One Saturday morning following our weekly movie night, which featured the original Toy Story, I asked my kids for their perspectives on the more mysterious parts of the movie.
The three Toy Story movies build on the premise that toys, in the absence of humans, come to life and have adventures of their own. The featured toys, led by a cowboy named Woody, belong to Andy, a little boy who lives with his mother and sister.
During our breakfast of homemade French toast, it occurred to me that Andy’s father never appears in any of the movies. I posed the question to my children:
“Where do you think Andy’s dad is?”
My six-year-old daughter weighed in, “Maybe they got divorced”. From her perspective and given her experience, this option seemed the most likely. Having blurted it out, she then reconsidered. “Well, if they got divorced, the dad would still pick up Andy and his sister for visits.” She then sank back into thought.
Next, my ten-year-old son immediately jumped to, “I think he died.” I responded with, “Really? Why do you think that?” His reasoning proved pretty sound, “Well, he’s never there, not even for birthdays or Christmas. They move to another house at the end of the first movie. Maybe that’s why they move.”
My daughter then jumped back into the conversation and said “I think they move to escape from Sid. No one wants to live next door to a creepy boy who blows up toys.” For those of you who haven’t seen the movie, Sid lives in the house next door to Andy and revels in torturing his toys. He uses magnifying glasses and the sun to burn holes in them, cuts their bodies apart and attaches the pieces to other toys to make odd and frightening hybrid toys, and straps them to rockets to watch them explode.
It then occurred to me that we never see Sid’s dad in the original Toy Story movie either.
I posed a second question. “Where do you think Sid’s dad is?” My kids looked at each other and decided simultaneously, “Oh, he’s dead, too.” Surprised, I blurted out, “I don’t think all the dads are dead. What are the odds of that? What kind of street do they live on?”
Next, my son piped up with, “I’m glad both of my dads are alive. If they weren’t, I think I would turn into a troubled kid, like Sid.” Yikes! Almost stunned into silence, but not quite, I took this opportunity to point out that kids with behavioral issues, like Sid, can sometimes get that way because they don’t allow themselves to feel sad or process bad emotions. They just feel angry all the time.
Given the dark turn of this conversation, I offered another, less gloomy option. “What if Andy’s dad just travels a lot for work?” My son nodded and joined in, “Yeah, maybe THAT’s why they have to move.” My son’s stepfather travels a lot for work, so that made sense to him.
Not buying this line of reasoning, my daughter shook her head and said, “No, Mom, I really think Andy’s dad died.” My son’s face fell, and he exclaimed, “how sad!”
Finally, I had to agree with them. “Well, Woody does allude to how the toys help Andy through a lot of hard stuff and how they are always there to support him. It does seem to make the most sense since their dad isn’t in any of the three Toy Story movies.”
As usual, my kids teach me as much, if not more, about life than I teach them. The simplest answer most often turns out to be correct.
Andy’s dad, ever absent while his mother throws birthday parties, packs the house, and moves the family by herself, died at some point prior to the movie. How sad, indeed, and I just didn’t want to see it.
The filmmakers never provide us with this information, of course. It’s not necessary to the plotlines and the focus on the meaning of toys in the lives of children. Starting from this place of implied sadness and grieving, the missing father, though never mentioned by any character, but still felt by his absence in the story, sets the stage for the themes of all three movies: fear of loss and letting go.
In every Toy Story movie, Woody finds himself separated from Andy, becomes distraught about his temporary status as a “lost toy”, and loyally perseveres in his single-minded pursuit of returning to Andy, regardless of any arguments from other disillusioned toys or any barriers in his way.
Finally, tacitly guiding Andy to give all his toys, including Woody, to a little girl who loves to play with them as much as Andy once did, even Woody accepts the message of the last film in the series. Toys, while a source of comfort and joy during childhood, ultimately fade in importance. As they grow up, kids inevitably put toys to the side or cast them off when they no longer need them. Portrayed in the final movie as forlorn when trapped in storage without human contact, toys better serve the needs of little children who delight in playing with them.
In spite of this message, perhaps most telling of all in the debate with my children about the whereabouts of Andy’s dad is Andy’s resistance to parting with Woody at the end of Toy Story 3, even though he finally does leave him with a little girl who, like Andy, loves Woody best of all out of his remaining collection of toys. While Andy willingly parts with every other toy, he intends to bring Woody to college with him, originally unable to let him go.
What if Woody was the last toy Andy’s father gave him before he died?
Throughout the three movies, Woody takes the place of the father Andy lost. He sees him through the heartbreak and happiness of childhood and loyally stands by him every step of the way. In the world of Toy Story, isn’t that the saddest reality of all?