Toy Story as a Journey of Heroic Repentance, Pt 3: Imputation, Salvation and the Theology of the Cross, Pixar-style

The conclusion to Jeremiah Lawson AKA Wenatchee the Hatchet’s brilliant and very touching look at […]

Mockingbird / 8.19.10

The conclusion to Jeremiah Lawson AKA Wenatchee the Hatchet’s brilliant and very touching look at the Toy Story trilogy. If you haven’t read parts one and two, we highly suggest that you do so before reading this final part.

When we look back on all the things Woody has said and done in the three films, we see that he could often be bitter, craven, wrathful, envious, fearful, and self-absorbed. Yet he has also become more selfless, more giving, more patient, more compassionate, and more the person Andy has imagined him to be over the three movies. By the end of this third film we can fairly ask whether Woody has become so because of his own capacity for embodying these qualities or whether he has also, to put it in starkly theological terms, been the recipient of imputed righteousness. In other words, has Woody been this good because he is this good or because years of being played with by Andy has given him these qualities? Clearly there is no need to assume a polarized assessment since both are true.

At the risk of putting things somewhat personally, I grew up the son of an American Indian man. I never liked movies involving cowboys and Indians. I never particularly liked how Indians have been betrayed in film whether it’s been Dances with Wolves or the token Indian in Predator or Indian stand-ins in Avatar. Woody is the first and only cowboy character in my personal history with cinema that I can root for and relate to. Buzz says simply in Toy Story 2, “Woody once risked his life to save me and I couldn’t consider myself his friend if I wasn’t willing to do the same.” Jesus, of course, said that there is no greater love than this that a man lay down his life for his friends.

There is a great deal that a Christian can appreciate about the Toy Story films and a great deal of character development consonant with the teaching of Christ. Of course this will never be a substitute for “the real thing,” but if your heart and mind are attuned to considering the story of Christ and His people, of the kindness the Father, Son, and Spirit bestow upon us as we await salvation, and most of all as we consider what it can look like to love God and our neighbor, stories like the Toy Story trilogy can inspire us to remember what we are urged to remember.

As I said at the start, those who consider Pixar villains to be weak links, storytelling-wise, are partly right. I believe David Denby has been correct to point out that, in contrast to Disney films that are psychological fables, Pixar films are moral fables–Pixar films have an almost civic-minded sense of duty to one’s neighbor in them is roughly how Denby put it. Denby does not go so far as to say (but may as well have) that Disney films have traditionally depicted a central character cast in a faintly Randian narrative milieu struggling to love himself or herself and be admired by others.

The characters in Pixar films, on the other hand, struggle to realize that loving one’s neighbor as oneself does not mean somehow loving oneself more – in fact, loving oneself, as a goal, can actually hamper one’s ability to be loved. For example, Marlin in Finding Nemo does not realize that in protecting Nemo, he is protecting his own interests rather than acting as the best father he can be to his son. Bob Parr in The Incredibles does not realize that returning to a life of adventure without his family robs his family of a thing that can bind them together. Remy in Ratatouille must neither repudiate human or rodent society but recognize that his identity as a cook allows him to bridge both societies in a way that does not compel him to lie to either group. Of course, WALL-E sold us with the tagline that after centuries of doing what he was built to do, he was going to discover what he was born to do.

All of the above forms a narrative and character thread that goes all the way back to Woody and Buzz.
Buzz Lightyear doesn’t need to be who he thinks he is or who he is supposed to be in Toy Story, he needs to discover that life as one of Andy’s toys, which he saw as a sham, is the truer, better life for him.

The villains in Toy Story films may seem weak because we do not see them as the externalization of the old man that we could at any point choose to embrace, choose to be. Instead, each story in the Toy Story trilogy chronicles Woody as he confronts in another the qualities he has been continuously tempted to embrace in himself. The further along in the trilogy we get with Woody, the more we see that salvation for him has never resided in his preserving his rank, station, or acclaim; it is found when he gives those up for the sake of friends. Woody discovers at the end that he has become who Andy has imagined him to be and is told in poignant terms what for any toy amounts to “Well done, good and faithful servant. Share in the joy of your owner.” The path to this priceless moment for Woody did not lie in self-determination or self-preservation. It lay in a life characterized by self-giving love and repentance.

In a pop-culture cosmos obsessed with finding and fulfilling one’s destiny for greatness, Toy Story now occupies the place as the finest trilogy in the history of popular cinema, not just because it is more fun – which it is – but because it gives us a real alternative to the self-satisfactory pursuit of glory/destiny that dominates so many comparable films. Instead, it fearlessly affirms that most beautiful and true acclamations of heroism: “for whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it” (Luke 9:24).