*Spoilers included for Toy Story 4*
Like most people, I thought the Toy Story franchise would end with the tear-jerker of Toy Story 3. What could be better than ending their tale with them saying goodbye to Andy as he drives off toward college and adulthood? So it came as a surprise when Pixar announced that a fourth movie would be made. This time, however, Toy Story 4 leads our well-loved toys into new territory: Bonnie’s room.
As a soon-to-be kindergartner, Bonnie is much younger than Andy (at least the last time we see him) and her interests diverge from what the toys—especially Woody—are used to. Woody finds himself time and time again left in the closet instead of being played with, which leaves him without purpose or direction. Woody is feeling lost. Until Bonnie brings home Forky, a toy she created from pieces of trash. As the Anderson family packs up for a summer road trip, Woody finds his hands full with keeping Forky out of the trash and into Bonnie’s warm embrace.
But the film isn’t all funny quips and carnival games. Like most Pixar films, Toy Story 4 digs deep into the heart of themes about life, friendship, and purpose. During Woody’s summer road trip, he reunites with Bo Peep, who has embraced the “lost toy” lifestyle. As Woody battles creepy dummies and a ruthless vintage doll, he wrestles with his own life purpose, trying again and again to convince others and himself that making a child happy is the greatest thing a toy can do. But as the toys get ready to return to the RV and drive away with Bonnie and her family, Woody makes a life-changing choice. He chooses to join Bo Peep and become a lost toy, leaving behind Buzz, Jessie, the rest of the gang, and Bonnie.
For longtime fans of the franchise, this moment can be bittersweet. Separating Woody from Buzz and the other toys (especially Jessie and Bullseye) seems impossible. How in the world can Pixar have Toy Story without Woody and Buzz? How can Jessie and Bullseye say goodbye to their sheriff? But despite the initial uncertainty of Pixar’s choice, it becomes clear that Woody deserves the opportunity to be free.
Created sometime during the 1950s, Woody is an old toy. Whether Andy was his first owner or not, he’s been around the toy chest a long time. As one of Andy’s first and favorite toys, he’s also been the go-to leader for every toy that’s crossed into Andy’s room.
Woody is the one to reassure the other toys that whatever “new” toys have been gifted during Christmas or birthdays won’t take their places. Despite his jealousy, when he and Buzz are trapped in Sid’s “toy hospital,” he does whatever he must in order to save Buzz and bring them both back to Andy, even going as far to igniting a rocket to “fly” to the back of the Davis family’s van. He goes on a crazy rescue mission to save Wheezy and keeps track of when toys need new batteries or a rotation in the toy chest.
After he meets Jessie and Bullseye, he isn’t willing to leave them behind to be sent back into storage but brings them along to Andy’s house so they can be loved by a child as well. Woody single-handedly rescues the other toys from the daycare and Lotso’s evil schemes, doing whatever he must so he doesn’t leave any toys behind. And when Andy debates between keeping the toys in the attic or donating them, Woody leaves a note for Andy to give the toys to Bonnie, knowing the toys need someone new to love them instead of being left in the attic for an undetermined number of years.
Throughout all of his adventures, Woody is there to save the day and make sure the toys stay together, whether that’s in a box, a closet, or even a trash incinerator.
Woody is also an advocate for toy-dom. During Toy Story 4, he says that “being there for a child is the most noble thing a toy can do.” Throughout the franchise, though, he has always been loyal to Andy, no matter what, and he believes that doing whatever he can to make his kid happy is the best course of action. (See Forky for example.) This belief rubs off on Buzz, who then uses it to convince Woody to return to Andy’s room after Al steals him in Toy Story 2.
But after years of being the leader and being a kid’s number one fan, Woody needs a break. It’s obvious from the beginning of Toy Story 4 that Woody’s sense of purpose has been misplaced, much like a lost toy. Bonnie isn’t Andy, and she doesn’t need Woody like she might need one of her other toys. Even the toys don’t need Woody because other leaders, like Buzz or Jessie or Dolly, have stepped up to help make decisions.
To have Woody spend endless days sitting in the closet watching the other toys being played with would be a waste. The entire reason he decided not to go with Al to Tokyo is he didn’t want to spend his life watching kids behind a glass case and never being loved again. So while it’s sad to see him say goodbye to the life he’s always known and the friends he’s made along the way, it’s time for Woody to have a new start. And that life begins with becoming a lost toy and joining Bo Peep and her new gang.
Together, Woody and Bo can spread joy to children, whether they are owned or not (as shown in the ending credits of the film). And Woody finally recovers his lost purpose by becoming lost himself. But as Buzz says, at the end of the film, “He’s not lost. Not anymore.”
Whether Toy Story 4 is a necessary installment in the franchise is still debatable, but it still gets at the heart of what Toy Story has always been about: friendship and life’s purpose. And sometimes letting go is part of life, no matter how much it hurts. The toys survived saying farewell to Andy in Toy Story 3, and I have no doubts Woody can survive being a lost toy and Buzz, Jessie, and the gang can survive without Woody, as evident by another ending credits scene. If this is the end for the Toy Story franchise (and maybe it should be), it’s a good farewell, wrapping up Woody’s character arc and letting long-time fans and new fans have one more “roundup” with our favorite sheriff.