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Every ‘Toy Story’ Movie Is Really About Death

Because Pixar’s films are full of life — particularly the ‘Toy Story’ franchise — what often gets missed is also how tied they are to the impermanence of life

I don’t know anyone who’s immune to the moment in Toy Story 3 where it seems a near-certainty that Woody and his friends are going to die. If you haven’t watched the scene recently, just be warned: It’s lost none of its traumatic power.

Pixar has always prided itself on crafting animated movies that weren’t just for kids. The studio’s filmmakers respect their audience’s intelligence, which is why their movies tend to be so smart, as well as funny, exciting and inexhaustible. But because Pixar’s films are full of life — particularly the Toy Story franchise — what often gets missed is also how tied they are to the impermanence of life. That’s just one reason why that scene from Toy Story 3 is upsetting: It’s one of the rare times that these films was so overt about the fact that, deep down, Toy Story is very much about death.

There’s no moment in Toy Story 4 that’s as nerve-racking, but the fear of mortality is all over the new film. In a sense, that fear was always lurking within the story of Woody, Buzz and their fellow playthings. For all the hair-raising adventures these characters face, they’re rarely risking life and limb as much as they’re fending off the inevitability that they’ll become irrelevant. They want their special human to adore them, but they’re just as concerned about what will happen if they’re abandoned. To be unloved in a Toy Story movie is a kind of death — one of many that haunts these films. And as much as we praise this franchise, we don’t talk nearly enough about that particular thematic aspect. Maybe, much like Woody, we’re scared to acknowledge that darkness.

Toy Story 4 picks up where Toy Story 3 left off: Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks) and the rest of his crew now belong to Bonnie, who was given the toys by Andy before he headed off to college. But Bonnie isn’t really into Woody — she prefers Jessie (Joan Cusack) — and the little girl also falls in love with an arts-and-craft character she fashions at school, whom she names Forky (Tony Hale). Woody tries to acclimate Forky to life as a toy, but in one of Toy Story 4’s clever hints at the series’ overall theme, the walking spork is freaked out: How, exactly, am I alive? It’s a funny recognition of a bizarre narrative conceit we’ve blithely accepted since 1995’s Toy Story, which is that these characters are, inexplicably, sentient. But the truth is, that was an easy reality for audiences to buy because, when we’re kids, we just assume that our toys and stuffed animals are alive, imbuing them with personality and feelings. From the beginning, the Toy Story movies have milked that instinct for laughs, but it’s also partly why we love Woody and Buzz so much: We don’t want to believe that they’re not real.

Woody and Forky end up getting separated from the rest of the toys (and Bonnie’s family) during a road trip, and their journey lands them in a strange antique shop where they meet Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), an ownerless old toy convinced that some little girl will someday love her. The scenes in the antique shop are staged like a horror movie — this is a world of the rejected and the walking dead. In the Toy Story universe, a toy without a kid doesn’t have a reason to live.

Of course, that’s been Woody’s existential crisis since the first film. In the original movie, his role as Andy’s favorite was challenged by the arrival of Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), a flashier, cooler toy. (Spacemen trump cowboys, right?) Woody hated Buzz, but he also feared what this new toy represented, which was the gradual decline of Woody’s alpha status. If Andy loved Buzz more, where did that leave him? Woody saw in Buzz’s emergence his own demise.

Toy Story ended with Woody realizing he could coexist with this new toy, but that anxiety over his shrinking relevance has never abated — in fact, it’s powered every sequel since. Toy Story 2 is about Woody being abducted by a nerdy toy collector, only to find out that there could be a happy home for him in a Japanese museum — after all, Andy is going to grow up eventually, and so maybe Woody should start thinking about what he wants to do with his afterlife. Toy Story 3 contains that emotionally scarring incinerator scene, but even before then, Woody was forced to face a reality without Andy, who is leaving home for school. Woody got a reprieve from death thanks to Andy giving his toys to Bonnie, but that only led to Toy Story 3’s bittersweet ending: Sure, Woody would live to see another day, but he can’t stave off mortality forever.

That angst permeates Toy Story 4, which finds Woody catching up with Bo Peep (Annie Potts), who he used to have a crush on. Years earlier, she had become a “lost toy” — a toy without a child to love it — which is the fate that Woody has long struggled to avoid. Interestingly, though, the new movie suggests that maybe that such a state isn’t akin to death. Not only isn’t Peep miserable, but she’s been liberated by the fact that she doesn’t need an owner.

There are many ways to interpret Peep’s freedom in Toy Story 4 — a rejection of societal conventions, a smashing of the patriarchy, a celebration of women turning their back on marriage and motherhood in order to find their own happiness. But the way that she encourages Woody to stop thinking of his life as purposeless without an owner also made me think of how so many of us are ensnared by our fear of death. It’s very easy to become so obsessed with life’s what-ifs — What if my parents die? What if my wife dies? What if I die? — that we spend our days consumed by worst-case scenarios instead of actually enjoying the life we have. To me, that’s always been Woody’s problem. For as much joy as he brought Andy, he could rarely savor their time together because he was always too busy worrying about it all ending.

There’s something tragic about that: Woody’s so scared of dying that he’s been preparing for death all along.

That might seem like a bleak interpretation of a franchise that’s filled with so many great laughs and delightful characters. But what’s beautiful about the Toy Story movies is their willingness to embrace such difficult subject matter, no matter how delicately. I’ve always thought that’s one of the reasons why the internet became fixated a few years ago over whether Andy’s never-seen father is actually dead: We’ve always understood what’s so fragile about these movies’ milieu. Children grow tired of certain toys. Children grow up and move away. Friends drift out of our lives. A parent can die. Good times end. And there is very little we can do about any of it.

I won’t reveal what happens to Woody in Toy Story 4, but I think the ending lovingly addresses how we can be aware of our mortality while choosing to embrace living. Life and death are inexorably connected. But if these movies are often flecked with melancholy about that fact, they’ve also shown us how to be happy despite that knowledge. If Woody can change, maybe there’s hope for the rest of us.  

Here are three other takeaways from Toy Story 4

#1. Here’s a quick look back at Pixar’s production babies.

The first time I watched Toy Story, I sat through the credits. (I loved that movie so much I wasn’t ready to leave the theater). And while looking at all those names scrolling by, something odd caught my eye: There was a credit called “Production Babies,” followed by a bunch of first names. It took me a second to realize what was going on — I was looking at a list of babies born while making the movie.

I’d never seen anything like that, and it turns out, I wasn’t alone. With Pixar’s first movie, the studio initiated a policy in which each new film would list the crew members’ newborns who came into the world during production. For instance, here’s the list of Production Babies from last year’s Incredibles 2:

“If you ask any of us which movie we were making when one of our kids was born, we’ll be able to tell you instantly,” Toy Story 3 and Coco director Lee Unkrich said in 2010. “It’s like our family lives are permanently woven into the movies.”

While watching the Toy Story 4 end credits, I looked for that film’s production babies, which made me think: The first film’s babies are now probably in their mid-to-late 20s. There’s even a Reddit thread that has a running list of all the babies, although sadly it only goes up to 2017’s Cars 3.

I’d love to know where those first babies are now. Do they work at Pixar? In the film business? In animation? That’s a very select group of people to be a part of. To see them all together would be pretty amazing, but also poignant: Like the Toy Story movies themselves, witnessing those onetime babies as full-on adults is a reminder that time just keeps on passing.

#2. Talking dolls have always been creepy.

In Toy Story 4, Gabby Gabby is interested in Woody for one reason: She wants his voice box since hers doesn’t work. Her rationale is that once she pilfers Woody’s, she’ll be a fully functioning doll that no child could resist. Both toys are relics of an earlier time — in Toy Story 2, we learn that Woody originates from the 1950s — when talking dolls were more popular. The kind that Woody is, where you pull a drawstring on his back and the doll speaks one of a handful of prerecorded lines, is a lot less disturbing than, say, Teddy Ruxpin or Chucky, where their semi-animated faces create this creepy uncanny-valley sensation. But it got me curious about the history of talking dolls. Turns out, we can blame them on Thomas Edison.

Smithsonian has an interesting piece about the inventor’s so-called “Edison Doll,” which debuted in 1890. Writer Victoria Dawson explored Edison’s ambition — and also why it was probably destined to fail:

In early April 1890, each doll that emerged from Edison’s vast West Orange, New Jersey, site stood 22’ inches tall, weighed a heavy four pounds and sported a porcelain head and jointed wooden limbs. Embedded in each doll’s tin torso was a miniaturized model of his phonograph, its conical horn trained toward a series of perforations in the doll’s chest, its wax recording surface etched with a 20-second rendition of one of a dozen rhymes, among them “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” “Jack and Jill” and “Hickory Dickory Dock.” With the steady rotation of a hand crank located on the doll’s back, a child could summon from the doll a single nursery rhyme.

Dawson notes that Edison, who invented the phonograph just three years earlier, “[recruited] possibly as many as 18 young women working in factory cubicles, loudly reciting into machines, producing for each doll a single separate recording.”

Unfortunately, this is what the doll’s “voice” sounded like:

Dawson’s article entertainingly breaks down what a spectacular misfire the Edison Doll was. But while that monstrosity is particular disturbing, the now-defunct Rookie offers a helpful primer on other horrific talking dolls, including the Chatty Cathy, which Gabby Gabby definitely seems to be modeled after. You’ve never been so unnerved by the sentence “Please change my dress” than you will after Cathy says it.

#3. Without hesitation, I still think this is the funniest moment in any ‘Toy Story’ movie.

Over four very funny movies, the Toy Story franchise has plied us with dozens and dozens of good laughs. But if you had to pick the absolute funniest moment, what would it be? I’m not gonna give you much time to think about it because I already know the answer. It’s this 11-second clip from the 1995 original:

Nearly 25 years later, I still quote that “Howdy, howdy, howdy!” line, not really carrying if people get the reference or not. There are lots of reasons why this small scene delights me, but let me cite two of them. First, Woody never, in any Toy Story movie, actually says, “Howdy, howdy, howdy,” so that shark is just being a jerk. Second, I don’t think Tom Hanks has ever sounded as pissed as he does when Woody reacts to that impression. Of course, that’s why these movies are so great: There are probably hundreds of throwaway jokes like this in them, each waiting to be latched onto by somebody.

Well, back off cowboy, this one’s mine.