The difference with Toy Story is that it has always been about the tension between nostalgia and obsolescence. When Buzz Lightyear first arrives in 1995, Woody is outcast; fearing that he will fall into disuse, he must adjust to no longer being top toy. Throughout the franchise, the toy-child relationship is a clear analogue for child-parent relationships, such that when Woody is brushed aside in favour of Buzz, we read the heartbreak of a child abandoned by a no-longer loving parent. It taps into a universal story of abandonment that happens boiling-frog-like over many years: as children grow into adulthood, and as all that constant companionship and intimacy is no longer required of a parent, both the parent and the child must come to terms with their new — though still loving — relationship as two adults. Life moves on. In the word nostalgia, we have nostos, meaning ‘homecoming’ + algos ‘pain, grief, distress’: in its evocation of those early child-parent relationships and their natural progression, the emotional undercurrent of Toy Story has always been concerned with this painful return (as well as of course the literal rips, tears and rockets it takes for the toys to return to Andy’s bedroom, as if never disturbed, before he gets home). As adults watching the films, we take part in a child’s wish fulfilment — toys coming to life — and remember a time when we had similar wishes; the painful part is the knowledge that we must let them go.
Toy Story 4 and the Terror of Obsolescence
Nostalgia is the hottest commodity. Hollywood is saturated with nostalgia as kung pao chicken is laced with MSG. It’s become a cheap way to enhance and intensify emotional engagement, by tapping into our childhood memories, sparking the easy thrill of recognition. I’m sure you’ve heard the complaint ‘Nothing new is made anymore’. Instead, we have sequels, prequels, epilogues, franchises, reboots, gritty reboots, reboots of gritty reboots, and a lot more to boot. With this in mind, on my way to the cinema, I find myself reminiscing. I was three when Toy Story came out. In some sense, does that make me precisely the target audience for Toy Story 4? Does the world need a fourth Toy Story installment? Couldn’t it have been left to fall naturally into obsolescence?
The franchise taps into a universal story of abandonment that happens boiling-frog-like over many years: as children grow into adulthood, and as all that constant companionship and intimacy is no longer required of a parent, both the parent and the child must come to terms with their new — though still loving — relationship as two adults.
Toy Story 4 sees Woody not only demoted to second place, as in the first film, but completely sidelined, left in the cupboard. Unwanted, useless, these feelings are aggravated when his child Bonnie (literally) makes a new friend at kindergarten — a spork with stick-on googly eyes and pipecleaners for arms. Now less beloved than actual rubbish, Woody’s response is to double-down on his belief that he must do what’s best for his child. While ‘Forky’ keeps making beelines for trashcans, launching himself into bins (fantastic gallows humour, suicidal lemming fork), Woody pulls him back time and again, for Bonnie’s sake. This leads to a late night, roadside conversation (‘Forky’ having thrown himself from the window of a moving RV) when Woody is explaining that Forky is no longer trash; he’s Bonnie’s favourite toy. Forky has an epiphany — but what’s Woody’s function? Does he serve one? Or has he become obsolete after providing all that companionship and intimacy for Andy for so many years?
Prior to watching Toy Story 4, I was concerned it would rely too heavily on those cheap gestures of nostalgic recognition that are becoming all too familiar in Blockbusters just now — ‘Han Solo! He would have made the same kind of joke in the old ones!’ or the feeling of safety, all-well-with-the-world, in watching Jennifer Aniston and Adam Sandler as Rachel from Friends and Happy Gilmore in Netflix’s Murder Mystery. Instead, I was surprised to notice how much nostalgic imagery — a key setting is a dusty antiques store, in which film from an old projector is used as rope in a rescue mission — was called upon to serve the film’s parent-child theme. Depth comes, too, from the ‘real’ analogue to Woody’s predicament – a mid-life crisis, or ‘empty nest syndrome’. Distinctly adult problems. Having supervised Andy growing up and going off to uni — his responsibility fulfilled — it’s time to consider what else his life could be. Eventually, the desire to return to a simpler, better time is bested by the desire to open a new, perhaps more complicated chapter.
Which America should be made great again – the one that saw millions of African slaves brought to the New World, or the one that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima? Maybe the one where women stayed at home and ‘men were men’?
Nostalgia has always been a key part of Toy Story: the name in faded Sharpie on the bottom of the boot; Randy Newman croaking out the warm and familiar country hooks of yesteryear. It’s natural to want to return to a simpler time; all too easy to forget that it wasn’t really all that simple, that the place we’d like to return to doesn’t exist, that all our homecoming visions are fantasies. Hollywood will no doubt continue to exploit nostalgia for economic gain, and we must be aware of how the industry manipulates us into buying pieces of our own memories. More immediate, though, is the toxic potency of nostalgia’s use elsewhere — take, um, politics. I bet you can think of a slogan or two, ‘Toy Story for Bitter Adults’. Which America should be made great again – the one which saw millions of African slaves brought to the New World, or the one that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima? Maybe the one where women stayed at home and ‘men were men’? Similarly, for Brexit Britain, there is no Jerusalem – no ‘green and pleasant land’ to return to. No nostos; only, algos. Life moves on – make like Woody. Forward motion.
By Sammi Gale.