Our family saw Toy Story 4 last week. I’ll be honest…my expectations were pretty low. I mean, after the FANTASTIC way that Toy Story 3 wrapped up this entire narrative thread in a nice, neat package, I really thought another installment was, at best, unnecessary, and, at worst, a money grab. But it was super hot last weekend so I thought Toy Story 4 was a perfectly acceptable way to spend a couple of hours as a family. Plus, we had a gift card.
But this movie not only surpassed my minimal expectations (not hard to do). Toy Story 4 is definitely my favorite film in this franchise and quite possibly my favorite Pixar movie ever. Seriously. That’s partly due to the film’s melancholy tone (I’m a sucker for melancholy). And it’s partly due to Key & Peele’s riotous take on new characters Ducky and Bunny. But more than anything, I loved the existential questions posed by Bonnie’s new favorite toy, Forky.
If you haven’t seen the movie, you might want to stop reading right here. A good part of the story, at least early on, centers around Bonnie’s infatuation with a minimally decorated arts-and-crafts-project spork who immediately becomes her beloved “Forky.” (Yeah, you kind of have to just roll with it, but then again, this is a franchise about talking toys.) Bonnie plays with Forky, sleeps with Forky, takes Forky on the family road trip. But despite the unconditional love of his creator, Forky simply cannot see himself as anything but garbage. Because…well, he IS garbage, salvaged from the trash can by Woody to assuage Bonnie’s pre-K ostracization. Forky’s besetting sin is his inability to see himself through the eyes of his creator.
Forky spends the first act running around and declaring “I’m trash!” while divebombing into any receptacle he can find. It’s pretty funny at first…then the novelty wears off and it gets old really quickly…and then a lightbulb goes off and you begin to understand the deeply philosophical question being posed by a spork in an animated movie about toys and the children who love them.
Apparently Forky is breaking the Internet. How else to explain this?
But I think all the Forky love indicates something much deeper, an inherent insecurity that plagues us all. In our age old quest for identity and purpose, we all too often arrive at the same conclusion as Forky: I’m worthless, I’m no good, I’m trash. We are quick to compare, to contrast, to notice everything that seems right in the lives of those around us and everything imperfection in our own. Many of us believe in graciousness and kindness and we dole them out in generous portions on a daily basis…except when dealing with ourselves. And so our inner monologue matches Forky’s. Maybe that explains all the memes…I don’t know.
As Curt Thompson points out in his excellent book The Soul of Shame, shame is often weaponized by the enemy to tell us a story about ourselves that is intended for our destruction. The forces of darkness use this narrative to grind us down, to numb us to the divine reflection we are told that we bear. And like Forky, we are quick to embrace a view of our utter worthlessness based upon all the ways we don’t measure up. And in extreme cases, we careen recklessly into circumstances that, from our warped view of self, serve to validate our perceptions of worthlessness.
We may not run around saying the words, “I’m trash,” but many of us believe them to be true nonetheless.
In this way, Toy Story 4 is far more than a 90-minute detour into the air conditioned bliss of the cineplex on a sweltering summer day; it is a poignant statement about personhood. Even the title is deeply ironic: “Toy Story” is largely a misnomer; this is fable about what it means to be human, exposing our deep-seated insecurities and cynical self appraisals and causing us to ask hard questions about dignity and self-worth. Am I trash? Or something more? In these largely unreflective times, I appreciate any form of media that operates on a plane this transcendent, this meta. And as a follower of Jesus, I care deeply about these questions (and their answers) — because I believe the story of Jesus offers a firm and resolute rebuttal to the story shame is trying to tell.
But I would argue that Toy Story 4 works on an even deeper level still. If Forky’s identity crisis prompts us to ask questions about our own inherent self-worth, then well enough. And if viewers take the next step to consider the inherent dignity of their neighbors in our age of “othering” — whether it be xenophobia, homophobia, racial prejudice, etc. — even better. But more subtly, Pixar has created a story that also serves as a parable of the Gospel while simultaneously indicting our latent predilection for idolatry. This is evident in the way that Bonnie treasures her “trash” (or “worthless idols” per Jonah 2:8) while largely ignoring the benevolence of the one (Woody) who acts providentially on her behalf. This is the human dilemma in its modern North American form. While that isn’t the most glaring theological takeaway from Toy Story 4, it’s another point to consider in a thoughtfully layered narrative.
(As an Enneagram aficionado, I also couldn’t help but notice that Woody comes across as a pretty unhealthy 2 in this movie. But that’s for another blog post.)
Toy Story 4 asks some pretty important questions and prompts viewers to reflect upon their own worth and the inherent value of their neighbors. As such, it calls to mind the Imago Dei, the universal truth that each human life is innately dignified by bearing the imprint of the divine. This is biblical view of personhood. Pretty heady stuff for a kids movie.
Thanks for the reminder, Pixar, that we are intrinsically valuable simply because we hold the unconditional love of our Creator. That’s good news, indeed.