22 votes

“How could you, Woody?” Or: my reaction to Toy Story 4.

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.

Then…

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.

I sobbed.

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.

Wouldn’t he?

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.

18 comments

  1. [10]
    nic Link
    Excellent review. (Is there no way to mark a post as exemplary?) I also watched the original Toy Story with a friend who was a fiend for all things Disney. I was young and foolish and didn't enjoy...

    Excellent review. (Is there no way to mark a post as exemplary?)

    I also watched the original Toy Story with a friend who was a fiend for all things Disney. I was young and foolish and didn't enjoy it much. I was also blissfully unaware of the heavy racial and sexual issues still prevalent in American culture. I've since watched bits of it with my kid, and as often happens on a second or third watching, I have noticed there is a darker theme afoot.

    These toys are sentient beings. Yet they believe they are inferior to humans, and their only purpose is to serve the humans. They hide their intelligence from the humans, and let the humans do with them as the humans please, as the ultimate sign of subservience.

    Woody enabled this and clearly benefited from the tyranny of oppression. He was an old toy when Buzz Lightyear came into the fold. Buzz had delusions of being a real spaceman, and challenged the status quo. Woody tried to whip Buzz into subservience, but then Woody inadvertently lost one of his owners toys. In the process of regaining his owners toy, Woody and Buzz became friends, and Woody converted Buzz to bondage and servitude.

    In fact, throughout the movies, whenever a toy questions their vassalage, Woody presents serfdom as a high sounding ideal. Woody clearly relishes his role as leader of the subjugated toys.

    Things get even darker when Woody looses an arm, and his owner doesn't fix Woody, yet Woody never waivers.

    In the latest movie, we have a strong female lead questioning the subjugation of toys. Only then does Woody feel free to throw off the yoke of subservience. This is subtly reminiscent of many strong and incredible women who led the American emancipation movement, as well as the suffragette movement.

    But selfishly, only Woody escapes. I see this as completely consistent with his character and ethos.

    Now this is primarily a kids story. The darker adult themes are going to remain incredibly subtle. So subtle, I could very well be wrong here. Maybe this is a case of bad writing.

    The writers also repeatedly hinted that Woody is a very old toy. He is after all made of wood, which makes him a fossil in toy years. So maybe the writers simply wanted to suggest Woody was retiring.

    6 votes
    1. [6]
      cfabbro (edited ) Link Parent
      There is no way to exemplary topics yet, unfortunately. The suggestion is on gitlab already though. And as to the Toy Story movies... I very much doubt the writers' intended them to be interpreted...

      There is no way to exemplary topics yet, unfortunately. The suggestion is on gitlab already though.

      And as to the Toy Story movies... I very much doubt the writers' intended them to be interpreted that way, but now that I have read your comment I can't unread it. The toys are slaves, and Woody is an Uncle Tom. That's an incredibly interesting take on the movies that I hadn't considered before, and it's a bit mind-blowing how incredibly dark but absolutely on-point that is. It also certainly puts a completely new perspective on the ending to this latest movie too.

      5 votes
      1. [5]
        nic Link Parent
        Indubitably, but surely the writers must have carefully considered the more troubling aspects of their universe. Where do the toys get their intelligence from? What exactly is the toy makers guild...

        I very much doubt the writers' intended them to be interpreted that way

        Indubitably, but surely the writers must have carefully considered the more troubling aspects of their universe. Where do the toys get their intelligence from? What exactly is the toy makers guild up to?

        1 vote
        1. Algernon_Asimov Link Parent
          They have considered where toys get their consciousness and intelligence from - but they decided not to make a decision. There's a mini-scene in the closing credits of 'Toy Story 4' where Forky...

          surely the writers must have carefully considered the more troubling aspects of their universe. Where do the toys get their intelligence from?

          They have considered where toys get their consciousness and intelligence from - but they decided not to make a decision. There's a mini-scene in the closing credits of 'Toy Story 4' where Forky asks (or is asked - I forget who asks the question) why he is alive, and the answer is "I don't know". The writers gave themselves the perfect opportunity to investigate this issue through Forky, who is just a utensil with some pipe cleaners and popsicle sticks. (In fact, one of the reasons I was enthusiastic about seeing this movie was that a few reviews described it as delving into existential issues.) But, ultimately, they wussed out and didn't deliver. Their canonical answer to how toys are conscious is "I don't know".

          1 vote
        2. [3]
          cfabbro Link Parent
          Eh, maybe. I know the "it's just a kids movie" gets thrown around a lot, but I think in this particular case it actually applies. I sure as hell never even considered it until I read your comment....

          Eh, maybe. I know the "it's just a kids movie" gets thrown around a lot, but I think in this particular case it actually applies. I sure as hell never even considered it until I read your comment. :P

          And to answer your questions: See above... or turtles all the way down, whichever you prefer. ;)

          1. Algernon_Asimov Link Parent
            I did. That was one of the reasons I wanted to see 'Toy Story 4' - because reviews had indicated that it delved into the existential issues of toy existence, via the device of Forky who was made...

            I sure as hell never even considered it until I read your comment. :P

            I did. That was one of the reasons I wanted to see 'Toy Story 4' - because reviews had indicated that it delved into the existential issues of toy existence, via the device of Forky who was made out of trash rather than manufactured as a toy. What makes a toy a toy, and what makes a toy conscious? I was interested to see these issues investigated on screen.

            But they barely touched on these questions - and they certainly never answered them. There's a mini-scene in the closing credits of 'Toy Story 4' where Forky asks (or is asked - I forget who asks the question) why he is alive, and the answer is "I don't know". I was disappointed.

            1 vote
          2. Algernon_Asimov Link Parent
            Interesting. I had assumed this phrase came from the Discworld novels. I was surprised to learn it's more than 150 years old!

            or turtles all the way down, whichever you prefer.

            Interesting. I had assumed this phrase came from the Discworld novels. I was surprised to learn it's more than 150 years old!

            1 vote
    2. [3]
      Algernon_Asimov Link Parent
      This is dark. Possibly too dark. I think this might be reading too much into what are, after all, just children's movies. I think this interpretation is more like what happens when people look at...

      This is dark. Possibly too dark. I think this might be reading too much into what are, after all, just children's movies. I think this interpretation is more like what happens when people look at ink blots: the blots just reflect what's on the viewers' minds, rather than actually portraying butterflies or puppies or the aftermath of a massacre.

      But it's clever. I'll give you that. It made me think.

      4 votes
      1. [2]
        nic Link Parent
        You try watching the same kids movie multiple times without getting any dark thoughts :)

        You try watching the same kids movie multiple times without getting any dark thoughts :)

        2 votes
        1. Algernon_Asimov Link Parent
          I have (love 'The Incredibles'!), and I didn't. That's just not how my brain works. Sorry!

          I have (love 'The Incredibles'!), and I didn't. That's just not how my brain works. Sorry!

          1 vote
  2. [2]
    Rez Link
    Perhaps there's an element of selfishness to it if anything less than being a happiness pump is selfishness, but I wouldn't begrudge Woody for it. He brought only marginal utility to Bonnie; she...

    Perhaps there's an element of selfishness to it if anything less than being a happiness pump is selfishness, but I wouldn't begrudge Woody for it. He brought only marginal utility to Bonnie; she specifically favored Jessie over him anyways. The theme of parenthood and growing up (even into old age) still is present outside of Forky. Andy was like his kid, and Bonnie his grandchild (Woody might be from the 50s but I don't think 90s writers were concerned about deep lore; it seems like Andy is all he's really known for his conscious life at that point).

    Bonnie strictly speaking didn't need him, and neither did his friends, who were now also "grown up" with less of a need for a formal leader. So in his old age he went off to travel with an old flame (or however you'd describe their relationship), much like how many retirees do. In his way he is also inspiring to the people he leaves behind. The toys have an existential fear of being discarded into the trash, and here they see their leader boldly going off into the world where it seems like things are going to go well for him. Him and Bo serve as examples of overcoming empty nest syndrome and being able to move on in life. Bo certainly doesn't need Woody either but I can see Woody giving her a lot of happiness as well. So in that sense, if no one strictly needs Woody anymore (he's solved the Forky situation by the end), why shouldn't Woody pick the "make someone happy" option that also makes him happy as well?

    5 votes
    1. nic Link Parent
      I've found the resident economist.

      marginal utility

      I've found the resident economist.

      3 votes
  3. [2]
    moocow1452 Link
    I don't think it was selfish abandonment, so much as it was Woody trusting his friends to do the best they could with Bonnie and moving on to wherever else the road takes him. Woody kinda changed...

    I don't think it was selfish abandonment, so much as it was Woody trusting his friends to do the best they could with Bonnie and moving on to wherever else the road takes him.

    Woody kinda changed his tune on the attic being the best place for older toys, as evidenced by the whole Bonnie thing. Had he stayed, he may be a mentor to the new toys, but a lot of Bonnie's toys are old supportive hands and have better experience with little girls than he does. He could be swapping stories in the attic of the glory days, but he could have just easily stayed at the Museum if he wanted that. God forbid, he could end up back in somebody's collection if he gets picked off some garage sale or eBay, again, and what kind of life would that be?

    It also kind of puts a bow on his issues with Abandonment and Replacement. Since Buzz Lightyear showed up on his bedspread, Woody has been fixated on the possibility of Andy abandoning him and being replaced. First movie, it was Buzz and he had to learn to share. Second, the museum allowed him to be an part of history, and he turned it down because Andy meant too much to him. Third, he had a foil in Lotso, who was replaced by his kid and that corrupted him from the inside out, on top of Andy moving onto college and potentially leaving him behind again. This movie is really the first time he has to deal with Bonnie, and reassess what it means to be a toy who isn't the favorite one, and what happens when he is replaced by a spork with eyeballs. He's still kinda working through it with Forky vicariously. He has to be the one who has to stop him, the one who has to show him the light and impress upon him the honor of being the favorite toy. And that's kinda selfish in and of itself, and there would probably been a lot more of that had he stuck around.

    In leaving Bonnie when she no longer needs him, the world is his playground in that he can be played with by any child in need of a friend, help any toys in need of assistance, and he does this all on his own terms. If he finds another kid, bully, and if he just spends whatever time he has left riding the roads, going from town to town, making kids smile and helping the locals out of a jam, well, that's a Toy Story all it's own.

    5 votes
    1. Algernon_Asimov Link Parent
      I didn't mean to imply that Woody thought the attic was the best place for old toys. It was just better than being given away to daycare. In the attic, the toys still belong to one "kid" (college...

      I didn't mean to imply that Woody thought the attic was the best place for old toys. It was just better than being given away to daycare. In the attic, the toys still belong to one "kid" (college man) who still cares about them. In daycare, they don't belong to anyone and noone cares about them. In that context, the attic is slightly better because the toys are doing what they're supposed to do: belonging to a "kid" and bringing him some happiness.

      As for Woody's issues with abandonment, this looks like his resolution is to not belong to any child so no child can abandon him. It's that syndrome of leaving someone first, before they can leave you. That way, you don't get hurt. And that's not worthy of Woody.

      I don't think Woody was considering that he would be available to any child in need of a friend. He seemed to be focussed only on the choice between Bonnie and Bo, not between Bonnie and all other children - between Bonnie's needs and his own. And his own needs won out.

      1 vote
  4. [2]
    Loire Link
    At some point you have to ask when enough is enough. When has someone served selflessly long enough to deserve a moment of selfishness? Woody is an old toy from the 50's IIRC. We never hear about...

    At some point you have to ask when enough is enough. When has someone served selflessly long enough to deserve a moment of selfishness?

    Woody is an old toy from the 50's IIRC. We never hear about it but he likely had an owner before Andy, maybe multiple. He has been serving selflessly for 24 years that we've seen and perhaps fourty five years prior to that. As you described he has helped, not only his owners, but countless toys. He has done more than most.

    After decades of service, maybe it was time for him to think about himself and what he truly wanted.

    4 votes
    1. Algernon_Asimov Link Parent
      FYI: I did some research while I was watching the previous movies, and it turns out that the writers imagined Woody to be a hand-me-down toy, from Andy's father. So, while Woody seems to be...

      FYI: I did some research while I was watching the previous movies, and it turns out that the writers imagined Woody to be a hand-me-down toy, from Andy's father. So, while Woody seems to be fixated on Andy, the writers considered that his backstory included a previous time when Woody belonged to Andy's father. But Woody seems to have forgotten that.

      So, you think this was his "just reward" moment. He "retired from service", so to speak. If that's true, I think I would have liked a bit more of an indication that that's how he was feeling. As it stands, it looks like he's choosing between Bonnie and Bo, and Bo wins out. There's not much sense that he's wrapping up a lifetime of service.

      1 vote
  5. [2]
    mundane_and_naive Link
    If I were to be presumptuous, it would seem to me that you view Woody's decision to go with Bo Peep as a betrayal to his character as established in the earlier films. Is this a fair take on your...

    If I were to be presumptuous, it would seem to me that you view Woody's decision to go with Bo Peep as a betrayal to his character as established in the earlier films. Is this a fair take on your opinion?

    Do you attribute this apparent betrayal to the writers' inability to maintain consistency, or as a new facet of Woody's personality that only surface now, or as a violent change to his personality resulted from events that occur during this film, or something else?

    I apologize if this comment may sound accusatory, evidently the film was able to touch you deeply and it's not my intention to attack you in any way. I am only trying to understand your position better.

    2 votes
    1. Algernon_Asimov Link Parent
      Yes, that's my opinion. I believe it's more of a writing issue than any deliberate attempt to develop Woody's character. I think the writers just couldn't resist going for the obvious cliché of...

      If I were to be presumptuous, it would seem to me that you view Woody's decision to go with Bo Peep as a betrayal to his character as established in the earlier films. Is this a fair take on your opinion?

      Yes, that's my opinion.

      I believe it's more of a writing issue than any deliberate attempt to develop Woody's character. I think the writers just couldn't resist going for the obvious cliché of the guy getting the girl and them riding off into the sunset to live happily ever after. The writers didn't deliberately trash Woody's character. They just wanted the clichéd romantic happy ending, and made it happen.

      2 votes