Reckoning with Woody's Final Choice
Since attracting the world’s eye, Toy Story’s Woody has been Pixar’s moral center, its north star. To a generation of millennials, myself included, the toy sheriff has stood as a paragon of friendship, loyalty and love. Imbued with the trademark optimism of Tom Hanks and softened by the seams of nostalgia in his doll-like form, Woody has long been society’s direct link to the best of childhood.
Woody’s journey with his kid, Andy, had come to a rare perfect end on screen in 2010’s Toy Story 3. Those who were of prime toy-playing age when the first movie came out were entering college as Andy was leaving home. At that moment of fear, Woody’s enduring kinship to Andy even in their parting evidenced our ability to be okay. The fleeting loves of our childhood could endure even as we parted from it.
Months after his story reopened in the critically acclaimed Toy Story 4, I am still grappling with Woody’s new end.
His role from the start of the fourth film feels familiar. Recognizing a nonconventional toy as important to Bonnie, Woody spends the better part of the new installment focused on getting Forky home, prepping him for a life with his kid. In doing so, he succeeds in making his child happy. In a poignant scene, Woody explains to Forky on the side of a dark highway how lucky he feels to have been able to make lasting memories for a child. Though the child would grow up, those feelings of happiness could linger. That love would be eternal.
This version of Woody, one who actively risks his own face-time with Bonnie for the benefit of her happiness by searching out Forky, represents the fully actualized hero of the Toy Story world that he has been growing towards. Here, Woody fights off feelings of jealousy and fear, his prior sins that defined the initial trilogy. Though he felt unwanted when left in the closet, though he saw a future where he was not the favorite toy, Woody persists with helping Bonnie.
Later in the film, Woody even willingly surrenders his voice box, something critical to his functionality, so that Gabby Gabby could try to make another child happy. Though the impact of that choice on Woody ultimately goes unexplored, it is undeniably momentous in his development. Where he once became distraught over a broken arm or a lost hat to such an extreme that he briefly fled from Andy to preserve his body, here he sacrifices himself for another. He decides not to let others be deprived of the feelings he once fought to possess solely.
In passing Woody on to Bonnie, Andy had modeled a selfless path forward for Woody. Inhabiting this new role, Woody manages to help two lost toys find their purpose. Yet in the final moments of the film, Woody chooses another direction. After pushing Gabby Gabby into the loving arms of a child, he leaves Bonnie behind to be with Bo Peep. The kiss is all but implied, with the lights of the carnival illuminating this climactic end.
By choosing romantic love over a child’s love, Woody veers off his tracks. He bids farewell to Buzz and Jessie, but crucially never to Bonnie, never to the type of love that defined his life. He forsakes Bonnie’s enduring love, not to mention a lifetime of friendships with Andy’s gang, for an unknown future with Bo. The love that triumphs is an ordinary sort of love, not the type that marked this series as unique and everlasting - the love between a child and his toy, between a human being and their childhood.
Two decades ago at a Little Rock Embassy Suites, I lost my favorite stuffed animal, a multicolored rabbit appropriately named Bunny. Though I had largely forgotten the incident, the fear for Bunny and the subsequent emotional crisis came rushing back as I experienced Toy Story 4, imagining Bonnie returning to her closet to find Woody missing. After his experiences with Andy, Woody would know better than anyone that kids cycle through favorite toys. And yet, after two weeks on the side, Woody absolves himself of his duty to Bonnie. Whatever the motivation, Woody risks real pain for Bonnie, who would undoubtedly look to her cowboy again and find him missing.
When telling Rex about Woody’s choice to leave with Bo in the film's closing moments, Buzz boldly states, “He’s not lost. Not anymore.” This line offers the most overt explanation for Woody’s choice to leave Bonnie and the gang. The facial expressions and the carnival setting further suggest Woody has been freed, not lost. The film, and the series for now, concludes with Woody’s impending freedom from Bonnie and the duty that involves. In a franchise about the unbreakable bond between a toy and its child, it is an odd end for the icon of loyalty.
However, I have found a more subtle explanation within the film, one I have not seen or heard critics explore. Rather than diminish the lasting power of a child's love for a toy, it affirms that vitality. It offers Woody an end befitting the story.
Filmmakers make clear Woody’s internal struggle throughout the film. In mistaking Bonnie’s name for Andy’s at one point, and in staring longingly at his freshly painted-over foot with Bonnie on it, Woody feels acutely the loss of his prior love, even amid the development of a new one. Even as he cherishes Bonnie, he longs for Andy. Recognizing a minimized role in his forthcoming life, Woody feels less than what he once was.
As a result, Woody chooses to separate himself from Bonnie because he needs a new purpose. If deep down he knows he cannot replace Andy with Bonnie, maybe he feels he owes it to her to be elsewhere if he cannot ever be fully hers. Perhaps the reason he goes to such lengths to bring Forky back to Bonnie is to pay forward a life he does not feel he can share with her. He needs something different and new, something that allows him to carry out a new legacy without compromising his prior one.
To accept Woody’s decision to leave Bonnie is not to see the choice at face value as a quest for romantic love. Nor is it to presume he has been fulfilled, "found" so to speak, through freedom from a child. Instead, Woody must be choosing to be “lost” with Bo so that they can pass on the love he once felt from Andy to a broader swath of the world. Within the credits, there is a hint at this end. Woody works to get toys off the walls into the arms of kids at the carnival. He and Bo form a team that serves a benevolent purpose. Perhaps together as lost toys, away from daily responsibilities, they can reach more children, spread more love.
In the aforementioned roadside scene, Woody beautifully outlines his perspective on the end of childhood. “Well, you watch ‘em grow up and become a full person,” he says. “And then they leave. They go off and do things you’ll never see. Don’t get me wrong, you still feel good about it. But then somehow you find yourself, after all those years… sitting in a closet just feeling…” As he trails off, Forky helps him settle on the adjectives useless and fulfilled.
The easy reading of this film is not the end Woody deserves. It is to think his feeling of uselessness wins out, and to believe that drives him to run away from children, away from the possibility of another loss. But after two decades of showing the world the enduring power of a child’s love, Woody would never run from that. Nor would he give up on the child whose name resides on his body for a romantic interest.
To believe in this story is to believe instead in Woody’s fulfillment, in Andy’s love that remains in his seams. It is to believe that Andy’s love empowers Woody to pass on his legacy, not forsake it. For in Woody’s next act, he is not lost. He is ensuring those who do not yet know the singular joy of a child's love can hold that privilege. He is carrying on the flames of our childhood.
Click here to read my 2017 journal article "Rejecting the Stereotypes Built into Material Culture: Disability in Toy Story."