallels. There is still plenty of spiritual nourishment that can be gleaned from these films without relying heavily on allegorical interpretations.
Even though the relationship between toys and their owners is asymmetrical, it is also meant to be reciprocal. Just as toys have a telos that is the standard by which to judge them as good or bad toys, owners have a telos by which to judge them as good or bad owners. The good toy is there for his owner. Likewise, the good owner plays with and protects his toy. This is the unspoken yet tacitly understood agreement that exists between a good toy and a good owner.
Andy is not a perfect kid, just as Woody is not a perfect toy. I’d say that Andy is guilty of materialism, at least — consider his uncritical obsession with the latest toy fad in the first film, and how he dismissively calls his old toys “junk” in the third film. But Andy’s toys are right to call him “a good kid” (Mr. Potato Head explicitly says so) because they can attest to how much he loves and cares for them. Rex the Dinosaur is justifiably shocked at the abusive treatment he receives from the toddlers at Sunnyside Daycare, because “Andy never played with us like that!” Even if Andy does harm his toys, it is only by accident, and he makes sure they are repaired. When his toys go missing, he goes looking for them, genuinely desperate and distraught. And when he is too old to play with his toys, he knows that he is responsible for finding them a new owner who takes the telos of a toy owner as seriously as he does. This new owner is Bonnie, and Andy chooses her because “Someone told me you’re really good with toys. These are mine, but, I’m going away now, so I need someone really special to take care of them.”
But what difference does it make for a toy owner to take their telos seriously? If Woody gains a full and fulfilled life from being played with by Andy, what does Andy gain from playing with Woody? The Toy Story films are much less concerned to ask what it means to be a toy owner than they are to ponder what it would mean to be a toy if toys were sentient. Nevertheless, there are a few hints dropped along the way.
First, toys are for friendship. A toy will wordlessly tell a child, “you’ve got a friend in me,” even if their peers should shun them. When Andy describes Woody at their final parting, it is Woody’s faithfulness that he emphasizes.
Second, toys are for comfort. The scene in Toy Story 4 where Gaby Gaby comes to the rescue of the lost child conveys this comfort powerfully. A child who plays with a toy, and does so in the right manner, will find the experience therapeutic. Arguably, the children of Sunnyside’s Butterfly Room understand and appreciate the satisfaction of playtime more than the children of the Caterpillar Room.
Third, toys are for creativity. The playtimes of Andy and Bonnie are exercises for the imagination. Judging by the posters and awards on his walls, it is likely that Andy is going to college to study Fine Arts. Bonnie has a similarly artistic bent, leading to the creation of Forky.
Finally and most importantly, toys help a child develop not just an imagination in general, but a moral imagination in particular. The stories Andy creates with his toys rehearse the age-old, transcendent story of good over evil, in which the heroes protect and cultivate what the villains try to harm and steal. Woody and Buzz defend lost sheep, damsels in distress, and orphans, and One-Eyed Bart and Evil Doctor Pork-chop always lose. The remarkable maturity and sacrifice of Andy’s choice at the end of the trilogy can be traced back to “lazy” summer afternoons spent waving toys around and mimicking the plots of (good) Saturday-morning cartoons.
In this respect Toy Story is the descendant of a distinguished line of Disney films about how we cannot become true adults unless we have first experienced true childhood. In The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, Christopher Robin must grow up sooner or later, but his days spent in the Hundred-Acre Wood were far from wasted time. In The Jungle Book, Mowgli must return to the human village, but his animal friends have not left him unprepared for the challenges he will face there. In Peter Pan, Peter resists but cannot deny the truth that Wendy and her brothers must go home. In Mary Poppins, Walt Disney’s definitive mission statement for all his cinematic efforts, the magical nanny encourages Jane and Michael to be reasonable, to listen to their no-nonsense father, and to invest in the bank — but if they do not first learn to do useless things like “feed the birds” and “fly a kite,” their souls will be locked into the same cage that entraps their father’s. The imagination is to reason what a spoonful of sugar is to medicine.
But Toy Story can trace its roots to another film studio as well. Surely the presence of Totoro in Bonnie’s room signifies more than Pixar’s love for Miyazaki and the sister animation house across the sea. My Neighbor Totoro, like Toy Story, is a film about children growing up not because they ignore their imaginary friends, but because they learn from them. While this is far from the main emphasis of Toy Story, it can still be said that children gain fuller lives when they fulfill their telos as toy owners.
Woody has another, secondary mission in life. His vertical telos is paired with a horizontal one. If toys exists to be there for their owners and cannot experience fulfillment apart from their owners, and if toys exist alongside other toys who share the same telos (if not always the same owner), then it follows that toys ought to be helping one another fulfill their telos. Toys should be there for other toys so that other toys can be there for their owners. And so Woody has dedicated himself to helping other toys — especially the ones who have either been forgotten or who have forgotten their purpose — return to and remain in a place where they can be what they were made to be: “a child’s plaything.” We do not see Woody spend a lot of time with Andy in these films. (If you want to see a full film of a child playing with toys, watch The LEGO Movie instead — or go babysit your nephew.) Instead, Toy Story is far more interested in the relational dynamics that exist between toys. While Woody can teach us a little bit about what it means for us to be lovers of God, he can teach us even more about how we can love our neighbors.
While earlier I cautioned against drawing too many theological parallels, I won’t refrain from doing so when the parallels are direct and appropriate. Christ gave us two great commands, likewise along a horizontal and a vertical axis: love God who is above, and love your neighbor who is beside you as your equal. These two commands are inextricably connected. How we can say we love God if we do not love our neighbors who bear the image of God? And how can say we love our neighbors if we are not doing everything we can to help them “to glorify God, and to enjoy him for ever”? As Christians with a God-given telos, we love unbelievers best by pointing them to their Maker — this is the reason for the Great Commission — and we love the saints best by helping them know, love, and obey the One who is both their Lord and ours.
Toys either innately understand their telos, or they are able to learn it intuitively. When Woody meets the Roundup Gang — Jessie, Stinky Pete, and Bullseye the Horse — on the other side of town, we discover that the idea of a toy’s telos is not parochial. It is not a belief limited to Andy’s room, or something that Woody just made up to keep Andy’s toys under his thumb. Jessie has never heard Woody talk about what it means to be a toy, but she realizes he cannot go to the toy museum in Japan the moment she sees the name on his boot. “He already has an owner!” Somehow, Jessie knows that Woody leaving Andy would break some unspoken rule; it would shatter some mystical bond that unites toy to owner and owner to toy. Later, Woody tells Jessie, “This is what it’s all about, to make a child happy, and you know it.” If Woody were a Christian apologist, he would be a presuppositionalist, not an evidentialist. There is nothing he can show Jessie to prove that she needs to find an owner and that she needs to be played with. But he believes she can find such a claim intelligible and compelling because it will find an echo in her own conscience.
However, even when toys know their telos, they still struggle to fulfill it, and again and again it is Woody who steps in to help them. Toys have physical needs that must be met if they are to be preserved for future playtimes, and apparently Woody has a way to get tired toys fresh batteries, and he organizes seminars on topics like “what to do if you or a part of you is swallowed.” Some toys are in danger of being thrown out — or of being shipped halfway across the world — and Woody is the one who jumps into action (and out of windows and moving vehicles) to rescue them. Woody, as a cowboy, is the American West’s equivalent of a shepherd, and like a certain Good Shepherd, he often leaves the ninety-nine to save the one, even at the risk of his own life and happiness. A toy’s telos is so precious, it is worth putting one’s own telos on the line in order to bring the lost toy home.
But the hardest cases Woody must address are toys who do not even want to fulfill their telos, the toys who longer want to be toys. In the first film this hard case is Buzz, and with each film the number of lost, confused, or embittered toys grows exponentially. However, as will be seen, Woody is not above struggling with his telos as much as everyone else. This is why toys need other toys as much as they need owners, and this is why the friendship of Woody and Buzz is so central to the series.
Perhaps the clearest indicator that a toy has a two-fold telos — a vertical purpose and a horizontal purpose — is that the song “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” is the theme of both Woody’s relationship to Andy and his relationship to Buzz. The words of the song are Woody’s promise to Buzz as much as they are his promise to Andy. The Toy Story films are built around these two friendships, and in Woody and Buzz’s friendship they offer us a profound portrayal of the nature of true friendship.
C. S. Lewis writes in The Four Loves that friendships look outward — or we might say, upward, toward a shared telos. “Lovers are always talking to one another about their love; Friends hardly ever about their friendship. Lovers are normally face to face, absorbed in each other; Friends, side by side, absorbed in some common interest.”  Commenting on Lewisian friendship, Joe Rigney observes that, “In friendship, ‘Do you love me?’ means ‘Do you see the same truth?’ — or at least ‘Do you care about the same truth?’” 
Buzz and Woody are friends because they see the same truth and care about it, and because they want to help each other cherish that truth. In the moral vision of the Toy Story films, a toy is a good friend to another toy insofar as it helps that other toy fulfill its telos. Woody and Buzz’s friendship is less about enjoying each other’s company — they hardly have a moment to spare to do that — and more about their shared commitment to being there for Andy and for his toys. In fact, given that both of them have personalities big enough to suck all the oxygen out of Andy’s room, it would be next to impossible for them to be friends if they did not both love Andy’s good more than their own egos. The good friend is defined by self-sacrifice. Woody is a good friend to Buzz when he rescues him from Sid, and Buzz is a good friend in return when he leads a group of Andy’s toys to go rescue Woody from Al.
Buzz matures tremendously between the first two Toy Story films, and this has to be due largely to Woody’s influence. As Buzz himself attests, it was Woody who taught him how to be a toy and to love being a toy. Over time, Buzz is apprenticed by Woody to become his second-in-command. At the beginning of Toy Story 2, Woody is anxiously telling him all the things he will need to do while Andy and Woody are at Cowboy Camp. But Woody needn’t have worried, for Buzz proves to be fully capable of taking care of Andy’s toys in Woody’s absence. There are even moments in the second and third films when Buzz sees with clearer eyes than Woody, and must challenge his friend when he goes astray, just as Woody once challenged him. A true friendship is marked by such faithfulness. As Woody and Buzz stand side by side, looking forward in time to the ominous unknown when Andy will grow up and no longer need them, they pledge to be there for each other, “for infinity and beyond.”
Rigney writes that “Because friendship is always about something, it matters what that something is. Friendship [quoting Lewis] ‘makes good men better and bad men worse.’”  Because Woody and Buzz are aiming toward the same telos, they are able to move each other closer and closer to it. But there are also false friendships in the Toy Story films that are corrosive to a toy’s telos. Stinky Pete poses as a wise mentor figure, but his fine-sounding counsel is deceitful. The henchmen that enforce Lotso’s rule over Sunnyside could also be called friends, for they too are “side by side, absorbed by some common interest” — but this common interest is gambling, with tokens and with weaker toys’ lives. Chuckles the Clown recounts how, when Lotso first arrived at Sunnyside and it became clear what he intended to do there, “He wasn’t my friend anymore.” A toy that loves its telos cannot be friends with a toy that hates it.
To Be Continued
This is the moral vision of the Toy Story films: The good life for a toy is the life of being there for a child who owns, plays with, and protects them, and to be there for other toys as a faithful friend, that they too may experience this good life. This is Woody’s argument.
But Toy Story is a series of stories, not a philosophical treatise, and so it requires conflict, both external and internal. And if Woody has an argument to make, the strength of that argument must be tested by counter-arguments and rebuttals. Each Toy Story film throws new challenges at Woody and his telos, as if to ask him, “Is this telos good for you? Is it really worth it?” Next time, we will consider how Woody responds to such questions, and how his faith in his telos grows only stronger with each challenge, making his eventual loss of faith all the more bewildering. Chapter 1 has been the thesis. Chapter 2 will be the antithesis.
- C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves (Mariner, 1971), 61.
- Joe Rigney, Lewis on the Christian Life: Becoming Truly Human in the Presence of God (Crossway, 2018), 214.
- Rigney, 215.