It’s amazing to chart a film character’s progression throughout time, a feat made easier by the wealth of sequels that accompany most movies today. When Toy Story debuted in 1995 it was never foreseen that these characters would continue to grow and stay with us 24 years later. Toy Story 4, out in theaters now, lets us continue down that nostalgic path alongside pals Woody and Buzz, but as the audience has grown older so have the characters. And thus Toy Story 4’s main arc, outside of villainous talking dolls and an existentially conflicted spork, sees the franchise’s small-town sheriff realize maybe he doesn’t necessarily need to be the hero.
Woody has always been the safe, reliable anchor for the Toy Story features. In the first film, he was the leader of Andy’s toys, sending them out to look at new presents with literal military precision, organizing daily meetings. He was the president, mayor, and overseer aided by the validation that he was Andy’s favorite toy. Thus when Buzz Lightyear (voiced by Tim Allen) arrives in Andy’s room it threatens Woody’s position because being Andy’s favorite stands in for a proper election. When Andy starts to love someone another toy it upends Woody’s standing.
This is a theme that’s run through all three Toy Story features: Woody’s position of authority and change threatening it. Or, conversely, how a threatening change can enhance Woody’s authority. Take 1999’s Toy Story, wherein Woody discovers he’s actually a valuable piece of pop culture ephemera. His authority doesn’t begin and end in Andy’s room but extends to a once-popular television show, Woody’s Round-Up, and the gaggle of fans and collectors that appear to exist. Woody realizes he doesn’t just have value where Andy is concerned; he has value both as a piece of currency and as a semi-immortal piece of history.
Even in 2010’s Toy Story 3 Woody remained committed to Andy, both as his kid and what it meant for him regarding the other toys. Though their numbers have dwindled by the arrival of the third movie and Andy set to go to college, Woody is still a mother hen, making sure his flock is safe up in the attic while he goes off with Andy. His value will soon transition away from being a literal presence in the toys’ lives to something more symbolic. He wouldn’t see them every day but he would remain the perpetual measuring stick and consciousness for the rest. Yet when the toys are accidentally sent to daycare it’s up to Woody to bring them home and, eventually, reconcile with leaving Andy behind and finding a new source of value in his own individuality.
In all three movies, Woody has felt the inadequacy that comes from having another male character make an attempt (or at least what Woody perceives to be an attempt) to usurp his status. In Toy Story the initial conflict between Woody and Buzz was established, with Woody eventually having to lead Buzz to how to appreciate being a toy, a similar relationship the sheriff has with new character Forky (voiced by Tony Hale) in the most recent movie. In Toy Story 2 Woody’s power isn’t threatened but it does cause animosity between him and the prospector, Stinky Pete (voiced by Kelsey Grammar). This balance is further skewed in Toy Story 3 when Woody’s definition of being a leader being kind, benevolent, and egalitarian is in conflict with Lotso Huggin Bear’s (voiced by Ned Beatty) hierarchical definition of power, wherein toys at the bottom live a harder existence than toys perceived to be more worthy, like Woody.
It’s important to note that all three Toy Story movies have situated Woody as the center by which distinctions in power are wrought. No other character has the same level of influence. Woody is presented as the textbook definition of leadership, and though he has flaws, they are overshadowed by his own inner goodness and loyalty. It’s also worth mentioning that Woody butts heads solely with perceived male characters. In Toy Story 2 he meets Jessie (voiced by Joan Cusack), but she never threatens his position of power and, in fact, needs him to help her escape various situations throughout the movie as well as various shorts in the Toy Story canon.
This history is at the heart of Toy Story 4’s biggest revelation: Woody’s own personal realization that he doesn’t have to be a leader. In every movie, Woody’s autonomy has gone hand-in-hand with his decisions. He has conflicts with Buzz, Lotso, and Stinky Pete because they threaten the family Woody loves. The push-pull is both a power dynamic conflict coupled with the need to overthrow someone willing to do harm to others. Woody does what he does out of love and loyalty, but also because he knows he is doing the right thing.
But in Toy Story 4 this is all upended. With new owner Bonnie, Woody comes to discover he isn’t her favorite. She plays with all the toys, rarely selecting a favorite, but when she does, it’s usually Jessie. Woody is left alone in the closet, even having to give up his Sheriff’s badge, a literal signifier of his power, to Jessie during her playtime with Bonnie. His push to find and hold onto Bonnie’s new favorite toy, Forky, becomes a drive not for power but to hold onto one of the few things Woody has in this new landscape: his sense of right and wrong. Bonnie loves Forky and thus it becomes Woody’s mission to keep the two together by any means necessary. And yet the movie reminds him regularly that he is the one choosing to bear these responsibilities. When he meets up with Bo Peep (Annie Potts), the love of his life from the first movie, he has a choice to either stay with her for himself or protect the toys he’s kept an eye on forever for their sake. Where does individuality begin and end?
More than anything Woody discovers that, as a male toy, he believes he must be the protector, the savior. He bristles when teaming up with Bo: not only does she threaten his authority and stability, but because she is right and it forces to question his place in the world. When she plans missions with him throughout the movie he continues to undo them to protect the toys he perceives are important, putting the people she loves at risk. When confronted with his selfishness he blames it on his lack of power and purpose. He missed the respect that came from ruling Andy’s room and the hardest thing for him to do is give up his need to be responsible because that’s all he’s ever known. As a cowboy doll, built in the ‘50s, no less, his masculinity is inherent in his persona. He’s been taught and trained to be a protector of the weak and downtrodden yet now lives in a world where women, like Bo and Jessie, are able to hold their own. Most importantly, he doesn’t have all the answers nor is he praised for what he does simply because he’s a male figure of authority.
Woody eventually works alongside Bo and, more importantly, finally has the power to leave his family behind and go off into the world with her. This is a major milestone that charts the transition of a character we never truly saw in a controlling light but always had those undertones. Woody did right by those he loved but Toy Story 4 showed it came at a price. Woody’s ability to walk away from that, toward not just love but respect for someone else as a leader in equal standing is important. He is willing to work alongside someone, have a proper partner. Like all of us, Woody grew up and it felt so right.
Toy Story 4 is in theaters now.