Typically, I enjoy the challenge of writing coherently about a current release without spoiling any part of the plot for any of you who may be reading this prior to seeing the movie. Also, I do not think that movie reviews that spend lots of words recounting plot details are particularly good movie reviews, because the plot is the least important part of how a movie communicates. We, humans, tend to tell the same stories over and over again, so little that happens in a movie is truly surprising. The meaning and impact of a movie is located elsewhere in how the story is told, not in the details of the plot.
This review of Toy Story 4 will be an exception to my practice though. I’m going to recount key elements of the plot, because it is not a story they have told before. To Pixar’s credit, they were willing to tell a new story about Woody and his fellow toys instead of the one they’ve told three times before. As a viewer, it’s difficult to accept, and I’m not sure it entirely works, because it breaks our expectation of how sequels are supposed to operate and because I’m not sure we, Americans, have anything compelling to offer on the subject Toy Story 4 chooses to tackle.
Broadly, the Toy Story movies have circled around the topic of “vocation,” or “calling,” in the Christian sense. Secularly, we’d say “purpose.” Woody and the other toys are always negotiating their purpose in life. Put simply, they exist to be played with by children. Some of the toys have had to learn to accept that calling. Others have had to learn to accept reduced roles as their children have grown. Pixar has played with this idea by shifting the emphasis in each film about who looks to whom for meaning, but the basic dynamic is always the same – the purpose of a toy is to belong to a child, to be there if and when the child needs the toy.
In Toy Story 4, Woody discovers he is no longer needed. He is no longer the top toy in Bonnie’s room. The other toys don’t need him to organize them, and Bonnie no longer plays with him. Ever the faithful toy, Woody does what he thinks is best for Bonnie even when it requires breaking the rules, and when his actions result in the spontaneous creation of a new toy, Forky, Woody takes it upon himself to train Forky in how to be a toy. This plot device serves to kick Woody out of his routine and expose him to new possibilities in life. He reunites with Bo Peep and is offered a new life with her, but that life will require leaving the other toys and Bonnie behind. In the end, he chooses to “get lost” and stay with Bo Peep rather than return to Bonnie’s room.
Toy Story 4 explores retirement, that stage of life when we set aside out life-long vocation and accept something new. In developed countries with solid social structures, retirement is a joyous and blessed stage of life that one enters into willingly. In less developed countries (and among poorer people in developed countries) retirement becomes necessary when an older person can no longer work due to physical limitations. They must be cared for by others instead. Hopefully this happens. It doesn’t always. The New Testament was written in a context like that, so Jesus and the Apostles constantly impress upon Christians the need to care for those who cannot care for themselves.
Toy Story 4 is concerned with the American context. Woody is retiring into a state of life when he can travel and explore the wider world with Bo Peep, much like current retirees take up travel in their retirement. It’s difficult for Woody to retire. If ever there was a character in a movie with a clear sense of calling, it’s Woody. All the mechanics of the movie serve to show Woody that there might be something “more” out there for him if he is brave enough to accept it, to take that leap like Duke Kaboom (my favorite gag character in the movie).
Good for Pixar for making a kid’s movie about retirement. It’s a natural end to the saga—please, end it here—and a brave storytelling choice, likely to irk many fans expecting a reiteration of the theme the series has returned to in the previous installments, that of the importance of accepting one’s calling. This time, the toy story is about setting old callings aside and accepting something new.
If only the story had something more compelling to offer Woody in retirement. Travel is fine, I guess, but that’s only hinted at, and it’s rather vague and purposeless. The story world of Toy Story doesn’t seem complex enough to make space for retired toys besides having them sit on collectors’ and thrift store shelves.
Honestly, we aren’t too adept as a society of articulating possibilities for retired persons anyway. I recently crossed the country in a car on vacation thinking about Toy Story 4 while I drove through areas of the country popular among retirees. Most of what I saw offered consisted of leisure activities. Casinos, golf courses, and cruise ships? That’s WALL•E’s dystopia. As we have millions of Baby Boomers entering the retirement stage of life, we need to do better.
The truth is that God is just as interested in this new stage of life as God was in the former. Work is a gift and all the moreso when it can be done for the love of it rather than for the food-and-shelter necessity of it. The wider culture makes someone’s right to exist dependent on her or his ability to work, and the more profitable that work is, the more that person deserves to exist. In God’s economy, work isn’t the way we earn favor. Work, even “simple” work that the world sees as “useless,” is of immense value in itself when we do it out of love for the betterment of the world. “Work” is the name we give to our participation in God’s ongoing right-ordering of Creation.
Toy Story 4 feels off only because, as well-told a story as it is, it is not complex enough to contain all this possibility. Retirement is joyous when it is marked by renewed purpose, renewed calling, a new vocation. Woody’s retirement feels hollow because he isn’t given renewed purpose in it. Only God’s reality can do that.