Spoiler Alert: I will unabashedly expose storyline and details of Toy Story 4 in this article, so if you’d like to be surprised, get thee to the movie theatre ASAP (and bring your students!).
Let me tell you a story. This is the story of a much-treasured character, created from something unremarkable, but created with love and with purpose. This character is given a name by its creator, and it is marked by its creator in a very specific way that indicates who the character belongs to.
Early in the story, we see this character forget time and again what it is actually made to be; in lieu of enjoying its status as beloved friend of its creator, it attempts to return to where it feels safe and comfortable, to where it knows how to live – on its own, and as something less than what it was made to be. Along the way, we encounter another character who rescues this first, lost character over and over. He repeatedly enters into the unremarkable homeland of the first character in attempt to save it. Love is the primary motivator of this rescuer. He never gives up.
Along the way, we see the initial character make a ridiculous number of escape attempts. It becomes evident that one of its primary motivations is its belief that it was made for so much less than its creator intended. It doesn’t know its name, and it cannot recognize the love of its creator.
The breakthrough moment for this character comes when it finally begins to understand that its creator loves it, and the rest of the story is about this character learning to be what it was always designed to be: chosen, beloved, and purposed for so much more than it had imagined.
How beautiful is that?!
This is the story of Forky, a toy created from a trash bin who has an awfully and entertainingly difficult time believing that he is actually a toy– and in fact, a beloved toy sought after by his owner, Bonnie. This is also the story of Israel, a people who have the most difficult time remembering that they are actually the chosen people of God, who has rescued them and called them his own. Just as Israel longs to return to the known (Egypt), even though it is where they were enslaved, Forky longs to return to the “safety” of the garbage bin, where he knows how things work, where he feels at home.
After Woody’s countless rescue missions, we finally see love break into Forky’s little plastic heart and mind; it is a beautiful moment of empathy with his creator (Bonnie) that transforms his relationship with himself. He learns that he has been created, chosen, marked as her own (her name is written on his feet), and designed to be a toy. He stops trying to run away and begins walking with his rescuer, Woody. And as if that’s isn’t profound enough, he eventually lets Woody carry him in a tender embrace – like a child – as he listens to tales of the real toy world he’s been created to be a part of.
One of the things I enjoyed most about this movie, apart from the brilliant quips we’ve come to expect from Toy Story, is the fact it is primarily about Forky’s journey of rescue and of learning to be a toy, and not about the Woody-Bo Peep relationship. And I am so grateful that Pixar didn’t waste time developing their romantic relationship. I am most interested in Forky’s process of becoming a real toy, even as he has already been made to be a toy. Because this is our journey as chosen, beloved humans who were created in God’s image and are marked as Christ’s own forever: we are learning to be human in light of this reality. We are learning to love, learning to participate in the kingdom as sons and daughters of the King. We are learning to be His.
There is much to be said about the ways in which Woody falls terribly short of representing Jesus (E.g. he’s irritated by Forky throughout the beginning of the movie; he’s resentful of Forky’s escape attempts; he forsakes his community in the end for a romantic relationship, etc.). But he embodies an undeniably Christ-like pattern of sacrificial love, pursuit, and rescue that runs throughout the entirety of Toy Story 4.
And let’s not forget that Woody seeks Forky time and again not because he has anything to recommend to him, but because Forky is loved (by Bonnie). Woody’s love for Bonnie moves him to rescue Forky just as Jesus’ love for the Father plays a role in his pursuit of us. (Although of course Jesus loves us in and of himself).
How different this movie would have been if Forky had been a snazzy, good-looking, highly-performing toy that Bonnie enjoyed primarily for the ways he entertained her. And how different it would have been if Woody’s main motivation for rescuing Forky was reward or status.
In yet another gospel-filled narrative, Toy Story 4 offers us an abundance of redemptive-historical themes to unearth and process through, and I pray that you’ll enjoy engaging your students as much as I enjoyed the film. Here are some questions that might get the conversation started:
1) What made Forky special? (And how is that similar to what Genesis 1 and 2 tell us makes us unique as humans?)
2) Why was Woody so intent on rescuing Forky? (And what is similar and different to why Jesus is intent on rescuing us?)
3) What made the trash so appealing for Forky? (And how is that similar to the way the Israelites long to return to Egypt, where they were enslaved?)
4) What transformed Forky’s heart? (And how is empathy a picture of the incarnation?)
5) What helped Forky learn to be a toy instead of believing he was trash? (And what are some of the messages culture tells us about what it means to be human?)