Several years ago a friend of mine, coincidentally also named Ben, first made me aware that the Toy Story movies had theological significance. As I plan to see Toy Story 3 this weekend, I have revisited some of the ideas we discussed and wrote about then, and here present them to you.
The book To Infinity and Beyond! indicates that theological issues were not absent from the filmmakers’ own thinking, as they described one of the questions that helped shape Toy Story 2 as being something along the lines of “if Andy’s room is heaven, and Sid’s room is hell, what would be purgatory?” The answer they came up with was a museum (a quibbler might note that such stasis, neither tormented nor blessed, is more akin to Limbo than Purgatory, but this is beside the point). Whether or not other themes in the film were explicitly influenced by theological considerations, there is much in the films that cries out for theological engagement.
To avoid misunderstanding, I should make it clear that these films are not allegories, even though theological analogies influenced their making, and symbolism is prominent throughout. Rather, through defamiliarizing viewers by telling a story about living toys, they address several fundamental questions of human existence.
When Buzz Lightyear first arrives in Andy’s room in Toy Story, he harbors the delusion that he is “the real Buzz Lightyear,” not a toy based on the character. This is what leads to Woody’s eventual scream “you … are … a … toy!” which is perhaps the most important line in the film. More specifically, both Buzz and Woody are Andy’s toys, as symbolized by his writing of his name on their shoes. Buzz’s failure to understand his true identity is one of two factors that leads to disaster. Believing that a rocket-shaped vending machine will take him to outer space leads to the two toys’ “capture” by Sid, and trying to fly out a window breaks off his arm. At the same time, he fails to understand his true abilities, like a karate chop action device built into him that can be used to defend himself. And when he finally realizes he is not what he thought, his failure to understand that he has an owner who cares for him and values him leads to depression–he had previously seen Andy’s mark only as a sign of honor, not of loving ownership. It is only when Woody instructs him on what it means to be valued by a child that he is motivated to work with him to escape.
Toy Story 2 reverses this dynamic by making Woody the one in danger of forgetting who he is through dreams of immortality. In his fears of being forgotten and destroyed, he succumbs to Stinky Pete’s promises of being preserved forever in a museum. This time Buzz has to tell him “you … are … a … toy!” It is then that Woody remembers the name inscribed on his foot, which had been painted over by the toy repairman, and his true identity, which was not intended merely for perpetual existence on the earth, but for fulfilling the good end of being played with.
Going back to the first film, the other factor that leads to the disaster that is being trapped in Sid’s house is Woody’s attack on Buzz, which leads to both being marooned. He is motivated by fear of losing the relationship with Andy which he desires above all else. Of course, his attempts to keep anyone else from getting into that relationship nearly make him lose it forever. He fails to understand what he claimed to at the beginning of the film: “no one’s getting replaced.” When he finally comes to terms with Buzz, the result is a richer relationship for both of them, between each other and with Andy.
The character of Jessie in the second film is an example of a toy who was replaced as her owner grew older, and thus recreates Woody’s fear of being replaced, making him vulnerable to Stinky Pete’s temptation. Of course, he (and Jessie) are ultimately made to see that a relationship that might be lost is far better than abandoning all possibility of such relationship by going to a museum.
Some of the theological implications are now likely clear. As human beings, we have an identity and purpose given by God, who is our “owner,” as it were. Failure to acknowledge or understand this leads to disastrous attempts to construct our lives on delusions, and may even involve failing to see abilities and resources actually available to us, as Buzz failed to see his karate chop mechanism. Ultimately, those who learn to see reality clearly enough will see themselves as alone and adrift unless they also learn to respond to the One who has placed his mark on them and seeks restored relationship.
Further, while the toys come to understand the value of having such a relationship, and that sharing it with other toys does not mean a lessening of the relationship, but deepening, as human beings we can find an even better conclusion from this insight. There is a real risk for toys that this relationship will eventually end when their owner grows up. But Christians can know that their relationship with God will never end. God will not die or tire of us, and our deaths are not a denial of immortality, but the path to it. There is no need for distraction from this relationship in pursuit of earthly immortality, for that is not where we find ultimate value.
Image credits: Pixar Planet