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Interpreting Toy Story 4 in Light of Religious Doubt

“Open your eyes, Woody...Sometimes change can be good!”

I’ve had many discussions about this movie now, mostly trying to figure out what it’s “about” and how it fits in with the previous Toy Story films. Is this all about growing up? Or maybe it’s a religious allegory? Or is it about parenting? Why didn’t the ending make me cry as much as Toy Story 3?

The screenwriter Andrew Stanton said at the FILMLAND Q&A after this screening that he was inspired during the writing process by becoming an empty-nester. This was my second viewing, and I think the beauty of the film is that it can really be about all of these things, because at it’s core it’s a story depicting paradigm shift, and you can place just about any paradigm shift you’ve gone through in your life onto the plot and it mostly fits.

Could it be about going to college for the first time? Sure. Maybe it reminds some viewers of feelings surrounding the divorce they went through. That works too. I experienced it as a story about someone doubting their faith and questioning the way things have always been, and that reading worked on a deep emotional level for me. The film’s conclusion (very mild spoilers ahead) features a character embracing something new, something entirely open and unknown. It’s an adventurous ending. For a toy, what happens at the end is like entering a new level of consciousness.

Any time a paradigm like this changes, there may be excitement (and fear) for the future, but there’s also grief for the past. The beginning of this movie addresses this as well; the opening credits feature a nostalgia-soaked recap of the first three Toy Story films. After my first viewing of Toy Story 4, I reflected and had connected some threads of my own religious experience to the story. My thoughts weren’t fully formed, though, so I took the second viewing as an opportunity to flesh these thoughts out. Watching the opening sequence with the ending in mind, it becomes clear that they symbolize the act of looking back—at the way things once were, and how good they were—while understanding that the first parts of the story are over and done with, and it’s impossible to go back there.

So yeah, I cried at the very beginning this time.

Andrew Sweatman

Andrew Sweatman

Andrew is a writer, podcaster, and film lover who wants to help people think critically about movies. He lives in central Arkansas with his wife Allison and two children, Rosie & Beau. Find him on Twitter and Instagram: @ArthouseGarage.

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