The Toy Story Trilogy – A True Calling

Theological Reflection

What makes the three Toy Story films so endearing and so timeless is that they tell a fundamentally human story—our story. Stitched into the fabric of all three films is an exploration of our vocation. Used in the broadest sense of the term, each film focuses on our shared longing to live a life that is an expression or extension of our calling—our core identity. It has to do not just with what I do but who I am.

What captivates the imaginations of both adults and children (and what causes them to respond in deeply emotional ways to the travails of a rag-tag group of toys), is that each film presents us with scenarios in which our vocation is threatened. And in light of this threat, we are compelled to ask the same questions that Woody, Buzz, and the rest of the gang ask: What is my purpose? Where and to whom do I belong? In an ever-changing world, what about me will endure? Do I still matter, or am I simply obsolete?  

The English word “vocation” comes from the Latin word vocare, which means “to call.” This is where we get the language of vocation or calling. Interestingly, vocare also means “to name.” I find this instructive when it comes to a Christian understanding of vocation because who we are–our central identity or calling–is intimately connected to how God has named us.

In Toy Story, we see this same idea at work in the way that Woody and the other toys are named. Their owner, Andy, has literally inscribed his name on their soles (the sole/soul pun is very much intended). In other words, their core identity and, by extension, their central calling, is to be one of “Andy’s toys.” To live in line with this vocation, each toy seeks to simply bring joy to the one whose name is written on their sole.

Of course, this identity is always being challenged, always under threat. In the first Toy Story, Woody’s place as Andy’s favorite toy is threatened by the arrival of an outsider. The very presence of Buzz Lightyear, the flashy new toy that has all the bells and whistles, threatens to destabilize Woody’s world. But his concern about his standing with Andy is, in fact, driven by his deeper fear about losing his calling and, thus, his identity. “Who am I?” he wonders, if he no longer has any child to make happy?

This question serves as the central turning point in the film. As Buzz and Woody commiserate over their certain demise at the hands of Sid (Clip 1), they both come to a place where they are able to accept not a loss of their vocation, but rather an expansion of it. They discover that their calling is far more open and responsive than their limited imaginations would originally allow.

Change is rarely easy. Even an expansion of one’s vocation entails a loss of some kind. In Toy Story 2, the cowgirl Jesse yearns for a sense of belonging. In Jesse’s mind, regardless of the family of toys that have embraced her, she truly belongs to the young girl who eventually grew out of love with her (Clip 2). Similarly, in Toy Story 3, the entire gang has to consider what life will be like after Andy transitions into adulthood and no longer needs or wants them. In every film, fears of obsolescence and the loss of identity drive these characters to hold all the more tightly to a diminished view of their vocation.

But as the trilogy is brought to a conclusion by Andy choosing to give his toys to another child, what he is actually doing is giving them new names (Clip 3). They are no longer just “Andy’s toys,” for their vocation has now expanded beyond the life of a single child. In some small but profound way, they discover that their purpose is now most fully expressed in the wonder, joy, and sense of belonging they bring to a new little girl in a new time and place.

Key Scenes

Clip 1

Clip 2

Clip 3

Discussion Questions

For Adults

Watch Clip 1, and read Isaiah 42: 5–6.

1) What would you say is your calling?
2) In what ways is that calling threatened?

Watch Clip 2, and read Colossians 3: 23–24.

1) On a practical level, what does it mean to “belong” to the Lord?
2) What do our vocation and our desire for belonging have to do with each other?

Watch Clip 3, and read Ephesians 3: 20–21.

1) Is there a difference in your life right now between what you do and your vocation?
2) Has your vocation ever expanded in a way that you would never have expected?
3) What did you learn about yourself and about God in that process?

For Families

Watch Clip 1, and read Isaiah 42: 5–6.

1) What is our calling as a family?
2) Are we currently working toward that calling? Why or why not?

Watch Clip 2, and read Colossians 3: 23–24.

1) Does it ever seem like you don’t belong, either in life or as a part of this family?
2) What kind of shared projects might our family do to help each other?

Watch Clip 3, and read Ephesians 3: 20–21.

1) In what ways do we need to allow God to expand our vision for our family?
2) What is our family’s vocation?

For Students

Watch Clip 1, and read Isaiah 42: 5–6.

1) What do you want to be? Why does it matter?
2) How has God named you?
3) Does God’s calling have anything to do with what you want to be?

1) Watch Clip 2, and read Colossians 3: 23–24.
2) Where do you feel like you most belong? Where do you feel like you don’t belong? Why?
3) What does it mean to you for your life’s work to “belong” to the Lord?

Watch Clip 3, and read Ephesians 3: 20–21.

1) If you could imagine any kind of future for yourself, what would it look like?
2) Is there any part of your imagined future that God is asking you to expand or re-imagine?

For Children

Watch Clip 1, and read Isaiah 42: 5–6.

1) Have you ever put your name on a toy? Why did you do that?
2) What would it mean for God to write his name on your soul like Andy wrote his name on Buzz and Woody?

Watch Clip 2.

1) Do you ever feel like Jesse—like you don’t belong? Why?
2) Where do you feel like you don’t belong?
3) Where do you feel like you most belong? Why?

Watch Clip 3, and read Colossians 3: 23–24.

1) If you were Andy, would you give your toys to Bonnie? Why or why not?
2) What do you love to do? Why do you love it?
3) Does God ever ask us to do difficult things? Like what?

Related Scripture

This is what God the Lord says—
the Creator of the heavens, who stretches them out,
    who spreads out the earth with all that springs from it,
    who gives breath to its people,
    and life to those who walk on it:
“I, the Lord, have called you in righteousness;
    I will take hold of your hand.
I will keep you and will make you
    to be a covenant for the people
    and a light for the Gentiles,
to open eyes that are blind,
    to free captives from prison
    and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness. 

(Isaiah 42:5–6)

Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.
(Colossians 3:23–24)

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.
(Ephesians 3: 20–21)

More Resources For Further Reflection and Discussion

Vocation
The Power of Film – Toy Story 3
I’m 30 Years Old and Cartoons Make Me Cry