The Spirituality of Toy Story

By Dwayne Eutsey

(Adapted from a lay sermon I gave at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship at Easton on July 25, 2010).

About 10 years ago, when my wife and I were the parents of newborn twins and a two-year-old son, I found a philosophical/spiritual resource that helped me cope with the day-to-day grind of new-parent survival by reminding me of a few profound and enduring spiritual truths.

It wasn’t the Bible, the Bhagavad Gita, or any other religious text, because with commuting every day to a full-time job, and having three kids in diapers, who had time for reading, let alone scriptural interpretation?

It wasn’t sitting meditation, because when people experiencing extreme sleep deprivation sit down and shut their eyes for a moment, the next sound you’ll hear from them won’t be “oooommmmm” but “zzzzzzzzzz”.   

This resource didn’t involve heavy theological discourses, dogmas, doctrines, or hard-to-understand references to ancient times and places; instead, it offered its spiritual lessons in an engaging, colorfully animated format with lively, funny dialogue, and was set within the simple context of a child’s bedroom.

I mean, of course, the highly popular Toy Story series. For anyone who has been secluded in a child-free cave for the past 15 years and doesn’t know what I’m talking about: the three Toy Story movies follow the adventures of a group of toys that belong to a boy named Andy. The toys, who are led by an amiable cowboy named Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks) and an astronaut action figure named Buzz Lightyear (voiced by Tim Allen), can only come to life when human beings aren’t around.

On the surface, the stories are pretty simple: the first one involves Woody’s jealousy over the arrival of a new high-tech Buzz Lightyear toy and Buzz’s delusion that he’s really a Space Ranger, not a toy; the second movie has Woody discovering that he’s a valuable collectible when an unscrupulous toy collector steals him; and the third has the toys wondering about their fate as their owner Andy prepares to go to college.

With their huge success, it’s obvious that something about the Toy Story narratives strike a deep chord with people of all ages around the world. The reasons for their popularity obviously include the clever writing and nicely performed voice characterizations, the catchy and memorable songs, and the ground-breaking computer animation that lures viewers into the movies’ believable virtual reality.

But I believe they resonate so deeply with people because they also contain spiritual and philosophical lessons that ring so true.

I’m not alone in believing there’s a lot going on beneath the cartoon surface of the Toy Story movies. Critic Leonard Maltin, for example, called Toy Story 1 a “grown-up story masquerading as a kid's film... [it’s a] story of friendship, fickleness, and the need for acceptance...” Roger Ebert wrote that Woody’s thoughts at the end of Toy Story 2 “about life, love, and belonging to someone are kind of profound.”

When I did a quick search of “Toy Story” and “spirituality” or “religion,” I found that people of different faiths also find religious insights in these films.

  • One website asserts that with its theme of impermanence “an undercurrent of Buddhism lurks under Toy Story 3's shimmering surface.”
  • A Jewish reviewer claims that “Woody, Buzz, and their friends are…good, observant Jews” in that they “have no doubt that they are destined for abandonment by their master, and yet, in their earthly toy world, they depend on each other and love one another and strive for a better life. They worry about fate, but not enough to stop playing.”
  • An Evangelical Christian finds in these movies the same prophetic hope that Isaiah and Jesus envisioned of a world in which “we can all live together in harmony…(and) form a loving community in spite of differences.”

The view that is probably closest to my own take on these movies comes from a Humanist named Lucia Hall. In her thoughtful review of the first two Toy Story films, Hall concludes that “it’s refreshing to see two movies expressing adult and grounded values that we can all readily embrace. For even though our whole existence is confined to this little planetary toy room, even though we must face a life of limited length in which we risk both physical and emotional injury, that life is still rewarding and worth cherishing.”

That’s what I believe the Toy Story movies can do for adults: they open our minds through playful imagination and then drop in simple life truths about what really matters that maybe we’ve forgotten or that have become hazy since we grew up.

I was reminded of that when I saw Toy Story 3 this summer. With our former two-year-old now a pre-teen and his brother and sister not far behind, I once again find myself like I was a decade ago: entering one of those disorienting times in life when old familiarities are passing away and unknown realities are arising all around. As with the other two Toy Story movies, Toy Story 3, with its reassuring (if not paradoxical) hope that nothing lasts forever even as life continually renews itself, came along at just the right time for me.

It’s nice to know that, as the Toy Story theme song says, when the road looks rough ahead and you’re miles and miles from your nice warm bed, we have resources like these movies that can help show us the way.

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