Any old piece of children’s entertainment can try to teach lessons. But it’s rare to find pop culture that does it with elegance and heart, and in such a way that the morals and values imparted by the story stick with people through the years, long after they’ve left childhood behind. That’s the legacy of Pixar’s Toy Story series: Films that not only reinvented animation for the modern era through the groundbreaking use of computer-generated images, but dealt with themes and life lessons so embedded in their respective narratives, those who see them can still articulate those principles years later. Seemingly about the adventures of a bunch of children’s toys, each installation actually trafficked in moving and memorable stories about life, love, loss, and much more.
An entire generation of kids has been raised on the Toy Story movies, and now, as a wholly new generation prepares to enter the magical universe of these characters with the release of Toy Story 4, The A.V. Club is revisiting some of the most significant life lessons taught by the original trilogy of films. These are the values that were instilled in us by Pixar’s iconic series—we look forward to adding to the list following the launch of the new adventures of Woody and company.
“To infinity and beyond” is a great slogan, perfect for blindly leaping into the great unknown—or falling with style, at least. But if there’s one lesson that the first Toy Story hammers home with its Odd Couple pairing of draw-string cowboy and plastic spaceman, it’s that it’s not enough to blast off into the unknown with total confidence in yourself (and a toy rocket strapped to your back): You’ve also got to have someone there to strike the match. It’s only by cooperating and realizing each other’s strengths that Buzz and Woody make their way back home to their beloved Andy, defying the dangers of Sid’s house, the horrors of religious fanaticism at Pizza Planet, and their own feelings of inadequacy along the way. After all, it’s “You’ve Got A Friend In Me,” right? Not “You’ve Got A Friend In You.”
If there’s one moment of outright terror in the original Toy Story, it’s the one that plays most heavily on our own worst impulses and tendency to jump to conclusions: The scene when we first encounter Babyface, Jingle Joe, Hand-In-The-Box, and the rest of Sid’s legion of mangled, hacked together mutant toys. The movie plays up the uncanny valley off-puttingness of Sid’s experiments for a while, but once Woody and Buzz get to know them, it becomes clear that these aren’t monsters. They’re just toys, ones who happen to be living with (but not defeated by) disabilities and trauma. The turn when our heroes finally recognize the humanity (toymanity?) of these alleged cannibals—and check their stereotypes and prejudices about them at the toybox door—is the moment when they finally find the means to overcome their oppressor and find their way back home.
Released at the end of a decade when the collectors’ market exploded like a stick of dynamite lit by an absent-minded prospector, Toy Story 2 dramatized the toy enthusiast’s great internal debate: To play, or display? The film’s larcenous human villain, Al McWhiggin (Wayne Knight), makes his position on the subject obvious—if not with the endless rows of merchandise at his namesake Toy Barn, then with the nearly complete, vintage Woody’s Round-Up line he’s assembled in his apartment. Toy Story 2 pivots on a rejoinder to Al’s profit-driven motives: Woody’s realization that his worth is determined not by a museum curator, but by the kid who scrawled his name on the cowboy’s snake-infested boot. Andy might eventually outgrow Woody, but he’ll have derived greater joy from them than Al—or his motel-running successor in Toy Story Of Terror!—ever would’ve.
Given the context, not many people would admit to finding Lots-O’-Huggin’ Bear, the strawberry-scented tyrant of Sunnyside Daycare in Toy Story 3, relatable in any way. But once you set aside the manipulation, deceit, and his menacing expression in the glow of an incinerator, you are left with a toy who has lived through his share of trauma and abandonment. Who among us hasn’t experienced a moment that made us feel left behind or forgotten? In many respects, Lotso’s journey feels achingly familiar. Still, holding onto that pain influenced how he interacted with his environment and the toys around him, and his choice to lead with resentment literally tied him to the grill of a garbage truck in the end. Allowing old wounds to hinder your chances at peace is an easily laid trap; letting go—albeit difficult—affords you another (trash-free) go at true happiness.
Toy Story 3 saw its characters embrace death—facing it together, as they had past challenges—in an emotional incinerator scene, which turned out to be only fodder for its real cathartic climax: saying goodbye to Andy as he gives his toys to toddler Bonnie. Like many teens, Andy has realized that toys are better off being played with than gathering dust on a shelf, so introduces each of them to their new owner so she can play with the Jessie the cowgirl and Ham’s alter-ego, the dastardly Doctor Porkchop. But he keeps Woody for himself—the toy he’s had the longest, the one he’s unable to part with—until Bonnie wants it. Then he finishes the bestowing, keeping the toy friends together and moving into a new era—for Andy, for his toys, and the Toy Story franchise.
Toy Story came to theaters in 1995 as technological marvel with a big heart; 24 years later, Toy Story 4 is the (possible) capper to a franchise that’s committed more thought to self-acceptance, human frailty, and encroaching decrepitude than whole texts on those subjects. Sure, the Toy Story films dress that all up in silly puns and the Pixar team’s wholehearted commitment to character, but when you send some of the most beloved personalities in modern cinema hurtling toward a rubbish incinerator, and those personalities join hands in an embrace of their fiery fate, playtime’s over. Growing up with Toy Story has meant, well, growing up, and accepting that we’re all headed for the attic at some point, no matter how many Buzzes, Jessies, Bonnies, or Forkies come along to redefine our life’s purpose. “The name of the story will be Time / But you must not pronounce its name,” Robert Penn Warren once wrote. Don’t sweat it, Bob: we’ll just call it Toy Story.
This post is presented by Target, whose entire line of new merchandise tied to the release of Toy Story 4 can be found right here.