I have read The Velveteen Rabbit to my children more times than I can count, and the metaphysics of the ending never fails to raise a modest lump inside my gorge. The toy rabbit, aged and battered and dewhiskered in the service of his child, gets infected with scarlet fever and left outside for the next day’s bonfire, where he falls into existential despair: “Of what use was it to be loved and lose one’s beauty and become Real if it all ended like this?” And then (spoiler alert) this thought coaxes a real tear from his velveteen flesh, and the nursery magic fairy appears where it fell, to lift him up and make him into a real rabbit at last, flesh and blood and hindquarters, and set him loose in Rabbit-land — where, she tells the other rabbits, “he is going to live with you forever and ever,” world without end, amen.
One of the interesting things about the Toy Story movies, perhaps better described as the Toy Story franchise now that we have reached installment No. 4, is that while they rest on the same conscious-toys conceit that The Velveteen Rabbit does, and pluck some of the same emotional strings, they have resolutely resisted the idea that toys should wish to become real or imagine themselves as something more authentic and imperishable than their wooden or glass or plastic selves.
Not for the Pixar toys the yearnings of Pinocchio or the existential anguish of the rabbit on the pyre. The plot of the original Toy Story, now almost a quarter century old, was all about reconciling one of its protagonists, the pompous spaceman Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), to his status as a toy and disabusing him of any aspiration to be more than just a plaything. Realizing that you aren’t real, that you can’t be real, that your purpose in life is to find the right series of children to play with you and nothing more, is the heart of nursery wisdom in these stories — repeated in variations in Toy Story 2, where the bad guy is a toy who wants the faux-immortality of life in a toy museum, and in the circle-of-life conclusion of Toy Story 3, where our heroes’ now-teenage owner passes them on to a little girl.
In Toy Story 4 this message is recycled yet again through the strange character of Forky, a plaything invented by the little girl of the last movie, Bonnie, with an assist from our reliable hero-cowboy, Woody (Tom Hanks), during her anxious first day at preschool. Forky (Tony Hale) is a spork with a drawn-on mouth and a pipe cleaner attached for arms, and he is brought to life when Bonnie writes her name on his popsicle-stick feet — an act of godlike power that the creation tries to reject, declaring over and over again that he is actually “trash” and hurling himself vigorously into every receptacle that presents itself. It falls to Woody, amid various misadventures on a family road trip, to persuade Forky to accept the burdens of existence, to make Bonnie his purpose rather than the quest for sweet oblivion.
I am not the first person to notice that in this sort of catechesis, Pixar is inviting the parents who probably buy most of the tickets to these movies to identify with Woody and the other toys — as beings who are essential in a kid’s life for a time, but who must love their children while accepting that time and chance and adolescence will tug that love away from them.
The absence of any Velveteen-style apotheosis, though, makes this message a resolutely secular call to familial duty. As in other Pixar movies — most starkly in the recent Coco, where the souls of the dead wink out of existence if the living forget them, a premise that quite understandably traumatized my six-year-old — the meaningfulness of life rests in transient memories and perishable moments, and we are expected to do the right thing for their sake and their sake alone. Leaping into the trash is for weak souls; imagining a greater reality than toyhood is for fools and lunatics. Pixar offers nursery stoicism, not nursery magic. No matter how many children a toy is lucky enough to cycle through, there is no ultimate reward for getting old and torn and broken, and only the bonfire is waiting at the end.
Still, I suppose parents should be grateful that alongside a repetition of that harsh toy catechism, the new sequel also offers, for the first time, an alternative understanding of a toy’s purpose, in the form of Bo-Peep (Annie Potts), a Woody love interest who has become a “lost toy,” likes the lifestyle, and wants him to join her in a footloose, childless life.
This alternative is presented positively, as a reward after years of loyal service, a chance for Woody to see the world instead of lingering in abandoned playrooms or being consigned to daycare centers. The Pixar cosmos may be fairy-free and godless, but at least, Toy Story 4 suggests, a parent — sorry, a toy — who serves long and honorably might deserve a few RV trips and cruises with his squeeze before the end.
This article appears as “Pixar’s Secular Catechism” in the July 29, 2019, print edition of National Review.