The Toy Story series made us care more about sentient children’s playthings than we probably do about most people. But something happened earlier this summer with the release of Toy Story 4. Specifically, we saw the toys become essentially human.
The first three Toy Story films have flirted with existential themes, but this fourth film doubles down. Most of the previous films have been about fulfilling your obligation to your child and coping when they move on. This film asks the question: What if a toy doesn’t want to belong to a child at all? In this way, Toy Story 4 is fundamentally a tale of existential awakening. Existentialism is a philosophy that grapples with finding meaning in a world without God (unless you’re a Christian existentialist, but I digress), which is debatably not as hard as finding meaning in a world without dogs.
Anyway, in the film, we see Woody and co. on a road trip with their kid Bonnie, whose new favorite toy is Forky, a sentient plastic spork she made out of trash. Woody has to spend his time protecting Forky, who, believing he is still merely trash, keeps trying to return to the warm embrace of rubbish. Then, villainous antique shop doll Gabby Gabby kidnaps Forky and holds him hostage in exchange for Woody’s voice box (hers is broken). While trying to rescue the beloved spork, Woody runs into Bo Peep, who becomes the catalyst for much of the film; she is a bonafide “Lost Toy,” which means she doesn’t “have” a child, and boy, is she loving life. Eventually, Woody gives up his voice box, rescues Forky, and decides to stay with Bo Peep to find his place, paradoxically, as a Lost Toy.
On the surface, the film seems to deal with similar emotional themes of moving on that the series touched on in Toy Story 3. So what makes this one different? Well, because it’s basically a lesson in Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialism.
Indeed, we think the bespectacled French philosopher could sum up the entire film with his famous quote: “existence precedes essence,” from his essay “Existentialism is a Humanism.” In it, he writes, “first of all man exists, turns up, appears on the scene, and only afterwards, defines himself.” Basically, there is nothing innately “human” which defines your very existence. Instead, your essence is constructed with every choice you make, every ugly sweater you wear, every diuretic you sneak into your sister’s cereal — which, for the record, should definitely be zero. Choices define your character, so you have total power to choose to be a jerk… or not.
Basically, Sartre was the opposite of that friend who blames you for convincing them to TP your college dorm. Rather, the philosopher would say life is a “choose-your-own-adventure” story in which we all are radically free to choose our own path, and to decide exactly how much toilet paper to waste on a half-baked prank.
Viewed through this lens, Bo Peep emerges as a bonafide existentialist, completely in charge of her own destiny. She’s come to reject the expectation that a toy’s greatest responsibility is to bring a child joy, symbolized by her freeing herself from her attached lamp. She knows that she’s free to make her own choices and carve her own path.
In contrast, the other characters seem to subscribe to decidedly non-existentialist thinking. Rather than seeing essence as something they can create with their choices, they think their existence is defined by their essence as a child’s playthings. The concept of the “inner voice,” both literal and metaphorical, emerges as a way of expressing this uniquely Sartrean point, as each character seeks some version of an “inner voice” to help them figure out what choices to make. Buzz ignores his own intuition and ability to make choices, instead consulting his factory-issued “inner voice” voice box. Woody can’t escape his own “inner voice” which tells him that his sole responsibility is to make his child happy, and thus exhibits a single-minded devotion to Bonnie even though she no longer wants to play with him. The defectively-born Gabby Gabby desperately seeks to fix her voice box in hopes of activating her own “inner voice.” For her, the failure to fully embody her designed functionality defines her and consigns her to a destiny spent on the shelf of an antique shop.
But perhaps nobody embodies the spirit of Sartrean existentialism better than Forky, who, constructed from trash, feels that “being garbage” defines his entire essence. “I was meant for soup, salad, maybe chili. And then the trash! I’m litter!” he proclaims. Each character sees their essence as predating their existence, rather than being the product of their choices and free will.
But over the course of the film, we watch these characters come to terms with their own autonomy. Most prominently, Woody decides to leave Bonnie and live life without a child, as a Lost Toy with Bo Peep, thereby accepting his own radical freedom and rejecting his “essential” purpose of making a child happy. In another critical moment, Buzz similarly learns to trust his own intuition over the mindless ramblings of his voice box.
Then, there’s Gabby Gabby, who has lived her life devoted to the mythos of her illustrated companion book, which she practically reveres like a biblical text. Her life is defined by her desire to win her favorite child’s love, and her desire for her so-called “inner voice” to finally work. But when her voice box is finally fixed, she’s still not wanted by the kid, and the Gabby Gabby lore turns out to be a lie. This moment ends up freeing her; Woody and Bo convince her that she doesn’t need to passively wait to find a child. Instead, she chooses to seek one out at the local carnival. Happily ever after, etc.
And then, of course, there’s Forky, who was made to be a spork thrown in the garbage. Also with Woody’s help, Forky realizes that he can create his essence — he can choose to be a toy.
In this way, each character’s narrative arc shows them grow from a being who accepts the destiny thrust upon them to an almost eerily human-like agent, capable of making choices that have consequences, and thus exhibiting autonomy over their own existence. Very Sartrean indeed.
But that doesn’t fully explain why Toy Story 4 feels so relevant. It’s important to note that the very foundation of Sartre’s theories rests on the idea that there is no God, and that, in the absence of some great creator, we have to figure out how to take responsibility for our own lives. This makes him particularly relevant today, with religion increasingly declining in importance to the average American. More than ever, many of us live our lives with the assumption that there isn’t (or that there might not be) a God. In this way, we face many of the struggles that Woody and his cohorts face: How do we navigate a world in which all of our decisions are our own, where we really are responsible for the course of our own destiny?