A great story can be summed up in one word. Each of the Toy Story films are no exception.
- Toy Story is about Acceptance
- Toy Story 2 is about Value
- Toy Story 3 is about Belonging
- Toy Story 4 is about Purpose
It is well known that a toy’s purpose is to make their child happy. Woody has said this over and over again throughout the franchise. His identity is tethered to this belief. He is a toy who cares deeply for his child as well as the other toys who serve that purpose. But what happens when purpose is fulfilled? When, as a toy, your child no longer finds happiness in playtime? Are you obsolete? Are you useless? Or is there something deeper, an undiscovered meaning that is only unveiled when one plateaus?
Toy Story 4 opens with a heroic rescue of Bo Peep, who has been donated by Andy’s mom. Woody (Tom Hanks) jumps out the window in the pouring rain to reach the donation box sitting by the new owners car. Inside is a pink lamp, three sheep, and Bo Peep (Annie Potts). Since Bo Peep belonged to Andy’s sister Molly, she was okay with moving on to another child. She asks Woody to go with her saying “Toys get lost all the time”, but upon hearing Andy’s distress after thinking Woody was gone, the cowboy leaves Bo Peep to return to his bigger mission, bringing joy to his child.
Woody’s loyalty can be compared to that of the Baby Boomer generation. Woody, a classic cowboy doll from the 50’s, is a Boomer. His loyalty to serve one child in complete selflessness, earns him the benefits of being promoted to leader of the room (manager), a job that comes with many perks, like being the only toy chosen to go to college with Andy as seen in Toy Story 3.
For Woody, fulfilling your purpose is clear: do anything and everything to make your child happy.
When Andy donates Woody and the rest of his toys to Bonnie, Woody is forced to take a lower position. He’s no longer the favorite toy, no longer the room leader (Dolly runs Bonnie’s room), and no longer a desired player in his new child’s imaginative playtime. Bonnie removes Woody’s sheriff badge and places it on Jessie (Joan Cusack).
Woody’s experience with jealousy from the first movie doesn’t rouse up the same emotions he had with Buzz when he first entered the group. Instead Woody begins to question his deeper purpose. Is he still useful or has his purpose been fulfilled? He looks for ways he can serve Bonnie even after being demoted in his role. As a Boomer among younger generational toys, Woody’s experience allows him to see things that the other toys don’t. This ability is what fuels Woody’s undying loyalty.
Woody and Dolly (Bonnie Hunt) have short scene where their leadership styles clash. After the toys are stuffed into the closet during a cleaning spree by Bonnie’s mom, Woody has one way of easing the toy’s fear and Dolly has another. Dolly, who seems to be a Gen X·er due to her high level of independence, politely reminds Woody that Bonnie is not Andy. She asks for his trust in her own experiential leadership style.
Woody respects the chain of command, but voices his serious concerns over Bonnie’s emotional state before having to attend her Kindergarten orientation. Woody can see that she is nervous and scared. He suggests that a toy accompany her to school. When Dolly disagrees, Woody takes charge and goes himself.
In a heartbreaking scene, we watch Bonnie sit at her desk alone and friendless as she is asked to complete a project. Woody who stowed away in her back pack, sneaks out and throws supplies in front of her to make it look like another child shared. Bonnie’s fear is immediately alleviated. She builds a “friend” named Forky out of a spork, googley eyeballs and pipe cleaner.
Forky becomes Bonnie’s favorite toy. Woody understands that this simple arts and crafts project is the most important thing to Bonnie since it fuels her courage to attend school.
Baby Boomers lead others towards organizational goals. That’s their leadership strength. Woody tells his best friend Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) that the only way he can now serve his purpose is to keep Forky safe. He knows this to be true because he listens to his inner voice, his conscience.
Buzz, who can be viewed as a Millennial being born in 1995 on the cusp of the millennium, begins to question his own leadership style. As the Space Ranger we see in the first two films, Buzz has been trained in leadership, but as a Millennial toy, Buzz is still learning to find his voice from Woody. Woody is Buzz’s mentor. This idea plays throughout the film as Buzz begins to listen to his “inner voice” for leadership guidance. Throughout the franchise we often hear Buzz repeat Woody’s words back to him in a cycle of accountability and motivation.
In Toy Story 2 Buzz tells Woody during his rescue attempt that “Somewhere in that pad of stuffing is a toy who taught me that life’s only worth living if you’re being loved by a kid.”
When Forky surprisingly comes to life, in front of the rest of Bonnie’s toys, he doesn’t identify himself as a toy. He was not made in a warehouse, but from random supplies Woody picked out of a trash can. In the timeline of the film, Forky would have been born in 2011 which makes him a Gen-Z. One of the traits being attributed to Generation-Z is their self-deprecating humor.
Forky is made out of trash, therefore he feels like he should be thrown away. He believes his purpose is nothing more than that of scrap paper. Woody sacrifices his sleep, energy, and eventually his own body to remind Forky of his deeper purpose, to bring Bonnie happiness, not as an art project, but as a toy.
Woody takes on the roll once again as mentor for Forky. We all need someone who believes in our potential even when we don’t see it. Even when we feel like we are useless trash.
Just as Woody helps Forky realize his purpose, he discovers an antique store with Bo Peeps lamp in it. Upon going inside they meet another doll, Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), who is desperate to serve her own purpose. She has a voice box just like Woody’s, but was defective right from the factory. She never got to experience what it was like to bring a child happiness. She tries to take Woody’s voice box, kidnapping Forky in the process. In an attempt to get Forky back, Woody finds Bo Peep living her life as a lost toy (AKA Retirement). Woody slowly begins to realize a shift in his own existence.
With a few new characters and a rescue plan gone wrong, Woody sacrifices himself for Bonnie. He gives his voice box to Gabby Gabby so that Forky can get back to her. Woody, the Boomer, literally gives his own body, surgically removing his infamous pull string, in loyalty to his child.
If Bonnie only knew what he did for her.
You’re not often rewarded or recognized for such heroic deeds.
Woody serves his child to the point where there is nothing more to give. Being with Bo Peep helps him realize that there are other ways he can live out his purpose. Together they help Gabby Gabby instill courage in a lost little girl at a carnival through her new voice box, ultimately providing her the opportunity to be loved by a kid for the first time. Woody understands that he can now transform his purpose. Instead of bringing one child happiness, he can bring it to thousands.
In a teary eyed scene, Woody chooses to stay with Bo Peep, saying goodbye to the family he held together for so many years, to join a traveling carnival, uniting childless toys to owners in hopes of bringing joy to both.
Woody retires with the woman he loves, still fulfilling his ultimate purpose in a way that benefits more kids, without physically exhausting himself. Woody hangs on to usefulness.
Final Thoughts of a Generation
Throughout the Toy Story films, we consistently see the younger toys doubt Woody’s leadership, Mr. Potato Head most infamously. And how many times do we hear the phrase, “ Woody was right”?
In our modern workforce, each generation has something to attribute. We cannot cast aside the experience and loyalty of our oldest generation. We cannot refute the powerful lessons of independent thinking provided by Gen-X or the health conscious mindfulness of Millennials. As Gen-Z enters the workforce now with their sense of connectivity and entreprenurial mindset, our way of doing business with people is going to become more personable.
Despite their many differences, every generation of workers seeks purpose.
What happens when your purpose is fulfilled? Just like Woody, you take the courageously bold step towards transforming it.
And in the process… transforming yourself.