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Jeneé Osterheldt | Commentary

‘Toy Story 4’ and the forever journey of growing-up

Bo, Woody, and Buzz in "Toy Story 4."
Bo, Woody, and Buzz in "Toy Story 4." Disney/Pixar/Pixar

From the moment Pixar shared its first pixels and changed animation with a medley of misfit toys, we knew “Toy Story” was special.

“Toy Story” isn’t exactly child’s play. Truthfully, it’s growing up. And it isn’t Andy, the kid who first played with our favorite toys, who we’re evolving with.

Since 1995, we’ve been on a journey led by Sheriff Woody (Tom Hanks), the pull-string cowboy doll dedicated to being his best self for everyone else.

Whether you were 5 years old or 40 when “Toy Story” first came out, you aren’t who you were when this film first debuted. Twenty-four years is a long time.


I was in high school, and not at all too cool to fall in love with the oddball friendship of Woody and Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen). We all share the anxieties surrounding the inescapable changes that come with love, jobs, age, and existence, period.

Now, we’re at what feels like the end of an era. “Toy Story 4” is to the franchise what “Avengers: Endgame” is to Marvel movies — a shedding of this world as we know it.

Woody isn’t the favorite anymore. He isn’t the leader of the pack. Andy’s moved on. Woody’s new kid, Bonnie, has a sometime kind of love for his affection.

Woody’s an old toy, so old someone has to pull his string in his back to give him a voice.

For his entire existence, Woody has lived to please, to nurture, and to lead. His ultimate goal has always been to have a job to do and belong to somebody. Otherwise, he’d be lost.

Sound familiar? These are messages society subscribes to off the big screen and in real life. We tie self-worth to job titles, romantic relationships, and reproduction. So when one of those things is missing, we’re swirling in an emotional tornado of angst and existential questions:


Who are we if we aren’t in a relationship? What is our purpose when we don’t have kids? Are you somebody if you don’t have the career you want?

We are always worthy. But it seems no matter how old we get, we’re constantly losing and finding ourselves in the battle of “Plot Twist: My life wasn’t supposed to look like this.”

Everyone treats growing up like a destination, and when you get there you’re all done. It’s not that simple. Life tests us and forces us to transition in ways that make us grow.

Like when Woody finds himself purposely left out of play time and on the closet floor for the first time. And like he does in every other “Toy Story,” Woody gets separated from his kid.

To get home, he counts on old friends like Bo Peep and new ones like Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves).

Duke is a Canadian motorcyclist stuntman toy. He’s supposed to be able to deliver the daredevil jumps. But he doesn’t live up to his toy commercial hype and ends up in an antique shop.

The advice he gets from Bo Peep and Woody: “Be who you are right now.”

Ultimately, this is Woody’s lesson to learn. It is the presence we all wrestle with, to be who you are, right now. Believe in who you are, as you are, today, brokenness and all.

“Toy Story” has always thrived on the power of belief and the suspension of it. Woody and Buzz Lightyear are toys Andy gives life to when he’s playing with them. But the minute he leaves the room, they come alive on their own. Our imaginations allow it.


In “Toy Story 4,” belief is so strong that when Woody’s new kid Bonnie takes a spork and adds pipe cleaner arms, Popsicle stick feet, a face, and calls it Forky, he goes from trash to her top toy.

But Forky’s determined to be trash until he believes himself to be a toy, too. Woody is by his side every minute helping him believe.

Belief is a liberating tool. Woody never needed anyone to pull his string to talk. He’s been doing his own thing all along.

“Toy Story 4” finds him understanding he is no longer the toy he once was. His life as the favorite toy is over. That sheriff shepherding his crew to safety and order is a job for someone else. His mission to do whatever he has to do to belong to someone is over.

And that’s all right. For the first time, Woody realizes the game does not stay the same and how we play it changes every day. If he keeps hanging on to the past and obsessing over what he could be, he’s going to miss the joy of who he is now and the people standing by his side.

Loving yourself where you’re at in the journey is the major key to living your best life, from now to infinity and beyond.


Jeneé Osterheldt can be reached at jenee.osterheldt@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @sincerelyjenee.