And Beyond

Image result for woody forky
Woody, Buzz, Jessie, and Forky

Warning: here there be spoilers aplenty.

Sequels have been around as long as storytelling.

The best storytelling is incomplete. It creates outlines of engaging characters, but lets the audience use their experience and imagination to fill them out. It does the same with the universe in which it places these characters, as well as with the plot that carries them from beginning to end. To do this well, the storyteller must trust the audience, and have confidence in their intelligence and creativity. The best-told stories leave audiences both satisfied and hungry, wanting to revisit the universe, spend more time with the characters, see it from different angles. But the best stories are so complete that sequels are unnecessary: the work stands on its own. To justify its existence, a sequel must present something so new, no distinctive, that it is a good story in its own right.

Such was the case with the most ancient story/sequel pairing I can think of: Homer's Iliad and Odyssey. The first is a war story that is simultaneously a commentary on the inadequacy of ancient Greek theology: the gods are whimsical, childish, unpredictable, and human history is the victim of their arbitrary manipulations. The second is more a spin-off than a sequel, and tells a completely different story: once the war is over, a general spends years trying to return home, overcoming a variety of obstacles to do so. Both became literary archetypes, and neither is dependent on the existence of the other to tell its story successfully.

The Bible contains several examples, too: Exodus is a sequel to Genesis, Kings a sequel to Samuel. Esther, Ruth, Daniel, and Jonah are spin-offs that flesh out the worlds presented in other books of the Hebrew scriptures. In the Greek scriptures, there is just one example of a sequel, but it's excellent: the Acts of the Apostles, a direct sequel to the gospel of Luke. Like the Odyssey, Acts functions as both a second chapter and a spin-off of characters found in Luke. Jesus has left the stage, ascending into heaven on a cloud, and now it is up to the apostles to carry on his work, founding the church and spreading the gospel to the world beyond Jerusalem in the process.

Other historical examples of sequels include stories of the knights of the round table that spun off from the central tale of King Arthur; many of Shakespeare's historical plays; The Man in the Iron Mask (a sequel to The Three Musketeers); The Mysterious Island (a sequel to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea); and I expect you can furnish plenty of your own. There's also the phenomenon of the serialized novel, a form that permitted the author to flesh out and expand a universe until its final, collected edition is hundreds of pages longer than a stand-alone work. Finally, some authors wrote series of novels, the best of them a series of long chapters in the lives of their characters--or, in less successful cases, rehashes of stories already told.

Which brings me, finally, to summer movies--more specifically, summer movies from Pixar.

Pixar is an animation house that has done admirable work with stand-alone movies. The universe in a Pixar movie is so completely realized as to be utterly immersive. At the same time, the characters in these movies are sympathetic, their struggles authentic tropes on the human condition. A good Pixar movie reaches a satisfying conclusion that, nevertheless, could be the basis for a great sequel--provided it tells a new story, or presents a completely different take on the original.

That's how the Toy Story franchise managed to successfully navigate its way through two sequels. Each of these films told essentially the same story, a small-scale take on the Odyssey: toys with a special relationship to their capricious god, a child named Andy, find themselves separated from him, and overcome a variety of obstacles to be reunited with him. In the process, they learn things about themselves and the world in which they exist.

As with any great story, these movies aren't just light entertainments. Even as the audience is investing its emotions in the struggles of these characters, laughing at the clever visual and verbal jokes, and experiencing the anxiety of each subsequent cliffhanger, they're gaining insight into a larger philosophical theme. The audience's surrogate in all these movies is Woody, a cowboy toy perfectly voiced by everyman actor Tom Hanks. In the first movie, Woody must come to grips with the knowledge that his god has room in his heart for more than one favorite toy, as Buzz Lightyear, a very cool space toy, arrives in Andy's room. Once he overcomes his jealousy of the new toy, Woody takes it upon himself to introduce Buzz to the reality that he, too, is a toy, not a space ranger. There's also a theme of moving on: Andy's nameless single mother is moving the family to a new home.

Toy Story II presents the toys with a new existential dilemma: what happens when your god outgrows and abandons you? Jessie, a cowgirl toy originally created as part of Woody's 1950s world, is bitter having been forgotten by the child who was her first owner. Woody convinces her to give faith another try with his own god, Andy. At the same time, he and Buzz look ahead to a time when Andy will have outgrown them, but know they can face it together as friends.

Toy Story III brings us to that bleak future: Andy's toys now live in a box in the attic. It's more a limbo than a death. But then comes something far worse: they're donated to a preschool, to be played with and abused by children too young to use them responsibly. This is toy hell, and it's made worse by a Machiavellian bear who rules the after-hours life of the toys. In the movie's climax, the toys find themselves on the verge of incineration at the dump, embracing each other to face destruction together, only to be saved at the last moment by a deus ex machina. Then it's time to really say goodbye to Andy, who, on his way to college, gifts them to a four-year-old named Bonnie who becomes their new god.

And so, finally, to Toy Story IV, a movie that, in terms of rehashing the old formula, shows the age of its tropes. The plot is really too thin to sustain a full-length movie, so it's padded with several reimaginings of the same-old storyline of toys separated from their owner and making their way back through an assortment of imaginative obstacles. The complication in this version is that Bonnie isn't just creative in her play: she's a creator. On her kindergarten orientation day, she turns trash into treasure, making a spork, a pipe cleaner, and two popsicle sticks into a toy she calls "Forky." Woody's job is, as in the first Toy Story, to convince Forky that he is something other than what he believes himself to be, with the twist that he has no delusions of space ranger grandeur. Quite the contrary, he's trash, refuses to believe he has a higher calling as a toy, and Woody is the evangelist who preaches his higher calling to him--even as Woody is having doubts about his own future. Bonnie has been leaving Woody in the closet, preferring to play with Jessie instead, and Woody fears he will end up like the other toddler toys he's spending time with, collecting dust bunnies until he's boxed up and donated back to the preschool or worse. In the course of the movie, he meets some toys who are in a worse place, stuck on shelves in an antique store. Ultimately, he sacrifices his own voice box to one of those toys, a talking doll, in exchange for liberating Forky from her sway. He also his reunited with Bo Peep, a love interest who, after disappearing from his life many years earlier, is now an independent, childless toy, fending her herself in a world without children.

Toy Story IV is far from a perfect movie. The jokes are brilliant--there was one sequence that had me laughing so hard I was tearing up--and, as always, the universe in which these toys move and breathe is so beautifully and painstakingly rendered that I was quickly immersed in it. Unfortunately, the central plot is the same one we've experienced in all three of its predecessors: separated from the child who is both their god and their home, toys surmount obstacles to get back to her. What's more, we experience this quest more than once in the course of the movie, leading it to feel more like a telenovela than a novel. We keep repeating the quest in new and imaginative ways, but at root, it's always the same quest. That repetition grew tiresome by the end of the movie, and I began to wonder if there was any reason for this movie to exist other than selling Toy Story products to a new generation of children.

Except then came the radical, philosophical conclusion, one that caught me completely by surprise and has left me musing on the deeper meaning of it, not just as a movie, but as a profound commentary one life, the universe, and everything: faced with the choice of returning to the life he loves and has been defending for his entire remembered existence, but which seems to be passing him by (symbolized by the dust bunny he can't shake), and the possibility of a new life with Bo Peep, exploring the world outside the playroom, Woody chooses the latter, and steps into a future in which he, rather than a child, will define his identity from now on.

The Toy Story movies have always been about much more than their high, inner-life-of-toys concept. They're an allegory for the entire history of theology from the Stone Age through the post-Christian era. The children are stand-ins for gods, while the toys are the followers of these gods. As the story progresses across four movies, we see the toys coming to the realization that their gods are capricious, selfish, and arbitrary in their bestowal of blessings and curses. This all comes to a head in the near-holocaust of the third movie: is a god that would permit its followers to experience first the torment of preschool playtime, then the fiery furnace of the dump, even worthy of faith? The resolution of this chapter is that, in fact, the former god has grown distant, and it's time for a new, for more personal, one. Toy Story IV's Bonnie is, however, no more trustworthy than was Andy. It's a mistake, these movies finally conclude, to put one's faith in any being, however powerful, who is so easily swayed by moods, and whose grace comes not as a certainty, but as a surprise. Far better, Bo and, in the end, Woody conclude, not to have a god at all. In the words of a sequel from a completely different franchise, Terminator II: Judgement Day, there's "no fate but what we make." We are the authors of our own destiny. Yoke it to a god, and we'll end up disappointed. Seize it for ourselves, and we'll have no one to blame but ourselves.

I spent most of my pre-midlife years yoked to the Stone Age theology of begging favors from a capricious god. No matter how elegantly preachers, spiritual leaders, and theologians put it, praying for specifics is an act of coercion on a god who, as those who want to let god off the hook platitudinously put it, works in "mysterious ways"--that is, who can't be distrusted to be as generous and loving as we're told god is. The "death of God" movement that followed World War II encapsulated this dynamic perfectly: for God to be all-powerful, God cannot be all-loving, and vice versa. A god who was both all-powerful and all-loving would not have permitted the Holocaust, or any other act of extreme genocide and suffering, to take place. Faced with the reality of burning children, theologians said, we must put that religion to death, and start over.

That's what Woody and Bo do at the end of Toy Story IV. They aren't cruel about it--they rejoice in their friends' chance to accompany Bonnie through her childhood--but it is time for them to move on, stepping into a future in which they make their own fate, rather than trusting a capricious god to decide it for them.

This has been one of the central challenges of my own growth into midlife, and beyond. Eleven years ago, as I lost my final battle for custody, I did what I had so many times before: I questioned whether God cared at all for my plight. The contrast with those previous struggles was that, this time, I could not find any way to go on believing a loving God was active and involved in my life. And then, like Woody, I turned my back on the theological foundation of my life, and stepped off into a world of unknowns in which I make my own fate.

I'm not going to say that my post-Christian world is also post-God. I've experienced too much wonder to rule out the possible existence of a Creator. But I have absolutely set aside the belief that I can know God, can imagine God in my own image, or can count on God to manipulate the universe to my benefit. My spirituality now is one of being and becoming, of moving through and experiencing an earth that is crammed with heaven, so who needs one up above?

I will not judge you if your spirituality is different from mine, if you're on intimate speaking terms with your god, or if you believe you can count on a deity to bestow you with material blessings. I just ask that you not judge me for the heresy of having left it behind, as I contemplate infinity--and beyond.

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