** Spoilers ahoy for both Toy Story 4 and Remains of the Day — Look away now **
The Toy Story 4 plot is a mixture of Remains of the Day and the Empty Nest Syndrome.
The story begins with a flashback to nine years previously when Woody has to choose between protecting and caring for his child, Andy, and love. At that time, Andy was young and still needed Woody who was the ‘favourite toy’, as the cowboy says in the movie.
However, time has passed and his new owner is more interested in playing with other toys. She prefers a cowgirl to a cowboy and Woody has to examine whether loyalty alone can sustain him as he is rejected and kept in the closet.
Woody used to be the leader of the toy household but now he can no longer claim that accolade.
Bonnie is set to begin kindergarten and on orientation day he sneaks into her bag — even though no toys are allowed — and helps her when she is all alone. He takes trash out of the bin to give her material to fulfil the creative task the tiny people are assigned. Bonnie creates Forkie, a combo spork and accessories who identifies more closely with being trash than being a toy.
We then see Woody in his parenting role as he has to spend sleepless nights babysitting Forkie and keeping him out of the bin. As the family and toys –including Forkie, the new ‘favourite’ toy — go on a roadtrip, Woody finds himself chasing down Forkie on a highways as the new trash/toy has leapt out.
Once he finds him, he helps Forkie see his new role in life as something warm, safe and secure for Bonnie. Woody can’t be that for her so he has to help her find it elsewhere.
In a second-hand store, full of antiques, Woody spots something that reminds him of Bo Peep, his true love; the woman he sacrificed for Andy. In that store he finds a doll who has been pining for the perfect life — the one she would have if only she was perfect and could finally gain the attention and love of the little girl whose grandma runs the store. To capture Harmony’s attention, Gabby needs a voice box since hers is defective. It’s something that Woody has.
More importantly though, the voice box is the link between the toy world and the human world. Gabby thinks if she can just communicate with the humans, they will love her and take her off the shelf. Woody realises by the end that his last connection to linking back to the human world — his voice box — is probably not going to help him.
Ultimately, toys gain their identity from belonging to someone; to children. That is their entire purpose. Or so it seems.
Woody doesn’t need his voice box to communicate with other toys. And the Lost Toys, the ones without children to watch over or care for, are proof that we can survive on our own. We can choose our paths.
Woody’s last decision will mirror his first one: does he choose his own happiness or his loyalty. In the first decision, he doesn’t really have a choice because he is nothing without a child. His identity as a toy (or as a parent) is tied up with his loyalty.
By the time he decides again, the loyalty is no longer beneficial to his identity. He won’t die without it — the Lost Toys have shown him that — and he isn’t of any use to his children anymore (one is at College and the other prefers the cowgirl Jessie).
Remains of the Day is heartbreaking because when the butler has to choose between his service or his personal life, he later realises that he was holding on to the wrong idea of loyalty.
Woody’s empowered choice shows us that there is life after parenthood; which is really the subtext of the book. We raise our children and then when we can do no more, we trust that the community we’ve given them, and the structures we’ve put in place will serve them well.
And then we pick up as individuals and carry on.