Toys as Shepherds and Shepherds as Toys: Guiding the Lost in Toy Story 4

Grateful for this one from Jeremiah Lawson. For his insightful commentary on the first three […]

Grateful for this one from Jeremiah Lawson. For his insightful commentary on the first three Toy Story films, start here. Warning: spoilers here!

Here in 2019 there seems to be an inverse proportion between the number of bids at epic storytelling and the number of successes. After eight seasons and years of commentary, Game of Thrones has come and gone, with fans disappointed in its ending. After dozens of films, Marvel Studios gave us Endgame, and it is an epic finishing film, sort of. In the superhero genre particularly, preventing the end of the universe as we know it is standard. Contemporary American film bathes in apocalyptic imagery that is continuously drained of having any genuinely eschatological significance. For an ending to feel like an ending, there has to be an ending, not the narrative seed of a spin-off or a reboot.

Toy Story 3 seemed to give us a real ending to the story of Woody the cowboy doll. In the decades since the first Toy Story was released, it has been common enough to read the films as an allegory about parenthood, as did The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw. But there are other ways to read it as an allegory. That toys come to life because children play with them can invite religious allegorical readings. I’ve proposed that Toy Story is a series that shows us steps in Woody’s life of repenting from self-seeking and taking risks to help others. Andy’s praise of Woody in the end of Toy Story 3 evokes “well done, good and faithful servant.”

In that sense, Toy Story 3 ends on so perfect a note that the question of why the fourth film happened at all becomes existential. For Slate’s Dana Stevens, that existential dread is core to the appeal of Toy Story 4, in which toys discover themselves to be alive and don’t know how or why. For Stevens this is as true about our lives as about the existence of Toy Story 4 itself.

There is, nonetheless, a case to be made for why there was another story to tell about Woody and Buzz, and that reason has to do with Bo Peep and with an extra step Woody could take on the path away from being the arrogant and selfish toy he was in the first Toy Story.

Toy Story 4 begins by showing us the night Bo Peep was given away by Andy and his mom. We know from the earlier films that Woody and Bo Peep had a budding romance, and Toy Story 3 made it clear that Bo was not around. Now we learn that Bo Peep was originally a figurine from a lamp, but that after Andy began playing with her, she came to life, and could interact with Woody and Buzz. Some toys come out of boxes, meant to be toys, and some are made into toys by the imagination of a child.

We’re introduced to this early in Toy Story 4. The toys’ new owner Bonnie, who is about to start preschool, doesn’t play with Woody nearly as much as she does with her other toys. Woody’s new friends tease him about picking up his first dust bunnies, something he never had to worry about as one of Andy’s. Desperate to spend some time with Bonnie, Woody sneaks into Bonnie’s backpack for her introduction to preschool. There he also sneaks toward a garbage can and fishes out items for Bonnie to play with when he sees her ignored by other kids. From a spork, Bonnie creates a new toy, whom she names Forky.

But Forky considers himself trash and hurls himself toward any trash can he can find. We get a montage of Woody frantically thwarting Forky’s suicide attempts, accompanied by Randy Newman singing a gospel-country song called “I Can’t Let You Throw Yourself Away.” Woody confides to Buzz that this is the hardest thing he’s ever had to do, keeping Forky from always trying to kill himself. To Forky, life isn’t a gift at all. So Woody, drawing on his life as a beloved toy passed down from generation to generation, has to explain to Forky what it means to be a toy and why life is worth living.

Yet as Forky will tell another toy later in the film, Woody has never gotten over no longer being Andy’s toy. So when, on a road trip with Bonnie, he spies Bo Peep, he can’t help but go after her. But in the process, he and Forky are taken hostage by a broken doll named Gabby Gabby (voiced superbly by Christina Hendricks).

Woody is rescued by Bo Peep, who has been an adventuring “lost toy.” Where Forky is the toy made from a child’s will who doesn’t want to live, Bo Peep is the figurine who embraces her life as a toy, even a lost one, and finds ways to help other toys. The shepherd figurine guides lost toys to places where kids will keep playing with them, and she tells Woody that he can have this life, too, if he wants. Woody is determined to return to Bonnie but feels guilty for Forky’s capture. After all, Forky only came to life because Woody secretly gave Bonnie a spork to play with. Woody and Bo reunite to save the lost and captured Forky. Both are shepherds to lost and broken toys.

In time, Gabby Gabby discovers Woody was made in the same factory she was. She was made with a defective voice box but a perfect tape. If she could just get Woody’s voice box she could finally be complete and begin a life with a child named Harmony. All Woody has to do is give up his voice box or, if he won’t volunteer, she can just take it from him. She pleads with Woody and asks if his life as Andy’s and Bonnie’s toy was as wonderful as it sounds, and he says it was. To that Gabby replies that all she wants is to have just one of the beautiful lives Woody has been able to live as a beloved toy. Woody agrees to give up his voice box in exchange for the release of Forky. In the original Toy Story Woody’s voice box was the only thing he thought might be able to measure up to everything cool about Buzz Lightyear. In Toy Story 4 he chooses to give up that voice box to save Forky, who spent the first act of the film obsessively throwing himself into trash cans. And after that gift, Woody gives another: he and Bo help Gabby Gabby find a child who will play with her.

The first film showed us a Woody who jealously guarded his status as top toy, in competion with Buzz. These are the things he willingly empties himself of to give other toys some of the life he has had. If it seemed by the end of Toy Story 3 that Woody’s journey of repenting of selfishness couldn’t be any more complete, Toy Story 4 shows us that there has been a new level of self-emptying Woody could choose for the sake of those he loves, whether toys who regard themselves as trash or toys that were thought long lost.

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