There is a scene towards the end of the second act of Toy Story 4 that heartbreaking and illuminating to the message of the movie. The movie’s villain, Gabby Gabby, finally receives a new voice box so she can function like a new toy. Her backstory is that she kidnaps toys that come through an antique shop and scavenge them for a working voice box. She also uses creepy ventriloquist dummies as her henchmen (henchtoys?).
Upon receiving the new voice box from Woody, she covertly presents herself to the antique store owner’s granddaughter, and object of her need love. Surely, the little girl will want to play tee time with Gabby Gabby. She pulls her string, Gabby Gabby says, “I love you,” and then the little girl discards her. In my screening, a full house 60% children, the 40% of parents audibly groaned.
That’s the lesson of Toy Story 4. It’s a movie about parenting, learning to raise children at a great cost to yourself, and then learning to let them go with no expectation of reciprocation, because that is what parental love is. It’s sacrifice of self for a little human’s benefit, who has no concept what you are doing or why, and often, they are ungrateful.
I like to listen to podcasts. Some may call it an addiction, and by “some” I mean my wife. I listen to podcasts about sports podcasts, news, religion, and pop culture. I love movie podcasts, especially. They bring insight into what I’ve just watched. In one podcast, the hosts joked about the meaning of this scene, and one [who doesn’t have children] blurted out, “that kids are ungrateful cretins.” The other host who has children responded, “well, yes, sort of.”
It was illuminating to see the vast perspective difference between two people based on the very different experience of raising or not raising children. The father in the group saw the same movie, but he was much more measured and didn’t condemn the little girl for not wanting to play with a doll. He gets what it means to have children. When you place your well being on whether or not your child accepts you, then you will be crippled by the fear of rejection from an immature person who makes uninformed, illogical, arbitrary decisions like eating their own boogers.
Which brings me back to Toy Story 4. It’s not a children’s movie. It has an appeal to children, but the story line and themes are for adults. In short, Woody and gang are being played with by their new owner, Molly. Woody stows away in Molly’s backpack on her first day of kindergarten, where she doesn’t make any friends, but she does make a sad looking little toy out of a spork, who she calls Forky. Molly emotionally attaches to Forky even though Forky hates himself and calls himself trash. Woody has to rescue Forky over and over from running away from Molly so Molly can be emotionally well. They go on a road trip, to a carnival, there is some great RV humor.
Woody learns that Molly doesn’t need him and it’s okay to not be defined by the children you raise. The storyline parallels his own interactions with Forky, who he “births” from a bag and raises like his own. It’s a heck of a character arc, and it hits home for parents- be affirming parents of young children that they know what is best for their child despite apparent capricious affection, and especially for older parents who know that the goal to grow up the child to be mature on their own.
Pixar deals with big themes regularly, and often they do it while engaging children with a story they can relate to. My son loves the first and third Toy Stories. The first is 80 minutes, and it is entirely about Toys learning to get along. From the opening scene to the final rocket scene, it is totally relatable to a child. He checks out in Toy Story 3 when the humans show up. He loves when the Toys are on the screen doing Toy things, not necessarily the huge theme of death and loss.
That’s my only critique of Toy Story 4. It’s too long. Its lesson isn’t for children, it’s for adults. Kids will love the two new stuffed animals from the fair, and my son loves Forky. But the big lesson is learning to mature and let go of what we have created, to not be held hostage to the whims of erratic children or self imposed parent guilt. Pixar is saying, don’t give them what they think they want, give them what you know they need, which is your time and presence.
The best scene in the movie is when Woody and Forky are walking down the side of a road at night. Forky is being petulent, and Woody is having to start and stop. They hold hands, Forky asks to be held. He drags his feet. It’s parenting.
Case in point. This past two-three months I have watched my son while we moved from one state to another, my wife started a new job, and my son a new school. After seeing Toy Story 4, I bought a bunch of supplies to make our own Forky’s except no store in all of the Gulf Coast sells sporks. Had to order them from Amazon, and we sat down and made our own Forky’s. He was so excited, but all he did was destroy the supplies. After I’d build one, he’d dismantle it. Why? Because he’s a child.
The best experiences were when we did things like played trucks together. The best example of presence was when he’d throw a fit because he couldn’t unlock the cabinet with the pesticides in it. Getting angry at him for being a child or feeling guilty because I didn’t give him what he wanted was not what he needed. Being firm, affectionate, and gently explaining why or why not. He didn’t like it, but it was for his well being, not mine. [author’s note: I do not usually respond well to his fits]
Toy Story 4 explores the difficulties of parenting well. I appreciate Woody’s impatience and drivenness. He wants to do what’s right, but he doesn’t always have the emotional skill for it. I can relate. Parenting is hard.