The Toy Story movies have always had a message of community and purpose at their core. No matter the setting, Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) and the gang have always been motivated by two central principles: keeping the group intact, and their sacred mission to be there for their kid, Andy. One reason the films have stayed so strong over their 24-year lifespan is that they emphasize the ways that these two central concepts are interlinked.
In each film in the series, the characters learn lessons that point back to both these ideas. In Toy Story, Woody had to learn humility and adjust his priorities after Buzz, Andy’s new favorite toy, threatened his place in the hierarchy. Similarly, Buzz had to learn that his true mission was more humble, but no less rewarding, than what he’d first believed it to be. Toy Story 2 touched on the need for relationship, and how true community requires sacrifice and risk. Toy Story 3 explored an evolving understanding of home, and found the toys rededicating themselves to a new owner, Bonnie.
These are ideas that also have a strong presence in faith communities. As Christians, we constantly have to learn lessons about humility, relationship and personal fulfillment through our connections to each other and the church, as well as through the mission of ministry.
Toy Story 4, the latest entry in the franchise, is no different. However, this film asks a different question, one that may contain the most important lesson yet for its characters: how do we rediscover our purpose--as a community, and as individuals--when our circumstances radically change? Woody’s struggle to adjust to his new life with Bonnie, and his journey to find meaning in a new role, reflects the same importance that change plays in the health of a spiritual community.
Toy Story 4 picks up shortly after the events of the previous film, with Andy’s toys settling in to their new home with Bonnie and her family. For years, Woody--Andy’s favorite toy--has been the default leader of the group, but their new home upends the status quo. He’s no longer in charge, and he’s not the favorite anymore. In fact, Woody is barely played with.
Paul describes the church as a body, but just like any body, a faith community requires growth and change to stay healthy.
With nothing to do, Woody isn’t sure where he fits in. He is, however, desperate to be of use, and quick to recognize Bonnie’s needs because of that. Woody notices when Bonnie feels insecure about starting kindergarten, and he recognizes immediately how much Bonnie loves Forky (Tony Hale), the spork-based figure she creates at school. Woody is intent on helping Forky realize his value to Bonnie, even if Forky can’t see it himself.
When Forky escapes during a family road trip, hoping to return to the trash (his natural habitat), Woody sets off to bring him back and teach Forky to understand his new calling. That quest brings the pair into contact with Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), an antique doll with a busted voice box, driven mad by her need for a child’s love. It also reunites Woody with Bo Peep (Annie Potts), a former toy from Andy’s house who now lives a life of independence. Woody’s adventures cause him to rethink where he’s being called in this new stage of life. Should he stick with the group he’s always been dedicated to, or could it be time to move on?
Feeling like a valued member of a community, faith-based or otherwise, is an important part of our own spiritual journey. Paul describes the church as a body, but just like any body, a faith community requires growth and change to stay healthy. We can see examples of this in the gospels, in moments like the Great Commission, where Jesus splits up the disciples and sends them into the world to spread the good news. We aren’t necessarily meant to stay in the same community, performing the same role forever. It’s our responsibility to recognize when we’re called to something new, and consider what it is God’s asking of us.
This is the same crossroads Woody finds himself at in Toy Story 4. Through his interactions with Gabby and Bo, there are two possibilities presented. The vintage, unplayed-with Gabby is a relic from the past, obsessed with the imperfections she believes makes her unlovable. Bo, on the other hand, has moved on entirely from being played with. She no longer wears the frilly pink frock she once did, and though her porcelain body arguably makes her more fragile, it’s not a big deal when she breaks. She finds usefulness by helping other overlooked toys build a community of their own, and accepts the scrapes and breaks that come with that role.
Toy Story 4 is about recognizing that sooner or later, we all face the same decision that Woody does. In spiritual communities, there will always come a time when the role we’re used to filling suddenly changes, and we have to find a new calling. That can mean gracefully accepting different responsibilities. It can also mean that it’s time to go somewhere new. Toy Story 4 reminds us that both options are equally valid, but that staying in the same spot just for the sake of staying can risk the health of the individual, as well as the group.
Think Christian Podcast: Fellowship of Believers (Toy Story 4, Mavis Staples' We Get By)