Looking back to the original Toy Story series, it seems obvious that one of the things that really helps Buzz accept his child’s toy nature is that he is good friends with a bunch of other children’s toys, including Woody. Part of the dynamic in both cases is surely that we are better able to accept that we’re “nothing special,” if we are very close to others who are also, in that same sense, “nothing special,” while being, in another sense that we see clearly, very special indeed.
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Central to the Toy Story series are presentations of characters realising they cannot any longer be what they have long been or imagined they are, and dealing with the emotional and practical fallout of that.
Two examples stand out especially.
First, across all four of the original feature films, there is Woody’s struggle with the decreasing value he has to the child he belongs to – Andy in the first three films and then Bonnie in the fourth. This loss of value progresses sometimes in stops and starts and sometimes incrementally, and is similar to a loss of value that just about all toys in the Toy Story world experience, as the children they belong to grow up. It represents, we might think, the loss, for any of us, of any relationship we’ve long felt to be fundamental to our lives.
Second, there is, in the first film, Buzz’s revelation that he is in fact a child’s toy rather than an intergalactic space ranger. There are echoes of this revelation in the recent spin-off Lightyear, purporting to be the film for which the Buzz character in the original Toy Story series is merchandise; in Lightyear, a human Buzz must come to terms with the mission he has long dedicated himself to no longer being valued by his community, and his consequent decommissioning. The second case here might be seen as interpreting the first: the difficulty Buzz has, in the original Toy Story, in accepting that he is a child’s toy rather than an intergalactic space ranger parallels the difficulty anyone might have in accepting that some great profession they’ve long based their sense of identity on being part of is not really for them, or not anymore, if it ever was.
Of course, both Woody’s challenge and Buzz’s are challenges to their senses of identity, of life purpose and meaning. What is Woody if not Andy’s beloved toy? What is Buzz if not a space ranger? What are any of us when the relationships and work we’ve at a deep level dedicated ourselves to are taken away from us? Journeys of radical self-reorientation must begin here.
I want to trace these journeys through the films, commenting as I go on what I take to be points being made, or even morals being offered. I also want to just appreciate, and encourage appreciation of, how deeply and insightfully these themes are dealt with in this series of children’s films.
When we’re introduced to Woody at the start of the first Toy Story film, he is, undisputedly, Andy’s favourite toy and the leader of Andy’s toys. He is the cowboy sheriff – this is his identity. Then Andy gets a new toy for his birthday: Buzz Lightyear, the space ranger. Buzz has all sorts of impressive gizmos, and is the newest, coolest toy on the market; he quickly and totally supplants Woody as Andy’s favourite toy, and increasingly seems to be replacing Woody as the accepted leader in the toy community too. Woody’s whole world is turned upside down; “strange things are happening to me,” sings Randy Newman, as we watch a montage of these changes unfolding, Woody looking more and more shell-shocked from one clip to the next. Then, over the remainder of the first film, having got lost together in the big bad world outside of Andy’s house, Woody and Buzz become good friends and, in the process, find a way in which they can work together, share the leadership of Andy’s toys, and thereby only enrich that leadership and each other’s experiences of it. By the start of the second film, it’s clear Andy’s affections have also balanced out after the initial period of infatuation with Buzz, and Woody is again extremely important to him – his joint-favourite, at least. So the crisis seems to have been averted.
But the idea of Andy again losing interest in Woody, and in a more permanent way, lingers in the second film. The fabric of Woody’s arm tears while Andy is playing with him, and so Andy cannot take him to cowboy camp as he’d been intending. Woody finds himself put on a high-up shelf next to Wheezy, an old squeeze-toy with a broken squeaker that even the other toys had forgotten about. In Andy’s absence, Woody is then accidentally caught up in a yard sale and stolen by the villainous toy collector Al, who knows what a rare and valuable item Woody is and intends to sell him, along with three other toys he has from the same franchise, to a toy museum in Japan. In Al’s apartment, Woody meets those three other toys – Jessie, Bullseye, and Stinky Pete. Before he quite gets round to escaping and getting back to his beloved Andy, Jessie tells him about how she used to be owned and loved by a girl called Emily, until Emily grew up and lost interest in her and then one day abandoned her in a cardboard box that went into some charity’s storage. Stinky Pete warns Woody that the same thing will inevitably happen to him when Andy grows up. For a while, Woody is persuaded that the toy museum in Japan is indeed the better fate. When some of Andy’s other toys come to rescue him, Woody’s happy to see them but tells them he’s going to the museum. Andy’s other toys are perplexed, and Buzz tells Woody that the purpose of a toy is to be played with by children, and that that won’t be possible from behind the glass of a museum exhibit case. The unspoken other argument, of course, is: what about us? What about our friendship, our community? Woody is initially unswayed, but then, just as Andy’s other toys are leaving, he looks at the name “Andy” scrawled on the sole of his boot and suddenly changes his mind. “You’re right, I can’t stop Andy growing up,” he says to Stinky Pete, “but I wouldn’t miss it for the world!” There’s real wisdom in that remark, isn’t there? Just because something is finite, or even very short-lived, does not mean it is not profoundly worth it. Also, to slightly adapt a memorable point of Brené Brown’s: Our capacity to experience love can never be greater than our willingness to risk being heartbroken. Surely the sight of Buzz and his other friends walking away, heartbroken themselves, was also a factor in helping Woody come to his senses. They all have “Andy” written on the soles of their shoes too. In fact, Buzz has just shown the sole of his own shoe to prove he is the real Buzz, that is, Andy’s Buzz, as there’d been an imposter Buzz Lightyear figurine in their midst. So in looking at the name “Andy” on the sole of his shoe, Woody is also being made to think of Andy’s other toys and the bond and community he has with them. He persuades Jessie and Bullseye to come along and join the community of Andy’s toys. At the end of the film, Woody and Buzz tell each other that no matter what happens with Andy, they will have each other. It’s a beautiful turn of events in itself, especially as it was Buzz’s arrival that presented the first great existential challenge to Woody. Life can, in its fullness, take these turns. Remember that when a Buzz Lightyear turns up in your own little world.
Nevertheless, by the time the third film comes around, Stinky Pete’s prophecy has come true. Andy has grown up. He is 17 and soon to go off to college. It has been years since he has played with his toys, despite their best efforts to prompt him. Many of them have been lost or given away. The last few little green soldiers depart at the start, fearing the trash bag. The others fear that fate too, and can only hope for the attic, and then a distant future in which Andy has children of his own and so takes his toys out of the attic again. Touchingly, when Woody mentions this prospect, another of the toys, Rex, asks, “he’ll play with us then, right?” The toys’ first concern is for being played with by Andy, not by any old child. “We’ll always be there for him,” replies Woody.
It’s fascinating to me, what exactly their relationship with the child means to the toys, how exactly to conceptualise it. The fact is, the relationship between child and toy in the Toy Story world does not have an exact parallel in our world, but its nature resembles the nature of relationships in our world enough to be understandable and at times very moving for us. The concept of vocation, for instance, just doesn’t seem strong enough here. Nor does it easily evoke the very intimate, personal connection between toy and child. It’s like bringing their child joy is their fundamental purpose in life, their raison d’être, their telos. They live to bring joy to their child and don’t long for any reward beyond that. It’s like a kind of very pure love, a supernaturally pure love. Nevertheless, we can identify, can’t we? Something about seeing the toys gradually ceasing to be played with or even thought of is just so heart-rending, triggering I might even say – it’s like watching those months over which a romantic partner loses interest in you, moves on, and you’re left thinking, where has that magic gone? That was the best thing I ever knew. The rightest thing.
The Toy Story series is full of examples of the psychologically ruinous effect that losing – or, equally, never having – this relationship with a child has on toys. There are those like Stinky Pete in the second film, Lotso in the third, and Gabby Gabby in the fourth who become bitter and cruel, and those like Jessie and Wheezy in the second and Duke Caboom in the fourth who lose their confidence, become deeply melancholy. In “Small Fry,” one of the best of the Toy Story shorts, we see a group therapy session for toys lost or abandoned in the ball pit at a fast-food restaurant. “Even though we have been thrown away, we are not garbage” is the mantra they all repeat together. The company and mutual support these toys provide each other with does seem an important part of at least lessening the blow of children’s indifference – in line, of course, with that exchange Woody and Buzz have at the end of Toy Story 2 about, no matter what happens with Andy, always having each other. Indeed, that’s surely why the years of neglect that Andy’s toys are subject to doesn’t do such extreme psychological damage to them – they have each other.
In the end, Andy does decide to put his toys in the attic rather than the trash – apart from Woody, whom he wants to take to college with him. In the broader scheme of the series, this seems a very significant detail. Woody seemed discarded in the first film, when Buzzmania took hold of Andy. But Woody was there in Andy’s life before Buzz was, and it is Woody who retains the greater importance to Andy even into adulthood. We can too easily confuse the climate with the weather, can’t we, in all sorts of parts of our lives.
Anyway, in the days before Andy’s departure, Woody’s concern to save the other toys from accidentally getting thrown in the trash results in him being carted off to Sunnyside Daycare along with the rest of them. He then wants to escape and get back to Andy – he encourages the others to come with him, but they, believing Andy wanted to throw them away, and at that point blissfully ignorant of the realities of life at Sunnyside, refuse. So Woody departs alone, but he doesn’t make it back to Andy. He instead ends up in the possession of Bonnie, one of the older kids at Sunnyside. Then, while the toys back at Sunnyside are having their conviction that being played with by children is a wonderful thing helpfully qualified by some exceedingly rough play at the hands of toddlers, Woody is meeting Bonnie’s other toys, being played with by her and realising that she is just what Andy’s old toys need.
By the end of the film, Woody has engineered it so that Andy himself, just before leaving for college, takes the box full of his toys over to Bonnie’s house. Now, this scene. . . . I can’t think of it without getting emotional. And who could, after watching this story unfold over the first three films. Andy’s a good kid. Sitting on the lawn outside the front of Bonnie’s house, he takes his old toys out of the box one by one and introduces them to Bonnie. Interestingly, we find that there is a correspondence, if sometimes ironic or indirect, between how these characters are and how Andy now describes them – so that their whole existences and natures, as animate objects, could have been born of the force of his imagination. Of course, Bonnie’s creation of Forky in the fourth film gives this view further credibility.
Having handed Buzz over to Bonnie, Andy asks her to take good care of these toys, says they mean a lot to him. Although Bonnie is a young girl, maybe 3 or 4 years old, I feel that Andy is totally serious in asking this commitment from her. He needs it. And so it is quite likely also a moment of growth for her, as it’s a new level of commitment, of responsibility, that she is asked to take – maybe she cannot understand its gravity yet, but she is quite likely introduced to it here.
Then we see there is one more toy in the box – Woody. Bonnie recognises him from earlier in the film, refers to him as “my cowboy.” She wants him. Andy, who, as said, had set Woody aside to take to college, is confused to see him there, and when Bonnie reaches for Woody, he instinctively moves him away, a look of irritation on his face. Like a child: Don’t take my toy. But then he checks himself. He re-enters the playful persona of a few moments earlier and introduces Woody to her too, saying “he’s been my pal for as long as I can remember. He’s brave, like a cowboy should be. And kind, and smart. But the thing that makes Woody special, is he’ll never give up on you ever.” Which, of course, Woody never did. He needed a little help at one moment, but he never did. Andy and Bonnie play with the toys a bit. One last time in his case. Then back in his car, Andy’s head and shoulders slump. What a thing he has done, what a kind and selfless and generally immense thing. He has given away perhaps the main physical embodiments of his childhood, of times of great joy, of times that formed him. He has given away these objects that he, through years of play, has imbued with sentience and personality in his own eyes. In a manner, then, a very real manner, it is great friends, loved ones he has given away. Normally you never, never understand what such a gesture means, just seeing it happen, let alone hearing of it. But we have seen exactly what those toys mean to him. We have lived it, vicariously, as one lives things through film. We didn’t know until that moment that that is what we had lived; we didn’t even know he cared so much. Indeed, that also is part of what makes the scene so moving. That we at last get that payoff, through the toys – the affirmation they so longed for, so needed. Yes, you are loved in return. Yes, you were always loved.
As for Woody, he has had hanging over him for the entirety of the film this almost impossible dilemma: either he stays with Andy as he goes to college or he stays with his fellow toys, whether in the attic, at Sunnyside, or with Bonnie. A monstrous dilemma! Simplistically, we might say his family or his raison d’être! But this really is a simplistic or, by now, possibly even just a false way of describing the dilemma. Woody twice in this film abandons his own safe and easy path to college with Andy to reunite with and save his fellow toys, the second time after hearing from Bonnie’s toys what a terrible place Sunnyside is and resolving to break back in and help them escape. Back together, Woody and the gang then struggle for their survival, and at one point face almost certain incineration in a garbage processing facility, holding hands as they brace themselves for the seemingly inevitable. All this both shows and very possibly increases the extent to which Woody’s raison d’être is not merely bringing joy to his child (who, of course, is no longer a child), but also the relationships he has with his fellow toys. And, of course, that’s the case – it has to be – as it’s been years since Andy has played with him. And then, by the end, when it’s clear that the other toys will end up at Bonnie’s, Bonnie herself represents a concrete possibility of a long-term replacement of that part of Woody’s raison d’être made up by Andy. Still, Andy’s name is written on Woody’s sole – and on his soul, we might say. To choose to abandon Andy, and at a moment when Andy has chosen him and him alone to take to college, to take on to this new stage of life. . . . Is Woody capable of that?
It seems to me there’s a touch of genius in how Woody resolves his dilemma in the end. He basically gives the choice to Andy again, but in a context that makes it clear to Andy what is at stake. It’s after Andy has handled and remembered all of the other toys, and as he is faced with Bonnie, the young child who will surely play with them all. Andy can’t not see that to take Woody would be to separate him from his family of toys, and to deny him the opportunity of being played with by a child. Woody has put himself in the box with the other toys going to Bonnie’s. He has given that as a kind of default option. It’s a nudge, in the terminology of behavioural science. But Andy could still decide to keep Woody. I think that if Andy’s need for Woody were that great, Woody would want to be with him. So he leaves it to Andy to make the decision for him. And Andy makes his decision. And we all die a little inside, but we would have in any case. The feeling of desolation is curbed perhaps by the feeling that there is something right and timeless about this. Of course. the right thing to do with our toys when we’ve outgrown them – as with everything else, when the time comes – is to pass them on to the next generation.
Unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple, though. Life rarely is. The Sunnyside debacle has already indicated that this intergenerational handover is not something to be conducted undiscriminatingly, but even if it isn’t. . . . Bonnie may be a good steward of the toys, and may be deserving of them just as the Aristotelian flute player is deserving of the flute, but that doesn’t mean that life for the toys is the same in her care as it was in the younger Andy’s. There are big changes, which are not easily accepted by everyone. The community of Andy’s toys needs to merge with the community of the toys Bonnie already has, and, in this merged community, new roles and dynamics must be worked out. Most obviously, there is the problem that among the toys Bonnie already has is a clear leader: Dolly the rag doll. What are Woody and Buzz to do about that? The challenge for them is intensified as neither of them are particularly favourites of Bonnie. The fourth film starts with Woody in particular being repeatedly left in the cupboard while other toys get played with. Can Woody reasonably assert himself as a leader of Bonnie’s toys – which means, among other things, a leader in the collective project of bringing her joy – when Bonnie herself is not much interested in him? (That’s not a rhetorical question. I wonder what the answer is.)
Buzz seems to adapt easily and with grace to his new position. Woody clearly struggles. He does some desperate, one might even say unprincipled things to try and make himself important to Bonnie. After Bonnie creates and becomes obsessed with Forky, Woody adopts the role of Forky’s carer. He throws himself into this challenging role with a determination that’s psychologically revealing and morally quite complex. On the one hand, he sees here a way in which he can truly be of service to Bonnie – a way in which he can make her happy, if indirectly. He’s right that this is what it is, and as caring for Forky amounts to repeatedly rescuing him, including single-handedly and from certain disappearance into the expanse of countryside passed on a road trip, it is an extraordinary thing he is doing for Bonnie. On the other hand, we sense that he does it as much out of his own need to feel important as out of anything else. Indeed, the fact that the other toys don’t initially see this urgency to preserve Forky seems to make the role of Forky saviour all the more appealing to him – he can be the leader again, the hero, in this sphere of bringing happiness to the child. And yet. . . . There always seems something tragic about his occupying this role. Again, analogies with romantic relationships come to mind. It’s like a kind of love triangle, in which the closest Woody can get to actively loving and being loved by Bonnie is in enabling her closeness to another. I wonder whether, when Woody is trying to return Forky to Bonnie during the road trip and sees in the window of an antiques store they pass the lantern of his old sweetheart Bo Peep, part of him isn’t already seeing a way out of his predicament.
Of course, Bo has been on a kind of similar, and arguably more extreme, journey herself, as we see in the short film “Lamp Life.” After being given away by Andy’s mum, she, together with her goats and lamp appliance, spent some years being treated by various mostly adult owners more as, well, a lamp than a toy, and getting progressively broken because of their carelessness, until she ended up being rescued by an old woman and put in a display case in an antiques store. In short, the telos of bringing joy to her child has, for quite a while now, not been working out for her. And so she has adapted. She has given up on the idea of belonging to a child and ventured out in the world alone – or rather, in the company of her goats, and one or two other friends made along the way – moving freely and getting played with by the children who come across her. Her personality has changed too, from charming and perceiving but essentially passive, submissive and delicate, to no less kindly but now proactive, assertive, tough, even ass-kicking. And this all finds expression also in her style, her long dress having been upcycled into a cape. When Woody suggests she join him as one of Bonnie’s toys, she rejects the idea, saying she has embraced the lost toy life. “Who needs a kid’s bedroom when you can have all this?” she says, gesturing at the world around her.
This whole phenomenon of “lost toys,” and the lost toy-positivity exuded by Bo, seem a reference to the Lost Boys of Peter Pan. There are parallels, clearly. Both have lost something profound, resulting in a radical alteration to the life before them, which they have then reimagined positively. The Lost Boys, for their part, have lost parents, the ones who would bring them up, and have reimagined not growing up as a positive.
Many commentators have discussed this transformation in Bo Peep as expressive of a kind of feminist awakening – and not just in the character but in the filmmakers, the film industry, the whole culture. Others, I’m sure, have focused on other, no doubt related societal changes and interpreted this embracing of the lost toy life as a stand-in for embracing life outside the confines of a long-term, monogamous relationship and/or good old-fashioned family life. The point that really stands out for me though is that we do hugely underestimate the variety of ways – of types of life, I mean – in which we can be content and happy. And there are options beyond the obvious, the popularly imagined and approved of. Sure, it’s normally going to be a difficult and painful journey, and often a long one too, but, especially if need be, we sometimes really can reorient and reinvent ourselves and the lives we live, as Bo Peep does, and as Woody begins to at the end of Toy Story 4. Bo and Woody will have each other, of course. Bo had had some very close friends with her already. In that sense, this reoriented life of theirs is based on an extension of that logic of relationships with other toys making up for a primary relationship with a child. In addition to that, though, it has this component of embracing the vast wondrous world and freedom to explore it.
As noted, Buzz provides the other key example of this kind of radical self-reorientation that the Toy Story series handles with such thoughtfulness. He starts the first film, fresh out of his supermarket packaging, convinced he is a real space ranger, and then, over its course, has to come to terms with in fact being a child’s toy. You might think that’s quite a comedown. Clearly it is for Buzz, at least to begin with – but Woody makes the case to him that a child’s toy can be a pretty amazing thing to be as well, and indeed, by the second film, Buzz has become extremely comfortable in this new role and self-image.
Sure, being a space ranger might have more street cred, it might get more of a response at parties – but really, it’s a different and more complex question whether it’s a better thing for Buzz, or any given individual, to be. I think about other points Brené Brown makes in her work, about the tragedy of ordinary lives coming to be regarded as failed lives, and, relatedly, of J. K. Rowling’s point in her Harvard commencement address: “Ultimately, we all have to decide for ourselves what constitutes failure, but the world is quite eager to give you a set of criteria if you let it.” Immediately after discovering he’s a toy, Buzz is clearly devastated, and, furthermore, he’s half-crazed and incapacitated with contempt for this new role of his – as he makes particularly clear in his hysterical “I am Mrs Nesbit!” rant during his tea party in the company of the toys of Hannah, Sid’s little sister. But this is all an expression of how invested he is in the space ranger self-conception, and how ignorant he is of the realities of this alternative – he has not yet tried out this life reconceived as that of a child’s toy, and so cannot judge what it will hold for him, and how that’ll compare to the space ranger fantasy he’s been living. The fact that Buzz does end up very happy in his child’s toy life seems to me, again, an exhortation to be aware of these possibilities there are for us to find all the meaning and happiness we need in lives of very different shapes, and with very different goals, from those we currently lead.
Another way it occurs to me to interpret Buzz’s progress from his blithe confidence in his delusions of space ranger grandeur to his complete and cheery acceptance of his child’s toy state is as representing an ordinary process of maturing that many of us have to go through. How many of us as young people – I mean, teens and young adults – have this belief that we are the absolute shizzle, we are the bee’s knees, we are what it’s all about. We’re demigod geniuses among mortals. We are gonna revolutionise the art form, save the world, etc. At some point, almost invariably, the world wakes us up to the fact that we’re basically much the same as everyone else. And that’s liberating, or it should be. I think of the stirring, rising tones of Bon Iver, “And at once I knew I was not magnificent. . . .” It’s liberating in that it frees us from extreme, useless frustration and disappointment in ourselves, it frees us from a pitying and patronising attitude to others and the distance from them that that entails, and it frees us to reassess our natures, our needs and wants, but with the right frame – a human frame. Or, well, in Buzz’s case, a toy frame. And we can still then aim to revolutionise the art form or save the world, or whatever, just with more of an awareness that that’ll be done not by mutant geniuses but by ordinary human beings, working hard and probably in concert with many others, standing row after row on the shoulders of each other, with those at the top there by chance as much as anything.
Two features of the end of the first Toy Story seem relevant to me in this respect.
First: After Buzz has spent basically the whole film looking for a rocket to get him off the strange planet he sees himself as having got stranded on, he’s suddenly in the position of having realised he’s a toy and then been taped to a rocket-shaped firework by the sadistic Sid, who intends to set the firework off and so blow Buzz to pieces in the sky above his house. It’s heavily ironic, to say the least. Be careful what you wish for. Reflect that though it may be possible for your dream to come true, you may have been imagining that dream in a form very different from the one in which it’s possible for it to come true.
Second: Woody and an assortment of Sid’s poor beleaguered toys then save the day in a way that’s totally premised on them being toys – they break the great unspoken rule that toys must be inanimate in the presence of people and warn Sid that his malicious treatment of toys will not be tolerated anymore, utterly terrifying him in the process. Suddenly, the mutilations he has inflicted on his toys are active against him, adding to the horror of the spectacle as they all move steadily toward him. Often, to be brutalised is to have installed in you a certain dark power. To be small and weak, meanwhile, is often to be blessed with the strategic advantage of being discounted, unfeared. And to be always silent is sometimes to give your words, when you do speak them, a great weight. And then there’s solidarity, because it doesn’t matter how small or weak each of you on your own are or how big and strong your enemy is – if you have the numbers in solidarity, you have what it takes to win. Why was Buzz so attached to the space ranger self-conception? I suggest that, at least in part, it was the strength he believed himself to have as a space ranger – the laser, the wings, the force field, etc. He certainly went on about these things enough, and tried to demonstrate them, flukishly not making too much of a fool of himself early in the film. I further suggest that part of what eases Buzz’s reconciliation with being a toy is this moment of witnessing the strength toys can have. Of course, in the second film, we see Buzz confidently marshalling the toys on their mission to rescue Woody from Al. There is always that side to Buzz – the soldier, the guardian, the knight in shining armour. Sure, he can radically change his self-conception (space ranger to child’s toy), but that side of him must always somehow be accommodated, it seems. He cannot, for example, be “Mrs Nesbit.” And it’s worth stressing that too: it is not as if there are no limitations on our ability to, without net losses in happiness and meaning, transform the shapes and goals of our lives.
Note it can also be highly irritating for others, as it is for Woody, being around someone who has such delusions of grandeur as Buzz does at the start of the first film. On that account, it is satisfying that, in the second film, the now-enlightened Buzz has to deal with another of the mass-produced Buzz Lightyear figurines, this one fresh off the shelf and still very much in the thrall of the delusion. It’s a double whammy for enlightened Buzz, as he has to stomach both new Buzz’s space ranger baloney and the reminder that that was what he was like. But again, there’s something timeless and right about this, isn’t there. Certain boots naturally migrate to the other feet with time. The child, the parent, the grandparent becoming childlike again – much that comes around goes around. It’s not difficult to see where the idea of karma comes from. Also, just about everything we go through, no matter how alone we feel in the moment of going through it, others have been and will go through too. Hopefully those who have been through it can treat those who currently are with particular understanding and tact, or even help them in the process. Enlightened Buzz’s irritation gets the better of him until the end, but there is empathy and gentleness in his handling of new Buzz after he, enlightened Buzz, has defused the threat of new Buzz through what might be regarded as an act of tough love – suddenly forcing the retraction of his visor to show him he’s not going to suffocate. At least there’s then the recognition on enlightened Buzz’s part that the full acceptance of toy status takes time and new Buzz is not quite ready yet.
Overall I consider Lightyear, like the short films, peripheral to the Toy Story canon, but one respect in which it is very much in line with the core canon is its depiction of its protagonist, “real-life” Buzz, undergoing another journey of much the same nature. The large crew of Star Command exploration vessel the Turnip have become stranded on the unknown planet T’Kani Prime, after a scouting mission there went wrong and, in trying to escape, the Turnip, piloted by Buzz, was accidentally crashed and seriously damaged. Racked with guilt, and feeling it in any case his duty, Buzz is determined to save the crew from this fate, by successfully testing the hyperspace crystal that the crew mine to replace the destroyed one that was used to fuel the Turnip before the crash. But then the tests don’t work out. And to compound matters, every time Buzz flies off into space to conduct one of these tests, only about four minutes pass for him, but four years pass for the crew marooned on T’Kani Prime. As he keeps conducting the tests, the crew age rapidly and, in the process, establish a flourishing colony on the planet. His old companions get married, have children, grandchildren, his best friend dies having lived a full and happy life – all while Buzz ages only a little, in the gaps between the tests. A point is reached after which the community that has grown from what was the crew of the Turnip do not need saving anymore. They are settled and happy. They have, we might note, done the same essential thing as the lost toys of the original Toy Story series (or the Lost Boys of Peter Pan) and reimagined the negative of being stranded on this remote, unknown planet as the positive of having the opportunity to build a new and good society; it’s another example of radical self-reorientation, and one Buzz will, as a matter of fact, have to follow. They make clear to Buzz that he is not to continue conducting the hyperspace crystal tests, but Buzz cannot accept this. He has cast himself as the saviour. He has dedicated himself to that purpose. He cannot get out of that mindset. And soon the community do need saving again, but what they need saving from is him, and his monomaniacal determination to fulfil what he sees as his mission – or, we might even say, his identity.
The second half of the film is then the story of Buzz overcoming his firm sense of his mission or identity, in large part by seeing its darkness in the form of a Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come-style visitation, but also by forming friendships within this new community that he, always focused on his hyperspace crystal tests, had not really engaged with before. This Ghost of Christmas Yet Come-style visitation is, of course, Emperor Zurg, who we immediately recognise from the original Toy Story series as Buzz’s nemesis. That Buzz’s nemesis turns out to be one possible version of his older self, his noble motives having gone sour through years of frustration and growing fixation, contains, it seems to me, a crucial moral. The passion with which we take on some cause or role must be in proportion to and responsive to a healthy assortment of other cares and concerns we have; if it ceases to be so, it threatens to become a malignant force in our personality. The question then is how Buzz’s passion for this cause or role of his had ceased to be in proportion to and responsive to such other cares and concerns? It seems to me the main problem was solitude. The jumps forward in time that resulted from each hyperspace crystal test meant, as said, that Buzz’s original friends and fellow crew members grew quickly older around him, forming new lives, families, a new home, and he was increasingly left alone with his mission, until it was terminated. Then, as also mentioned, Buzz’s forming of new friendships in the community of the colony is the other key part of what enables him to eventually be reconciled to letting go of that mission. Looking back to the original Toy Story series, it seems obvious that one of the things that really helps Buzz accept his child’s toy nature is that he is good friends with a bunch of other children’s toys, including Woody. Part of the dynamic in both cases is surely that we are better able to accept that we’re “nothing special,” if we are very close to others who are also, in that same sense, “nothing special,” while being, in another sense that we see clearly, very special indeed.
There is this deep understanding that pervades the Toy Story films that things change, even the most fundamental things. Children grow up. In fact, we all keep growing and changing, and we outgrow relationships, purposes, self-conceptions that were once vital to us. Or even if, in some period, we don’t change on these fronts, often the other people involved do, or the whole lay of the land does. The job we lived for stops being necessary. New people turn up who appeal to our loved ones in ways we cannot and so divert a lot of their attention from us. Our parents die, our kids leave home, our friends move town, our community dwindles. The life we lived becomes untenable. And it’s nobody’s fault, in the end. And there is no simple solution. We just need to adapt, adapt in deep ways, reorient ourselves. The challenge of doing that, especially if we invested in the old configuration of our lives enough to get the most out of it, is immense. But it’s more manageable in a climate of love and support. These, at any rate, are the main conclusions that the journeys of the main characters in the Toy Story series impress upon me.