I cried like a baby during Toy Story 4. So did the the grown man with his family on my left side and the woman with her daughter on my right. By the sounds coming from the rest of theater I think it’s safe to guess that most of the other people in there had also suddenly struggled with one too many pieces of dust in their eyes. As the credits began to roll and we all sat there collecting our thoughts and trying to stop our sniffles, I began to think about what was with this movie in particular that had impacted me and the audience so deeply, especially those who were already grown adults or growing young adults. We had all already been through the beautiful heartbreak of Toy Story 3, so what had Pixar done to reduce another room full of people to tears yet again?
They simply made us embrace the fact that sometimes the only way forward is by letting go.
This isn’t the same type of “letting go” that came with the previous installment of the series. Last we saw the Toy Story gang (not counting the hugely entertaining shorts and mini-movies we have gotten since) Woody was wistfully saying “So long, partner” as Andy drove off into the world of college.
As the cast of characters we had all grown attached to over 15 years sat on the doorstep watching their former way of life drive off into the sunset, there was an air of finality but there was also excitement. Yes, they were letting go of one time period in their lives but now they were facing a brand new future together.
The television specials have shown since–and if you haven’t seen Toy Story of Terror or Toy Story that Time Forgot, please do so immediately– that our beloved gang had many more memories in store for them. It may have never been the same as their time with Andy, but it didn’t need to be. As long as they had each other, they could take care of their new kid, Bonnie, and enjoy all the new adventures that came with her.
This undoubtedly reflected the reality of many people in the audience, myself included, back in 2010. Marriage, college, career, the list goes on and life time and again constantly asks us to make changes and sacrifices as we are thrown into the next stage. Luckily, we usually have some of our friends and family beside us. Many of us are blessed to have a core group of people that has consistently stayed with us for decades that continue to move with us throughout life in close proximity.
But what Toy Story 4 does is make us acknowledge that sometimes the very communities we have formed and cherished so deeply, the habits we have preserved and the relationships we have relied on, are the very things that we need to let go of in order to move onto the next stage of life.
It is easy to misinterpret this message as a negative one, yet Pixar manages to show that letting go, while painful, is at the same time both beautiful and necessary. This isn’t a letting go that burns bridges and lets the past die (sorry Kylo Ren), but a process wherein you acknowledge the blessings you have been given thus far while also realizing that even more fruitful times lay ahead.
**SPOILERS FOR TOY STORY 4 BELOW, READ AT YOUR OWN RISK**
Throughout most of Toy Story 4, Woody struggles with his place in the world. He was once Andy’s most treasured possession and even loved by Bonnie, but as time has gone on, Bonnie has left him in the closet or on the sidelines as she plays with everyone else. This leaves Woody both longing for his time with Andy but also greatly missing his love, Bo Peep, who was formerly given away off screen prior to Toy Story 3 but whose heartbreaking departure we get to see in the opening moments of this film.
As the film continues and Bonnie creates a new toy, Forky, Woody makes it his job to ensure that Forky is safe but also that he understands his new job as Bonnie’s favorite toy. Woody knows the responsibility that such a role brings and wants to pass that on to Forky. Yet in teaching Forky his new responsibilities he only further realizes how much his own place in the world has been changed and how life is not how he pictured it. Even though he has a new kid and is still surrounded by his dearest friends, he finds himself longing for more.
He cannot shake the feeling that his purpose lays elsewhere and when he reunites by chance with Bo Peep, he begins to come to terms with the fact that what he needs to do is pursue the unfamiliar; the exciting yet terrifying, uncharted territory of a new future.
In the closing moments of the movie, Woody is faced with the option of returning to life with Bonnie and the toys he considers a family, or charging headlong into a life beside Bo Peep as a toy with no owner. After a heartfelt exchange with his best friend, Buzz Lightyear, who simply tells Woody that Bonnie “will be okay,” Woody understands that Buzz too knows that what is best for him is not what he has gotten used to over the years. Woody gets one final chance to spend a few moments with Jessie, Bullseye, Rex, Ham, Slinky, Mr. Potato-head, and all the other friends he has spent a lifetime with before he charges off to lovingly embrace Bo Peep and the rest of his life.
The truth that those final moments, and the film as a whole, teaches us is that letting go is sometimes necessary. There are those of us who, like Buzz and the gang, will be able to flourish and grow within the familiar; but there are also those of us who, like Woody, will be called to sprint into the unknown and say goodbye to what we are used to. Both ways of life are correct and we must acknowledge that one’s choice between those two paths is never necessarily indicative of a lack of appreciation for either the unknown or the familiar.
Some are called to stay and some are called to leave. Those who leave do not love or cherish what they have been given any less than those who stay do. The memories we make and the uplifting communities we are a part of throughout our lives, especially those communities based on family, become permanent fixtures of who we are as people and no one or thing will ever be able to replace them.
The whole process of letting go affects people in both camps. Those who stay must learn to lovingly let go and adjust their own view of life and how it would play out, while ensuring to support and care for those who leave. The people who leave are also responsible for adjusting their plan for life and for lovingly letting go and caring for the hearts of those that they will no longer be in constant community with. The transition is never going to be easy, or at least it shouldn’t be, but how we react within that transition is vital to how we will continue to grow as people.
The choice that Woody arrives at during Toy Story 4 is not a easy one. At one point during the movie he hurts both Buzz and Bo Peep as he struggles with the idea of moving on or staying behind. He ditches the former and insults the independence of the latter. His words and actions come across as brash and uncaring and while he does not fully mean them they happen nonetheless. He simultaneously wounds both his foundation and the future he hopes to build and thus must take special care to treat those wounds accordingly.
So we must similarly prepare our hearts and pay special attention to how we receive people and also how we come across. Hearts are at their most vulnerable when we encounter situations where we have to let go.
Whether you are someone who is called to stay where you are at and grow there, or you are one who is called to leave and grow elsewhere, Toy Story 4 shows that no matter what, we all will be forced to let go at some point in our lives. But how we handle that letting go is entirely up to us and makes all the difference.