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A small child, Bonnie, holds Woody (a cowboy action figure) and Buzz (a space ranger action figure) Pixar

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In the end, the Toy Story franchise was about Woody growing from child to adult

In the end, it’s all about letting go

Woody is the driving force of the 24-year-long Toy Story franchise, but his story is more than his unwavering relationships with Andy and Bonnie; it’s a metaphor for the growth that viewers experience during our lives. From childhood to fully-fledged adult, Woody’s tale explores the emotions and personality traits we encounter over time, and the life lessons that shape the people we become.

Comparing Woody, an old-fashioned pull-string toy, to anything other than an adult may seem strange. Everyone’s favorite sheriff is the leader of Andy’s toys, a role that’s suited to confident, strong, charismatic individuals. The adult in the room. Tom Hanks certainly fits the bill; there’s been no better person to voice Woody than the man dubbed “America’s Dad.’”

Yet, throughout the first Toy Story, Woody exhibits child-like tendencies. He’s unwilling to share the spotlight as Andy’s favorite toy, and quickly becomes jealous of Buzz Lightyear upon his arrival. Woody’s other insecurities emerge as he immaturely ridicules Buzz over his real space ranger delusion and berates his friends over their infatuation with Andy’s new toy.

Woody’s naiveté about the outside world comes into sharp focus after his plan to dispose of Buzz backfires. His know-it-all personality is reveals itself when he makes the wrong decision to ride in the back of a Pizza Planet van, and when he fears that Sid’s toys will eat him. By later shifting the blame to Buzz about the pair being lost, Woody tries to spare his own embarrassment at creating this awkward situation in the first place.

Only by the end of Toy Story does Woody take responsibility for his actions and grow as an individual. Cowardice is replaced with courage as he overcomes his fear to save Buzz from Sid. He realizes that Andy will still love him despite Buzz’s arrival, and even uses his smarts to concoct a plan to reunite with his owner after the pair escape Sid’s grasp.

Buzz (Tim Allen) flies with Woody (Tom Hanks) above a Pixar blue sky Pixar

As kids, we don’t understand the hurt we cause others with our immature, coercive personalities. We can’t grasp how big the world is, and the dangers that come with it. We fall out with friends, get jealous over the attention given to others, and lie to spare ourselves from being punished.

Pixar helps us to understand how to coexist with others through Woody. Expressing these themes literally, such as the cowboy learning to share top spot with Buzz, shows kids that there doesn’t need to be dominance hierarchy. We learn to do what’s right despite our earlier misconceptions, as proven by Woody’s acceptance of his faults and rescuing Buzz. For a movie directed primarily at children, Toy Story gives us vital lessons that we carry throughout our lives.

If Toy Story depicts a child-like Woody, Toy Story 2 establishes his teenager phase of development. Despite shelving his selfishness at Toy Story’s end, Woody’s egocentric personality returns as he puts himself first again ahead of the annual Cowboy Camp trip with Andy. Naturally, things don’t go to plan and his teenage-inspired mood swings take over. One minute he’s excited for the trip, and the next he’s depressed after Andy accidentally tears a seam in his right arm and ultimately shelves him.

After encountering Jessie, Bullseye, and Pete, his Woody’s Roundup crew, the cowboy refuses to join them on their impending Japanese museum transfer. His need for approval — a common teenage trait — eventually wins out, and his stubbornness becomes directed at Buzz’s rescue party when they arrive to take him home instead. Woody soon finds his allegiances torn after Buzz’s harsh words about being loved by one special kid over millions of others. He feels at home with the Roundup crew, but can’t shake the bond he’s developed with Andy or his friends.

The power of that loyalty comes to bear when Woody witnesses a kid playing with a version of himself on a Woody’s Roundup episode. Woody decides to return home, but not before offering a second chance to Jessie, Bullseye, and Stinky Pete to be adored by Andy too – a lesson in empathy born out of the compassion he developed from Jessie’s heartbreaking tale of abandonment.

In Toy Story 2, Woody faces challenges during the turbulent teenage years. We might find that our friends aren’t the people we thought they were and tests our devotion to them. We experience changes in our familial relationships as we selfishly and stubbornly go against our parents’ wishes. Our need for approval means that we do things we shouldn’t, especially where peer pressure is concerned.

Ultimately, we learn to empathize with our family and to heed their advice. We’re given second chances by those we’ve wronged, and appreciate what we have even if our opinions differ from those around us.

Woody (Tom Hanks) comforts Jessie (Joan Cusack) Pixar

Toy Story 3’s depiction of the young adult period is striking. Not only does it show the real-life connotations of growing up – displayed by Andy heading off to college – but the human symbolism expressed by Woody is also evident.

His anxiety about what the future holds is obvious, especially as he prepares to be separated from his friends before they’re placed in the attic. His neurosis flares up too, thanks to his frustration at Andy’s changing priorities and the loneliness he’ll encounter in being away from the gang.

Woody’s fear of loss drives this leg of his journey. He’s already lost Andy to his grown-up lifestyle, but the trepidation of losing his friends is just as prevalent. He fears for the group in the family’s attic and at Sunnyside Daycare center where the dictatorial Lots-o’-Huggin’ Bear imprisons them. Both of those pale in significance to the film’s climactic and traumatic trash compactor, however, where Woody almost loses everyone for good.

It’s a distressing scene, but one that’s ritualistically appropriate. By confronting death, Woody — alongside his friends — comes of age through his own rite of passage. Escaping death, thanks to the Pizza Planet aliens’ timely intervention, represents Woody’s full transformation from boy to man, and allows him to maturely view his changing relationship with Andy. He comes to terms with Andy’s departure, and accepting this decision is indicative of how much he’s grown. Coupled with his selflessness in saving Lots-o’ from his own trash compactor nightmare, Woody truly has grown up.

Toy Story 3 1283 Pixar

Andy’s own journey shows that we eventually have to grow up, even if it isn’t easy. We’re conflicted over changes in our lives, such as getting a job or heading off to college. We also experience loss, including friends moving away from home, leaving our own families for pastures new, or the death of loved ones.

Woody proves that we have to accept these situations. We can’t live in the past forever, and sometimes change is necessary to grow. Without it, we’re destined to remain selfish and not selfless.

[Ed. note: the rest of this article contains spoilers for Toy Story 4.]

Despite a new lease of life with Bonnie, Toy Story 4 shows that Woody is not adapting well to the adult aspect of growth. Suffering a midlife crisis, Woody realizes that he’s growing old and outdated compared to the others. This realization is further influenced by his resistance to change. Unable to shake the fact that he’s no longer leader of the toys — Bonnie’s toy Dolly is — he forgoes protocol to join Bonnie at kindergarten and, ironically, lays the path that leads to Forky’s creation and his reunion with Bo Peep.

Their subsequent adventure results in Woody acquiring qualities that indicative of being an adult. His parental responsibility to Forky, both in keeping him safe and teaching him the meaning of being a toy, and sacrifice to Gabby Gabby — in giving up his voice box so that she’ll be chosen by a kid — are noble characteristics that we wouldn’t have envisioned at the film’s start.

It’s Woody’s decision to leave the gang for Bo, and finally take that bold step into the world, that becomes his most profound takeaway though. His selfish, and not selfish, resolution allows him to prioritize his happiness for the first time. It’s a massive risk to take, but one that opens up a whole new experience for him alongside the love of his life.

Woody (Hanks) and Bo Peep (Annie Potts) listen to Giggle McDimples (Ally Maki). Disney/Pixar

This is adulthood. We fall in love, have our own children, and experience our own midlife crisis. In bringing up our own children, we learn to be responsible for someone other than ourselves. We sacrifice everything for them and, once they’re old enough and leave home, we prioritize our own happiness and do the things we want to before we retire and grow old. This proves to be the final batch of life lessons that Woody symbolizes; an apt end to his and our own stories.

On the surface, Woody’s arc is built with the intention of making us laugh and cry. Look deeper, however, and you’ll find a character that symbolizes the growth that we all experience. He’s the embodiment of our own development, and acts as a lens through which we can see our own growth.

His journey has shown the traits and emotions we possess at each stage, and the lessons that we learn to become the people we are today. His humanistic tale is a reminder of the physical, emotional, psychological, and emotional growth that we undergo. It’s why the Toy Story franchise, and Woody as a character, resonates so much with us no matter how old we get.