How Toy Story 4 Investigates Kingdom Identity and Purpose


The Toy Story movies contain many different characters and many different messages. However, Sheriff Woody’s journey from movies one to four depicts how our identity can—and should—change, even while our purpose remains the same.

The Toy Story movies have always challenged us to think about love and purpose, and Toy Story 4 is no exception. However, this latest movie in the saga challenges us to see that it’s ok if our identity shifts over time. One character in particular experiences this, but he also remains grounded by love and a fundamental purpose that will never change.

Consider the progression of the Toy Story movies.

Toy Story 1: Can one beloved toy remain beloved when a shiny space cadet struts into the room? Answer: Yes. The hearts of the people who love us are wide enough to cherish more than one action figure.

Toy Story 2: How do we figure out our identity, especially when there are two groups of people who need us? Answer: Our identity must match our purpose in life, which, if you’re a toy, is to be played with.

Toy Story 3: What do we do after our worst fears have come true, knocking our sense of purpose off completely? Answer: New beginnings are possible. They may be painful, but in an emerging-from-a-chrysalis-to-find-new-life kind of way. Also, the old love will always remain.

And Toy Story 4? Well, Toy Story 4 complicates some of these questions. Toy Story 3 seemed to wrap things up pretty nicely, but as a disgruntled Woody brushes dust bunnies off himself in Bonnie’s closet as the movie opens, it’s clear that some of the old fears and questions still remain. Toy Story 4 is an after-the-happily-ever-after kind of movie, investigating the ways that identity and purpose can change even after we thought we locked them in.

This is especially true for Woody. By the time you get to Toy Story 4, you realize that these movies have always been about Woody. It’s kind of like getting to Season 9 of NBC’s sitcom The Office and seeing, suddenly, that the whole series relies on the lynchpin of Jim and Pam’s relationship. Throughout the Toy Story movies, Woody has been the prism through which the message filters.

In the first movie, Woody is the one who feels threatened by Buzz and goes on an internal and external journey to welcoming the spaceman to Andy’s closet. In Toy Story 2, Woody is the one who must choose whether his purpose is to complete the collector’s set of “Woody’s Roundup” or continue being played with. In Toy Story 3, it is Woody who resists the toys being donated to Sunnyside daycare, and it is Woody who Andy hesitates to give to Bonnie at the end.

And in Toy Story 4, now, it is Woody whose sawdust heart still beats for Andy. Woody’s Odyssey to convict Forky of his toyhood and restore him to Bonnie reflects what Woody has wanted all along: to make sure children and toys alike have someone to love them. But what about Woody himself, fleeing dust bunnies in the closet? No one will ever love him like Andy, not even big-eyed Bonnie. Woody needs a new identity.

At the end of Toy Story 4 **spoiler alert!** Woody faces a choice again. This time he doesn’t choose one particular child or his old gang of toys, but a rogue life on the road with love interest Bo Peep. His purpose is the same, to be played with, but he finally manages to carve out a new identity for himself besides having “Andy” inked on his shoe. Woody cannot pine after Andy forever. He needs a way to reinvent himself for the next chapter.

And, as we see, he does. He still has love and community and a purpose: to be played with. He just chooses to find it with Bo Peep and a four-wheeled skunk instead of Buzz and Jesse. (Word on the street is that Tom Hanks, who voiced the intrepid cowboy, choked up as he recorded these final lines.) So, yes, a moment of silence for what used to be.

But if we mourn the old we must also celebrate the new, right? So hooray for Woody’s courage to risk something new. Toy Story 4 was many things, and maybe we can talk later about Gabby Gabby thinking she needs to be perfect to be loved or the many existential questions raised by Forky’s stubborn refusal to accept toyhood. But the movie was also a deft portrayal of what happens after we settle into an identity: pretty soon we have to wrangle ourselves a new one. And maybe that’s ok. Life holds out to us a kaleidoscope of identities that we move through—student, spouse, parent, to name a few. But, for a Christian, our purpose of participating in God’s Kingdom never changes.

The premise of the Toy Story movies is that toys come to life when their kids aren’t around. This has always seemed ironic to me because, really, it is the affection of children like Andy and Bonnie that animates them. Without a child’s arms reaching for him, Woody is just a leggy, well-shod fabric cowboy, with no life or purpose. And without Jesus extending his love to us, we are all dry bones in the desert, waiting for his breath of life to fill us with purpose.