My sons, ages five and four, are in the sweet spot for Toy Story, as are the children of many of our friends. Add in that I helped develop the toys for the theatrical release of “Toy Story 3” in 2010, and friends and family are eager to share their Toy Story stories with me.
My friend and former boss Tim, who was involved in developing the toys for all three theatrical releases before “Toy Story 4,” shared that this was the first time he hadn’t gone to see the movie with his son Pete, who’s now 27. “He was three when he sat on my lap to watch the first Toy Story in the theater. He was always a Toy Story kid while growing up, and as it turned out, I was lucky enough to take him to the premiere of ‘Toy Story 3’ the day after he graduated from high school. We both had quite the ugly cry in the theater then!”
The Toy Story franchise is unique in Disney’s canon because the four films have been released over a span of almost 24 years, and the last three films were released with gaps of 11 and 9 years, respectively. We may be lucky to have young kids for just one theatrical release. At the current rate, the next time Disney/Pixar releases a Toy Story film, my boys will be 13 and 14. By then, we might be able to convince them to humor their two old dads with a G-rated movie outing but—like Andy—their relationship with the franchise will be more about reminiscing.
The movies present relevant themes about childhood, growing up, selflessness, and listening to the answers that lie within us, while also helping us track the progress of our own lives. Warning: the remainder of this piece is filled with plot spoilers.
Toy Story (1995):
The themes: We first meet the Toy Story characters. With the arrival of Buzz, alpha toy Woody fears that he will be replaced as Andy’s favorite. Through a series of mishaps and mutual rescues, Woody learns that life is more exciting with Buzz in it, and that there is always room in his heart for a new friend, and in Andy’s heart for a new toy.
How it related to my life: It was the fall of my senior year in college. A self-identified Disneyphile, I remember being inspired by the technological feat of the first full-length feature CGI film. As I prepared for graduating college, and the prospect of my next steps in life not being predetermined for the time ever, I identified with Woody’s competing beliefs. He feared the uncertainty of change that came with the arrival of Buzz, and I feared the turmoil that would ensue if I was honest with myself about what I wanted most in life. I also related to Woody’s commitment to being of service to Andy. My parents lived lives that put the needs of others before themselves, and I wanted to live up to their similar expectations of me.
Toy Story 2 (1999)
The themes: Andy is a few years older, and Woody starts to worry about how long this magic will last. He’s mourning the loss of his unrequited love, Little Bo Peep, and he pours energy into being there for Andy. When his kidnapping leads to a discovery that he used to be a big deal in the world of pop culture with his old friends Jessie and Bullseye, he’s forced to make a difficult choice: a comfortable life of fame, but without the people and toys he loves most, or being with Andy and his toy friends for a wonderful, but uncertain future.
How it related to my life: While this was the shortest span between releases, it was a period filled with enormous change for me. I enrolled in, and then withdrew from, medical school; moved cross-country three times, eventually settling in southern California; transitioned into a career in advertising; and applied to graduate school. Most importantly, I’d completed the final step of coming out to my family. In the months leading up to my decision to come out to them, I recall a choice similar to Woody’s. I could continue to live my life far away from my family and let the geographic and figurative distance grow to the point where we eventually would not know each other. Or, I could take the risk in sharing the real me, and hope that even if it made our relationship harder in the short term, it would ultimately bring us closer than we’d ever been. Like Woody, I followed the path of vulnerability with the people that I love.
Toy Story 3 (2010)
The themes: More than any of the films in the franchise, this one speaks to the emotional weight of growing up, transitions, and living life with purpose. Andy has graduated high school, and he’s headed off to college. The toys enjoy a low-profile, comfortable life in Andy’s bedroom toy chest, which he’s long ignored. Woody still holds a special place in Andy’s heart, and he plans to bring his favorite cowboy with him to college. As Andy packs his mom, moved by his empty bedroom, hugs him and says she wishes she could always be with him. Like many parents, Woody hangs on to the story that Andy needs him. He’d gladly sacrifice his own enjoyment to spend even a little time with Andy.
When the toys accidentally end up in a donation pile for a pre-school, they quickly learn that getting played with isn’t enough for a satisfying life. They want to be loved by a kid who will take care of them. The toys eventually make it back to Andy’s bedroom before he heads off for college. In one of the most bittersweet moments in recent film history, he gifts his toys—including Woody—to young Bonnie, who will play with, love and protect the toys. Andy honors the adage, “If you love someone, set them free” in leaving his beloved Woody with a trusted kid instead of bringing him to college. The most loving thing he can do for Woody and the other toys is to give them a new home where they will get to do what they were made to do—bring joy to a child.
How it related to my life: As I mentioned earlier, I was working on the toys for “Toy Story 3”. The opportunity to visit the Pixar campus, and see early versions of the film, exceeded my wildest young adult dreams. In my personal life, I’d just met Andrew, who’s now my husband. We both wanted children, but it was still early in our relationship. I couldn’t yet relate to Andy’s mom, but I felt the passage of time. I was too young to give up on my dreams of fatherhood and too old to put them off indefinitely.
The movie released while I was in Alaska with my family to celebrate my parents’ 40thanniversary. We took a break from sightseeing in Anchorage to go to a screening of the film, where my heart melted seeing a young boy holding Buzz and Woody toys that I’d worked on. This moment connected all my hard work to a higher purpose of inspiring the imagination of a future generation of kids.
Toy Story 4 (2019)
The themes: Woody, Buzz, and the rest of the toys have a wonderful life with Bonnie, who takes them on adventures, imaginary and real. Bonnie is entering kindergarten, and Woody hides in her backpack to help with her transition. When Bonnie creates new friend Forky, Woody it makes it his mission to take care of Forky for the sake of Bonnie. He said, “Being there for a child is the most noble thing a toy can do.” Along the way, he’s reunited with his lost love, Little Bo People who has really found herself, and she’s inspiring others to do the same with advice like, “Be who you are right now.”
Woody reminds the audience that our greatest strength—in his case loyalty—can also hold us back. In the final moments of the movie, the audience weeps as the toys push him to follow his heart and stay with Little Bo Peep. They help him do what he was unable to do for himself, which is putting his own needs first.
How it related to my life: For the first time in the film franchise, I had two kids to take to the movie. One of them is starting Kindergarten, just like Bonnie. Over the last five years, I’d slowly introduced Toy Story toys that I worked on to the boys, and they have a healthy attachment to characters. I even convinced my younger son that he wanted a Toy Story themed birthday party.
I left the toy industry five years earlier and transitioned into executive coaching and leadership development. This shift was prompted by becoming a dad, and embracing my commitment to being present for my kids in a way that a traditional corporate job would make difficult. I can relate to Woody in that I loved the people I worked with, and yet I know that my heart and calling lie somewhere else.
The boys humored me in sitting for countless photos with their Woody and Buzz action figures, which I let them bring to the theater in an attempt to recreate the moment I witnessed in Alaska. For my children, this was just a movie. For me, it was the integration of realized dreams of fatherhood, the challenges and rewards of a career I loved and have said goodbye to, and sharing a snapshot in time with my family that I know I will look back on fondly.
You don’t need to be a kid, or even have kids in your life, to appreciate the life lessons from Woody, Buzz and the gang. If you are looking for perspective on something important in life, there’s a good chance one of these movies will offer some comforting direction.
-Peter Gandolfo, founder of Gandolfo Group, is a certified executive coach and career coach who works with leaders at all levels to build awareness and make progress towards their goals. He’s passionate about working with fathers who want to continue to achieve in their careers while also being present for their children. He lives in Los Angeles with his husband and their two young boys.