Toy Story and Identity
I fear that I may not be a great cinema companion. I recently went to see Toy Story 4 with a couple of friends. As the credits began to roll, my friends were looking happy and smiley and praised the film for its story and surprise ending. I, on the other hand, was seething.
Ok, maybe I wasn’t quite seething, but I was certainly displeased. I had loved the film right up until the last few minutes because I couldn’t help noticing that in its surprising ending, Toy Story 4 had completely sold out to a internal identity narrative. I’ll try not to give too much of the ending away, but basically, a key character turns their back on their created purpose and seeks to find fulfilment by following the desires they find inside. The Toy Story franchise has ended with a classic case of the narrative of our day: the modern or internal identity narrative. In the internal identity narrative, who we are is determined by what we feel and what we desire, and true fulfilment is found by embracing and expressing those feelings and desires. Any sense of purpose or plan in the created world is disregarded and we become the makers of our own identity.
And the embracing of this narrative is a surprising turn for Toy Story to take because the films so far have provided some of the clearest examples of divine identity, the idea that as creatures our identity must come from our creator and so true fulfilment is found by living in line with the creator’s plan.
This approach to identity comes through clearly in Toy Story 3. The film starts with the toys feeling empty and unfulfilled because their owner, Andy, has grown up and no longer plays with them. They are unable to fulfil their created purpose of bringing joy to children and so life feels empty and meaningless. But as the film goes on, they are restored to this purpose when they end up first at a day-care centre and then at the home of a new owner, a young girl called Bonnie. As they return to living as they were created to live – bringing joy to children – they once again rediscover meaning and purpose in life. They find true satisfaction by living out the identity and role given to them by their creator.
And divine identity is even found in Toy Story 4, through the journey of the new character, Forky. Forky starts with an internal identity. Because he’s been made from trash (rubbish, for British readers), when he looks inside himself, he feels like trash and believes that is who he really is. He therefore keeps trying to throw himself back in the bin to embrace and express that internal identity, believing that the bin is where he’ll find true satisfaction. But as the film progresses, Forky realises that to find his true identity, and so the root to true satisfaction, he has to look, not inside himself, but to his creator. His identity is now as a toy, not because of how he feels or what he does, but because of how he has been created and what his creator says about him. Bonnie made him to be a toy and says that he is a toy, and therefore, he is a toy. And since that is his true identity, embracing and expressing that will be the root for Forky to find true life and true satisfaction.
I don’t suppose the creators of Toy Story 4 are aware of the contradictions in the philosophical underpinnings of their stories, and I don’t suppose that many people will have come away from the film with as deep a sense of annoyance as I did. (And I really did love it overall!) But the Toy Story films are a helpful reminder that we are constantly being bombarded by different narratives about how we should form identity and how we can find true satisfaction in life. And this being so, we need to make sure that we know the true narrative, and that we let that be louder in our ear than any of culture’s alternatives.