The Toy Story franchise brings us a lot of joy - but deep down it's really about one of our greatest fears - the fear of abandonment. Here's our take on how Woody, Buzz and their fellow toys make us overcome this universal, life-long horror that plague children and parents alike.
Toy Story: Our Fear of Abandonment
Toy Story and its sequels may help us reconnect with idyllic imagery of childhood, complete with trips to Pizza Planet and a toybox that invites maximum nostalgia. But at the heart of these movies, there’s actually a dark worry and panic driving the adventures of Woody and his fellow toy friends. On closer inspection, all of Toy Story is really about the fear of abandonment:
“But what if Andy gets another dinosaur, a mean one? I just don't think I could take that kind of rejection!” - Rex in Toy Story
The toys live in an unstable environment -- they dread every Christmas, birthday party, and yard sale, as they’re in danger of being cast aside. They meet other toys who have already lived their worst nightmare, and they know there’s a clock ticking, as Andy will eventually grow up and have no use for them.
While we tend to think of abandonment issues as a specific problem only affecting those who've known extreme neglect or similar ordeals, the Toy Story franchise makes us realize that, in some form, the fear of abandonment is a universal terror that plagues us throughout our lives
“I can't do storage again. I just can't! I won't go back in the dark!” - Jessie in Toy Story 2
Children dread the loss of their parents, and then grow up to worry about the loss of their own children. In these movies, the toys play both these roles -- on the one hand they’re the kids who are totally dependent on their parent-like human, but on the other they are the parents caring for a kid who will one day outgrow them. In Toy Story 4, Woody is like the “empty-nester” who has to finally face being out on his own and ask if life can still have meaning beyond the relationship that’s always defined him. So here’s our take on how the Toy Story films force us to confront the repressed horror that underlies the very fabric of our existence.
The Child’s Fear of Abandonment
First let’s look at how in this set-up the toys are the children, who see Andy, and then Bonnie, as their parent. Woody and his friends channel a kid’s feeling of being totally reliant on a grown-up. We see how vulnerable they are out in the world and how they fear being taken by someone with ulterior motives.
“It’s a dangerous world out there for a toy.” - Prospector in Toy Story 2
The fear of abandonment is usually associated with some kind of childhood trauma. And, while the main Toy Story toys have a loving father figure who genuinely cares about them, they encounter signs of trauma all around in their world. They’ve met other toys who’ve been abandoned. They’ve seen their friends discarded right in front of them. The villain of the first movie is the vicious toy-abuser, Sid, whose carpet is an homage to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. This links Sid to Jack Torrance, who attacks his own family, becoming an evil perversion of what a father should be. So there are very real threats out in the world for these toys to fear, just as, even if kids in our world aren’t the victims of abuse or neglect, they’re probably aware from a fairly early age that these things affect other kids and are a possibility for them.
On the day-to-day level, Andy’s toys are troubled by a lack of emotional security, as they know they can always be replaced. This breeds a culture of competition and infighting among them. The toys rarely get their “parent’s undivided attention. For these toys, their owner is a god-like creator who gives them life simply by declaring them toys - an exaggeration of the way that parents give life to their kids and get to name them. They get their sense of belonging and identity from having Andy’s name written on them, getting at how as kids we derive our ideas of who we are from our parents. But in these toys’ case, due to the hyper-competitive and insecure environment, that reliance on the parent for identity is taken to an unhealthy extreme -- they believe that they need to be perfect to earn love and attention. In Toy Story 2, Woody believes Andy won’t take him to camp because Woody’s hat is missing. Woody’s hat is found after all, but when his arm rips Andy does decide to leave him behind - confirming a child's worst fear: that his parent figure's love is conditional.
This stressful situation may remind us of the ruthless achievement culture that some young people grow up in today. Children in a cutthroat world may feel that they have to live up to impossible ideals in order to earn their parents’, and culture’s, approval, even if the parent does love their kids no matter what and doesn’t intend to send this message.
“One more rip, and Andy's done with me. And what do I do then, Buzz, huh?” - Woody in Toy Story 2
The toys may also be giving expression to anxiety that Andy is feeling in his own childhood. We never see or hear about Andy’s dad, and story supervisor Matthew Luhn has explained, quote, “If there was a dad in Toy Story, the boy would not have had such a need for a doll who represents a kind of authority figure, like Buzz.” The first movie also takes place during a time of transition in Andy’s life -- he’s recently become a big brother, he’s celebrating a birthday, and he’s preparing to move. And while Andy himself doesn’t seem to be struggling with these changes, we could interpret the toys as giving voice to what he’s feeling deep inside. The way Buzz and Woody clash looks like classic sibling rivalry -- something Andy may be feeling, even if we aren’t privy to it.
The Parent’s Fear of Abandonment
Now let’s look at how the toys are like parents to Andy. They see their whole purpose as taking care of this person who doesn’t seem to realize they have inner lives of their own -- much as kids often don’t notice or appreciate the hard work their parents do to look after them.
“What matters is that we're here for Andy when he needs us. That's what we're made for, right?” - Woody in Toy Story
Woody believes he was put on this earth to make a child happy -- and this reflects a parent’s feeling that their most important role is giving their kids a stable, comfortable childhood. Most centrally, the toys watch Andy grow up knowing that one day he won’t need them anymore -- just as parents raise their kids with the understanding that eventually their little ones will want independent lives of their own. Sure enough, they’re eventually dismissed as uncool and useless, in the same way that teens and young adults typically start to write off their parents. In the third movie as Andy gets ready to head to college, the toys embody a parent’s sadness at being left behind by their child as they grow up. They’re like the parents of adolescents, soon-to-be empty-nesters, mourning a time when their kids paid more attention to them. Woody is the lone toy Andy plans to bring to college with him. But Woody’s turning point comes when he witnesses this moment between Andy and his mom:
“I wish I could always be with you.” - Andy’s mom in Toy Story 3
Andy’s mom expresses what Woody himself feels, and Woody realizes that, just as Andy won’t be bringing his mom to college with him, it doesn’t make sense for Woody to go either. Instead, he makes the hard choice to join his friends in the donation box -- separating himself from Andy, for Andy’s own good, since part of a parent’s role is pushing the little bird out of the nest and letting it learn to fly on its own. Andy’s goodbye to his toys--
“Thanks guys.” - Andy in Toy Story 3
-- Underlines how the toys’ job as parents is done: they gave Andy a happy childhood. Now it’s time to do that for Bonnie, who is very much like their grandchild.
Overcoming the Fear: The Certainty of Abandonment
While we speak of the “fear” of abandonment, for the toys it’s really a certainty of abandonment. And Toy Story captures that, in fact, for all of us, abandonment is an inevitability. Eventually, in one way or another, parents and children lose each other to time. So the movies are asking the question: how do we live with the knowledge that eventually the person at the center of our world won’t need or want us anymore?
The villains of Toy Story 2 and Toy Story 3 show us what not to do -- Prospector and Lotso are embittered by abandonment and respond by becoming tyrannical villains. Prospector has never been chosen and loved by a kid.
“I'll tell you what's not fair: spending a lifetime on a dime-store shelf watching every other toy be sold.” - Prospector in Toy Story 2
While Lotso was forgotten and replaced by his owner. Both toys are so scarred by this lack of love that they try to convince other toys they’re doomed as well. Lotso even creates a narrative where his owner Daisy never cared about him at all. But this cynical worldview isn’t right -- Daisy did care about him. Lotso was her favorite toy and he wasn’t replaced out of cruelty, but necessity.
So the movies are pushing us to face the reality of abandonment, but that doesn’t mean we should view this picture in the harshest possible light. Essentially, the moral of the story is that even if being loved is a transient experience, it’s still worth it. In Toy Story 3, it pains Andy to let go of his toys -- and there’s something oddly comforting about this, as it shows that you can love something and still need to let it go. The way Andy passes on the toys to Bonnie shows he really does care that they have a great home -- he’s just realized that he’s not that home anymore.
“I’m going away now, so I need someone really special to play with them.” - Andy in Toy Story 3
In this franchise the solution to the problem of abandonment is that the toys can always be passed on to someone else. This is pretty optimistic when it comes to literal toys, as in our world kids tend to want their own brand new stuff and at a certain point, old toys get thrown out. But the lesson here is that it’s important to find a new purpose in your life after one chapter comes to an end. In the fourth movie, Bonnie makes a new toy, “Forky,” and we see how Woody has evolved past the jealousy he experienced in the first movie -- he now looks out for Forky because he knows the toy is important to Bonnie. But more importantly, Woody starts seeing a broader world through Bo Peep. Producer Jonas Rivera said, quote, “His worst fear - he's said it all along - was being a lost toy. What if she represented something that would challenge his place in the world and just lean into that?” So Woody’s biggest challenge yet is to create a new, individual identity that’s not centered on the parent-child relationship. After their kids grow up, all parents do the same. But in fact, all stages of life demand this self-reinvention from us. We have to dramatically reshape our conceptions of ourselves, set out into the scary unknown, and leave the people we love most behind -- knowing that this doesn’t devalue how much we did love them and that we will continue to carry them in our hearts.
“Now Woody, he’s been my pal for as long as I can remember.” - Andy in Toy Story 3
The Toy Story movies highlight that our identities are so often formed in relation to others. Woody sees himself as Andy’s toy, and he struggles to conceive of an identity beyond that. But, over time, Woody is forced to see himself as more. Multiple toys in Toy Story have to go through an existential crisis about what it is to be a toy, which we might interpret as a metaphor for asking what we are, apart from our relationships. This is central in the fourth movie, as Forky is not even really a toy in the traditional sense of the word-- he’s not store-bought or anything fancy; he's just a spork Bonnie decorated and decided to play with.
“I was made for soup, salad, maybe chili, and then the trash!” - Forky in Toy Story 4
Thus this character exposes how fragile the category of “toy” is -- it's anything that's brought to life by our love and imagination. What these characters come to understand over time is that being a toy and making a child happy is their life’s purpose. They can’t run from that, and once they accept it, the fear of abandonment is no longer so scary -- because all the years leading up to the goodbye were worth it.
“I can't stop Andy growing up. But I wouldn't miss it for the world.” - Woody in Toy Story 2
Brown, Hannah. “A cartoon by any other name.” The Jerusalem Post, 19 Apr. 2011.
Mithaiwala, Mansoor. “Toy Story 4 Interview: Josh Cooley, Jonas Rivera, & Mark Nielsen.” ScreenRant, 1 May 2019.