Robert Brown’s review published on Letterboxd:
“You are a sad strange little man, and you have my pity.”
A Toy’s Telos, Part I
What I love most about the Toy Story trilogy is the character of Woody. Outside of Marlin in Finding Nemo, he is the best protagonist Pixar has ever created. He is both very noble and very flawed, marked by a strong sense of purpose and also a lot of hubris. I’m impressed by how Pixar has maintained a balancing act of keeping Woody heroic and morally upright, while also making it painfully clear that he can often be a selfish and self-righteous jerk.
What I really want to focus on in my reviews of the Toy Story films is the idea of a toy’s purpose, especially as it is expressed and lived out by Woody. Woody’s worldview is classical. In his cosmos, everything is part of a natural, deliberate order, and everyone exists for a purpose, to fulfill specific functions. Every toy has a telos, and a good toy is good insofar as it fulfills its telos, its reason for being—that is, to be there for a child to play with, to love a child and to be loved in return. But toys are not just there for any child. They are to be there specifically for the child that was assigned to them, as signified by the marker-written names the toys display.
As Andy’s favorite and as a toy naturally endowed with a bent for leadership (he is a law-keeper and a cow-herder, after all), Woody finds a secondary telos in helping other toys fulfill their own telos. In all three of the original Toy Story films, Woody is bent on helping other toys—especially the ones who have either been forgotten or who have forgotten their purpose—return to and remain in a place where they can fulfill their telos and so be their best and truest selves. In Woody’s worldview, a toy can only flourish when it belongs to a child and is safe with that child. This is evidenced by Woody’s terror at the prospect of becoming a “lost toy,” and his horror at the sadistic treatment toys receive from Sid.
But this telos does pose some issues. It is easier said than done. If “toys exist to make children happy” is the thesis statement of Woody’s worldview and of this series, each installment in the series presents counter-arguments to that thesis, and Woody and Co. must respond. In the first film, the counter-argument is, “What if I get replaced? How can I fulfill my telos then?”
Woody assures everyone at the “Staff Meeting” that no one will get replaced and that they should all be content with simply always being available for whenever Andy should need them. But that is easy for him to say, because he has always been the favorite and has never known neglect—until now. It quickly turns out that Woody does not really believe what he preaches. He is the only toy jealous of Buzz Lightyear, and really the only toy at any probable risk of being forgotten. Woody doesn’t think, “I don’t care which toy gets the most attention as long as Andy is happy.” Instead, he actually defies his telos by making his happiness more important than Andy’s happiness, by putting Buzz in harm’s way and almost getting rid of him—which of course is very distressing for Andy.
The first Toy Story is really the only film in the series that is also about Buzz. After this film, unfortunately, Buzz has no arc. He goes on some cool missions and is a reliable second-in-command, but sadly he ceases to be vital to the thematic core of the series, at least after Toy Story 2. But here Buzz has a really interesting story. He doesn’t know he is a toy, and then when he finally understands who and what he is, he doesn’t see the beauty of this discovery and becomes despondent. (The off-kilter Mrs. Nezbit scene has to be Tim Allen’s best moment in this franchise.) Woody has to remind Buzz that being a child’s toy is far greater than being a space ranger. Embracing what he is will be more satisfying than trying to be what he is not. Ultimately what brings Buzz back to his telos is seeing Andy’s name on his shoe. He finds purpose in knowing that he belongs to someone and has value to that someone.
(I’m not quite sure how to interpret the part where Woody tells Buzz that Andy wants him because he is “cool.” That would be no comfort to a toy who is “uncool.” However, Woody will discover that, even though he sees himself as “uncool” compared to Buzz, Andy still wants him. So maybe we shouldn’t put too much stock in what Woody says at that moment.)
In the end, I think the film’s response to “What if I get replaced?” is to say that when toys are committed to their child’s happiness, and also committed to helping other toys discover and enjoy that same telos, then they will be less concerned with whether they are more or less popular. Concern for the good of others drives out ego, and with it the fear that ego creates.
However, the film actually poses one other counter-argument to its thesis: “What if the child I end up with doesn’t care about my well-being?” In a perverse way, the toys in Sid’s room are fulfilling their telos. They are still there for Sid’s pleasure—but Sid’s pleasure is sadistic. These toys have not abandoned their posts, but at the same time they cannot flourish because the person who is supposed to protect them from harm is the very one who mistreats them and causes them to live in fear. To belong to a child like Sid is probably worse than being a lost toy, and this presents a serious challenge to the thesis: “What if, in trying to fulfill my purpose, I only put myself in danger?”
So what should toys do in such a situation? Should they just put up with abuse because it’s a part of their job? Here the film follows the lead of Thomas Jefferson. The Declaration of Independence argued that a king forfeits his rightful authority to lead when he mistreats his subjects, and that they are therefore justified in rebelling. Similarly, Woody’s credo—that toys should be there for their assigned children—has an exception clause. Sid and Andy, as children entrusted with toys, have their own telos to fulfill—to care for the toys they have been given. Andy takes this telos seriously, and Sid does not. Andy is not a perfect kid—I’d say he’s guilty of materialism, at least—but he is a good kid in the sense that he takes care of his toys. In contrast, Sid is a bad kid. Of course this is for a host of obvious reasons, but one of these reasons is that he destroys his toys. And so, because Sid has missed his telos, Woody believes the toys have the right to rebel, and perhaps even run away to find better children to serve. Woody galvanizes Sid’s Frankensteinian toys to stage a full-scale uprising against him, although it is unknown if the toys also abandon Sid after that point. (Ironically, the toys are successful in their rebellion thanks to the abilities Sid inadvertently gave them when he rebuilt them as hybrids. He created his own enemies, and gave them the very weapons they needed to defeat him.) All this means that Woody’s understanding of a toy’s telos is not rigid and repressive. Woody can be dogmatic and condescending when he tries to help other toys live according to their telos, but ultimately his desire is for their well-being.