Warning: this post may contain spoilers
First up: that “spoiler” tag isn’t there for fun. This essay is going to focus on a climactic moment in ‘Toy Story 4’. If you haven’t seen it and don’t want to know what happens, close this topic NOW.
I saw ‘Toy Story 4’ last night. I’ve been catching myself up on the previous movies over the past few weeks (I’d never seen any of them before), so they’re reasonably fresh in my mind. I surprised myself by enjoying the movies a bit more than I expected to. I had assumed they were very much children’s movies, but I found them engaging and enjoyable even as a middle-aged adult.
So I was all caught up, and went out last night to see the latest instalment in the franchise with a friend who’s a massive fan of all things Disney.
I liked it. It was yet another “toys having adventures in the big wide world” story line. That seems to be the main story line of all the Toy Story movies: the toys get lost or misplaced, or have to go rescue a toy who is lost or misplaced, so they end up having adventures outside of their home.
But there’s usually an emotional heart to each movie. And that emotional heart often comes from the character of Woody, whose goal has always been to make sure that the toys are doing what toys are supposed to do: bringing joy to children. As we often get told, mostly by Woody, being a child’s plaything is the most noble thing a toy can do. To that end, Woody seems willing to do almost anything. The toys have mounted ridiculous rescue missions, they’ve manipulated humans (it wasn’t Andy’s idea to give his toys to Bonnie), and they’ve made personal sacrifices. Even in this movie, Woody was willing to give up his voice box so that he could get brand-new toy Forky back to Bonnie who had made him, and to give Gabby the chance to belong to a kid.
Woody met Bo Peep in this movie, and found her living an independent life as a lost toy. We know they’ve had romantic feelings towards each other, but she was given away by Andy’s little sister some years back. Then she got given away again, to an antique store. Now she turns up living near a caravan park, and she’s noone’s toy except her own.
Normally, Woody would have moved heaven and earth to reunite Bo with her previous kid, or to find her a new one. But she doesn’t want one. She’s an independent toy now, and that suits her fine.
So they have their adventures. And, at the end of those adventures, Woody and his fellow toys are returning to Bonnie, while Bo is returning to her independent life. And Woody has a moment of indecision. Does he return to Bonnie, or does he go with Bo?
But, there’s not really that much tension because we know how this is going to end. Woody has told us so many times that being a child’s plaything is the most noble thing a toy can do. Of course he’s going back to Bonnie.
And then he chooses to go with Bo.
Let me give some context for my reaction to this moment. I do respond emotionally to movies and television. I laugh loudly when something is funny, and I cry openly when something is sad. I jolt back in my seat in response to scary moments, and I’ve been known to cover my eyes during exceptionally gory scenes. I’m not ashamed to feel things in response to events on the screen, nor to express those feelings. That’s normal for me. However, I felt a very strong emotional reaction to this moment in the movie – much stronger than most. I wanted to burst out in loud unmanly sobs because of how upset I was. I wanted to shout at the screen. I felt a real and physical reaction in my gut: it was literally a gut-wrenching moment for me (and that almost never happens!). This was the strongest emotional reaction I’ve had to any moment in movies or television for years. It was strong enough to prompt me to write about it!
I know I was supposed to feel happy that Woody and Bo had found each other, and they loved each other, and this was the start of their romantic “happy ever after”. But that’s not why I cried. I cried because Woody turned his back on nobility and chose selfishness.
Woody had been the conscience and the heart of the whole franchise, reconciling toys to their place in life, and helping toys to achieve their goal in life. Even in this movie, he had turned Forky around from wanting to be trash to wanting to help Bonnie. Woody showed toys their noble goal in life, and did everything he could to help them achieve it.
And then he turned his back on everything he’d said and believed up till now.
Sure, Bonnie wasn’t playing with him as much as Andy did. Sure, he wasn’t top dog in Bonnie’s playroom (that place belonged to Dolly, who’d been there much longer than Woody and his fellows). But Woody was always selfless. Woody was always looking out for the children’s best interests. Woody was always putting the children’s needs ahead of his own. He had previously told his fellow toys that even being stored in the attic was a good thing because it meant their child (now a college man) still cared about them to some degree. So, even if Bonnie wasn’t playing with him all the time, he would still want to stay around to be there for her – or even to be there for the other toys she did play with.
Or was it all a lie? Was it all about his own selfish desire to be important and, then, when that importance was taken away, he decided to walk out?
Or was it as basic as choosing pleasure over service?
How could you do that, Woody? How could you turn your back on everything noble and good, and choose your own selfish desires instead?
Woody, you broke my heart.