The Toy Story Generation

[Warning: Spoilers abound for Toy Story 4]

We walked out of the darkened theater, puffy-eyed but smiling. For the briefest of moments, it seemed they were actually going to allow Buzz, Woody, Rex and the rest to actually be incinerated. It would have been devastating, watching long-beloved characters die—and yet, their moment of calm acceptance and companionship, grasping each other’s hands and offering steadying glances before turning to face the inferno, were one of the most poignant moments of any story I’d encountered in any genre or medium. My heart swelled and the tears sprang to my eyes at the sight of such bravery and love well before the aliens and their deus ex machina claw saved the day.

Don’t get me wrong: I was quite happy they survived and breathed ragged sighs of tearful joy when college-bound Andy offered the toys—even his beloved Woody—to the young Bonnie. He even sat and played with her for a moment, forgetful of his age and its expectations, offering one last chance for his childhood best friend to enter into his imagination.

Then, returning to his car, Andy thanks the toys that brought him so much companionship and joy. They return to life and watch his departure while Woody delivers his final line: “So long, Partner.” Fade to black.

Leaning back in my theater seat, I held my wife’s hand. This seemed to be the absolutely perfect way to encapsulate the franchise’s arc—and my own as well. It summed up the path of growing up I felt my peers and I had experienced. In light of Toy Story 3, the films recast themselves in my mind to fit my life’s journey. These stories had a way of successively making a previous film’s subtext into the main text: in light of part 3, the first film (released 15 years previously in 1995 when I was 9 years old) was no longer a simple message of sharing. Rather, it had been molded into an invitation: an invitation into the risky but fulfilling world of life together, of community.

This risky invitation was expounded upon in the second film which came out three years later when I was thirteen and struggling through the hellscape that is middle school. I so desperately wanted true friends, but also felt so continually out of place and awkward that I couldn’t help but withdraw. Toy Story 2 dealt openly with Woody’s growing awareness of the (albeit still far-off) end: of his coming obsoletion and eventual utter loneliness—the hard truth that, for all the love and joy we experience, we ultimately face the end alone. Nevertheless, it defiantly extended a hand to my chubby, pimple-faced self to dare the vicissitudes of life together, to be true to myself and purpose, come what may.

Now, as a 24 year old I looked to my wife, pregnant with our first child, and thought of how betting on companionship had seemingly paid off. Sure, we may eventually experience heartache (if I’d only known what was in store for us in the next two years. . .) but committing to love will pay off. Those in whom we’ve invested will be there with us at the end, holding our hand so that we don’t have to face the fire alone. All shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.


Cue: grown men openly weeping


Such things are easy to say before the storm.

In June 2010, I was a year out of college and in my first career job. Two years married, with a dog and a kid on the way, life was ordered and pure potential. Doubtless, difficulties would eventually arise, but my loved ones—my friends and family, and church—my community—would always be there. Obsoletion and a letting go would surely come, but it would be decades down the road and there was sure to be some beautiful, ride-off-into-the-sunset moment signaling not just an end but a new beginning. I would be able to squint my aged eyes into the fading horizon and wish my past a loving, “So long, Partner,” before turning to the next adventure.

But life rarely concludes in storybook fashion. Thus we found ourselves, nearly a decade following Woody’s last ride, corralling our three children into a different town’s theater. What can be said of the intervening nine-and-a-half years? How to sum up an Odyssey’s worth of failures, wounds, and catastrophes shot through with shafts of joyous light? How to explain our fear of the future based on the disappointments of the past, paradoxically mixed with an undying hope that things (somehow) can get better?

As expected from any Pixar film, there were plenty of laughs and tears to go around. The jokes and poignant moments were plentiful and worked on multiple levels and we—parents and kids alike—willingly immersed ourselves once more in the wonderful world of these toys come to life.

But from the first beat, with the flashback to Bo Peep’s departure from the home, this new chapter struck an almost completely different tone. Gone were the adventures within Andy and the toys’ shared imaginative world, gone were the comforting notes of Randy Newman’s “You’ve Got A Friend In Me”; gone was Woody’s view of an ordered world in which he reigned as the favorite toy.

Hope deferred is the plangent note reverberating within Toy Story 4’s first act: a tale of unmet expectations and promises unfulfilled. I didn’t know how much I’d assumed Woody would go on to be the favorite toy of each successive child through eternity until that dream was shattered with the simple, devastating removal of his sheriff’s badge—then I had to exit the movie’s world for a moment to make the conscious “woke” choice of agreeing that, yes, it was Jessie the Cowgirl’s turn to rule.

This story is one for a generation born and raised under the auspices of a soaring national economy and growing local inequality—of big booms and even bigger busts. Of knowing that we are the first who have and will continue to see a decline in nearly every metric of our lives compared to our parents. It’s a story for those who remember a time before all the collected knowledge and folly of human history were accessible at the click of a button—and the first to come of age in its full revelation. It’s a narrative arc beginning in innocence and ending with acceptance of life’s end as we’ve known it—or a total redefining of what living even means. It’s expectations unfulfilled with unanswered questions left dangling.

It’s a DVD of LOST Season One.

Unlike previous adventures with this small band of friends in which I was completely swept up in their goals, I found myself in this film constantly asking, why? Why is Woody trying so hard to make this child happy when she has almost utterly abandoned him?

What makes him go against the de facto ruler of the playroom to stowaway in Bonnie’s backpack and tilt the social scales in her favor? What makes him watch the incorrigible Forky with such tenacity, even leaping out of a moving vehicle to save him? What makes him willing to give up the opportunity for running away with his lost love, Bo, and even sacrifice his beloved voice box to reunite an ungrateful child with her ad hoc friend?

We’re supposed to be confused with Woody’s actions; supposed to wonder if his inner voice has finally failed him. We’re supposed to agree with Bo and Buzz’s frustrations as their friend’s split loyalties confuse them.

My peers and I are supposed to look at the way our community and the structures we’d been raised to trust have alternately failed, forgotten, and rejected us. We’re supposed to ask Why? Why should we keep working toward the betterment of a world that has almost utterly failed of its promise. Why should we seek the growth of places and institutions that have rejected and cast us out?

Honestly though, it’s not even always “the world’s” fault, sometimes things just happen: Andy tried to set up Woody to continue his role in his new setting, but it just wasn’t meant to be. And maybe that’s the ultimate point of Woody’s final choice: maybe it’s time to let go of the past, not with the confidence that we will be pampered and cared for—rather, that those we leave behind will be.

“She will be okay,” Buzz tells Woody at the final moment of decision. Then, as if to underline which “she” he’s referring to: “Bonnie will be okay.”

“Your old life, your friends and their world, will go on—they’ll be okay. Your part in their story is done . . . And that’s okay. Weep, laugh, love, grieve. But go. It’s time for something new. Not a refreshed version of what you’ve known, but something completely heretofore unimagined.”

She’ll be okay.

You’ll be okay.

So, fellow friends of the Toy Story generation, it’s time to move on. It’s time to become lost toys who are finally found. Our histories are complex, full of pain and heartache, yes—but also joy, and light, and life. We can and should thank them, and then watch them drive away in bittersweet farewell, knowing that we literally could not be here without them, but that our paths have gone as far as they can together.

But they will be with us, to infinity and beyond.

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