A decade ago, audiences were led to believe that the beloved “Toy Story” saga had ended. Yet, nearly a year ago, after almost nine years of inculcated belief that “Toy Story” would always remain a trilogy, the folks at Pixar added a fourth installment, claiming that this would be the definitive end. Now that a significant portion of time has passed since the release of both “conclusions”, I thought I would take the occasion to share my thoughts regarding which ending is better, which final sequence provided the more appropriate send-off for Andy’s cherished coterie of plastic playthings (to clarify, I merely am examining the absolute final endings provided by the movies, not the movies themselves, though that is an interesting source of discussion, with salient criticism often levelled at the fourth for splitting up Buzz and Woody, the former relegated mostly to comic relief).
The underlying thematic current for the Toy Story series is that of purpose, usually as expressed in Woody’s individual conviction that toys exist to uphold and bolster the happiness and emotional health of their owners. Each installment, in some way, centers on a set of circumstances that challenges Woody’s self-proclaimed raison d’être to always provide happiness to his owner, whether it be a new toy’s potential usurpation as Andy’s favorite or to be stored in vintage condition, to be a museum collectible as a relic of history instead of a plaything. Similar queries form the prelude and guide the carrying-out of the endings to both “Toy Story 3” and “Toy Story 4”.
So how satisfying is each resolution? When “Toy Story 3” was released, it received universal acclaim and nearly everyone agreed that it was a satisfying cap to one of the greatest animated film series of all time. The ending promises a new beginning while also upholding Woody’s long-held notions of what a toy’s true purpose is. It features a sudden change in events that symbolically encapsulates the veracity of Woody’s beliefs: rather than take Woody to college with him and store the rest of his toys in the attic, Andy decides to donate all of his old toys to a preschooler named Bonnie. The ending delivers the necessary emotional send-off—the tear-jerking goodbye in the form of Andy leaving behind definitively the toys and memories of childhood—that manages to strike the right chords of both bitter and sweet, and the final reaffirmation that toys exist to be played with, to impart happiness to their owner.
Thus, despite the swap of owners and the switch from Andy’s familiar room to Bonnie’s new abode, much is actually unchanged; it is the start, we are led to believe, of the same cycle begun all those years ago with Andy. The purpose, and the function that serves as the means to attain that purpose, remain identical.
Compare that to the ending of “Toy Story 4”. Woody, now barely played with (if at all) by Bonnie, becomes separated from the rest of the gang at a fairground. There, he reunites with his long-lost love Bo Peep, who has fashioned for herself a new mode of existence. Eventually, he realizes that he could be much more useful in achieving his self-declared ends of creating happiness by staying with Bo and taking part in a new function: the pairing of antique and circus toys with potential owners. Yet, this choice comes at a cost: Woody would have to part with the group of friends he has known all of his life, the familiar faces of Buzz, Jessie, Slinky, etc. And it would also mean abandoning Bonnie. It is a difficult decision with legitimate stakes: his friends and Bonnie, or the love of his life and fulfillment in serving his selfless telos. Woody ends up choosing the latter combination, providing a conclusion both bittersweet and wholly satisfying, more so than the ending of “Toy Story 3”.
First, the ending of “Toy Story 4” feels more proper because it instills agency into the actual protagonist; it is Woody that has to choose, it is Woody that has to decide how he wants to live out the rest of his days. It allows the characters to grapple with their convictions, for themselves to gauge in which circumstances they are more likely to feel fulfilled, rather than simply being the product of another character’s whim and magically having the consequences of that uncontrollable choice matching with their own inner beliefs. It is inherently more gratifying and also signifies a deeper understanding of the characters to have the personages choose the course of their own destinies.
Additionally, “Toy Story 4” more courageously treads the territories of existential purgatory than any other addition in the franchise. Here, not only is Woody’s purpose challenged but he is stripped of the usual function by which he has always achieved that purpose. It is a rightful repudiation of the uniform cyclicality implied at the ending of the third installment: with changing circumstances in the flux of time, not everything will remain the same. Abilities will falter and long-inculcated beliefs will be challenged. It is not easy, and “Toy Story 4” depicts, in the character of Woody, an accurate struggle against such changes and an uplifting, hopeful portrait of triumph in finding new means to achieve one’s external telos. It resolves the series in a happy way that yields much of the same basic emotions as its predecessor, but feels much more powerful and well-earned, crafting a reinvention of Woody’s function rather than falling back on the same means used by the character for fifteen years.
Finally, in discussing emotional catharsis, it must be said that the ending of “Toy Story 4” is much more affecting than the farewell of Andy that concludes number three. The separation of Woody from the likes of Buzz and Jessie are automatically more heart-wrenching, considering that they have actually talked to each other (as likable as Andy is, he never converses with the toys). Yet, the more difficult separation also alludes to the complexities of real life in a way that the ending of “Toy Story 3” never came close to approaching. Woody has to weigh constantly the value of his friendships, his love for Bo Peep, and his own inner sense of success against one another—unlike number three, the advantages are not all neatly rolled up together in one package. Friends, love, teleological satisfaction: rarely in life does one ever achieve the trifecta, the perfect and absolute attainment of all three. Rather, people have to sacrifice constantly, decide on how much they want to give up on one to realize the other. Unlike its predecessor, “Toy Story 4” was bold and brave enough to recognize this reality, and incorporate it into an unforgettable conclusion to a fantastic set of movies.