In celebration of putting our new mini book The Gospel According to Pixar “to bed,” we thought we’d post the first of three installments that make up Mockingbird friend Jeremiah Lawson AKA Wenatchee the Hatchet’s exclusive essay, “Toy Story as a Journey of Heroic Repentance.” We’ve written about Toy Story on here before, but this really takes it to, you know, infinity and beyond:

One of the most illuminating criticisms of Pixar films over the last fifteen years has been that Pixar has rarely come up with compelling villains. The villain is either not particularly scary or not particularly necessary to the forward movement of the plot. This criticism misunderstands the nature of storytelling in most Pixar films. In Disney tales, villains can take the corporeal form (The Little Mermaid or The Lion King), or the villain can take a more social form, such as in Dumbo where the subtext in the film is racism and ethnocentrism and the effects that bias has on an individual and a family.

Any literature survey course will tell us that there are essentially three kinds of conflicts that drive a story: man vs man, man vs nature, and man vs himself. Include gender-adjusted and nature-adjusted variables as you wish. Pixar films are conspicuously low-key on man vs man as well as man vs nature but from the beginning Pixar films have reveled in man vs himself. The reason Pixar villains seem weak is precisely because the central conflict in a Pixar film is rarely between two primary characters. One might even go so far as to say that the weaker Pixar films are the ones that emphasize this man vs man conflict.

The strongest stories in the Pixar catalog have always been ones in which the central conflict for the central character is internal. Since noticing this tendency with Toy Story, I haven’t been surprised that people who prefer more conventional man vs man or man vs nature stories find Pixar villains disappointing. As a Christian, who sees a massive amount of the scriptural narrative as being one in which God’s people are confronted with the reality that God is more for them than they are for themselves, I resonate with Toy Story on many levels. Our hero Woody is heroic not because he beats the bad guys but because he is on a steady path of repenting of his own biases and fears and how these biases and fears lead him to destroy others or diminish others.

Now that we have the third and probably final installment in Toy Story trilogy I think it is useful to point out that a full two thirds of the series has focused on internal conflict as the primary engine for storytelling. Woody is against Buzz Lightyear in the first film, to be sure, but the conflict arises because of his loss of faith in Andy’s goodness and favor. He doubts that Andy will want to keep him and sees Buzz as the embodiment of his doubt in Andy’s character. Buzz therefore must be considered the enemy; his delusions prevent Woody from realizing that he has a potential friend.

But the central conflict of the film has to do with Woody’s fear that he has lost his role as Andy’s favorite toy. He refuses to accept the possibility that Andy can have two favorites and labors to win back his earlier position by eliminating Buzz. When his (essentially) murderous treachery is revealed for what it is, Woody loses the very thing he craved to keep. He loses the trust of all his friends, even Slinky-Dog. He is then stuck being tied to the toy he hates most, realizing that he can’t show his face at the house without Buzz.

The central moment of conflict resolution does not take place in the backyard with Sid Phillips; it happens when both Woody and Buzz are imprisoned as a consequence of their own respective fears and delusions. Only when Woody admits that he is in fact the one who should be strapped to the rocket do we see how he is a great hero: he is a hero because he is able to see the wickedness in his heart and repent. Moreover, he helps Buzz understand that simply being a toy is not just “being a toy.” Having helped Buzz, Woody finally confronts his crippling fear that he is a toy who, by comparison, cannot possibly be loved or wanted by Andy. Suddenly, it is Buzz’s turn to share with Woody that Andy will not give up on him.

In the first moments of the first movie we see Woody assuring all the toys of Andy’s faithfulness and generosity – precisely what Woody questions upon Buzz’s arrival. Woody is, if I may be so bold, a kind of contemporary reinvention of Elijah. Elijah was known for reminding everyone else of God’s faithfulness while things were in his favor and was happy to have God’s favored position as a prophet to His people. Once confronted with the real problems and dangers, Elijah balks, runs away, and wallows in self-pity. Of course I speak broadly and by analogy. Elijah clearly does not attempt to kill a rival or successor. He appoints Elisha as his protégé but he fails to anoint the kings God appointed him to anoint.

Woody, by analogy, is a kind of prophetic toy who loses his prophetic function and role as an example when he becomes obsessed with keeping said role. He regains it not by attempting to hold on to it (which is how he nearly loses it) but by sharing with his own perceived rival that it is no bad thing to be a toy, i.e. by reminding Buzz of who he is. We see the beginning of a compelling character study in the Toy Story franchise–those toys that seek to save (and control) their lives lose everything they fought to preserve, while those who give up those things for the benefit of Andy and other toys find they are allowed to keep the status they wrongly feared they would lose.

NEXT UP: Part Two, in which The Prospector and Lotso duke it out as foils for different paradigms of identity-formation and salvation-schema.