Woody has been at the forefront of the Toy Story series since “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” introduced us to Andy and his treasured toy cowboy. For three movies, Woody was the leader of the toys, making sure they all put their child first.
Toy Story 4 finds the once-hotshot cowboy reevaluating his relationship with his fellow toys and his own role in society. He’s growing obsolete with new kid Bonnie; the time has come for a new generation of toys. The franchise ends with him taking on a new role as a lost toy, belonging to no child but instead helping toys find kids of their own.
Basically, Woody is Lightning McQueen now.
[Ed. note: This post contains spoilers for Toy Story 4.]
Cars 3, the last film of the Cars series, ended on a similar note. Lightning McQueen, hotshot race car and leader of the franchise, reevaluates his relationship with his fellow race cars and his own role in society. He’s growing obsolete, and the time has come for a new generation of racers. The Cars saga ends with him taking on a new role as a trainer, helping the next generation of cars pursue their own dreams.
Both movies tackle the same theme, and in a metatextual way, signal the end of Pixar’s big franchises and the ushering in of a new wave of original movies. But here’s the big twist: Cars 3 did Toy Story 4 better.
In Toy Story 4, the theme of a once-prominent figure coming to terms with his irrelevance and the future of a new generation feels like a postscript to what the previous three movies already concluded: that the toys’ saga with Andy was over, and that watching a kid grow up is the best thing you can do as a toy (and if you’re really lucky, you’ll get to do it more than once).
By the end of Toy Story 4, Woody leaves his kid and his fellow toys behind. He wants to embark on a new life with his old love, Bo Peep. Woody, who has spent three films insisting that his kid comes first, that the happiness of being a toy with a kid outweighs any immortality to be gained in a museum, now ditches his old life ... because of a relationship that was given eight minutes of screen time over the course of the first three Toy Story movies. Granted, Bo Peep is a more central character in Toy Story 4, but just remembering how one-note she was in the first two movies (and her absence from the third, aside from a passing mention) casts doubt over the finale.
If we can forget Woody’s driving motivations in the other three movies, how he’s already come to terms with not being the favorite (literally the arc of the first movie), how his relationship with Bo Peep was essentially “I’m gonna kiss you in front of everyone and embarrass the heck outta you,” then it works. Woody is still a compelling and likable character, and when we take his arc in Toy Story 4 and view it as separate from the themes of the other movies, his relationship with Bo Peep and the resolution of his story are bittersweet.
Elevating Bo Peep to a lead means leaving the other characters — the ones we’ve grown to know and love over the past three movies — in the backseat. (Literally. They’re in the backseat of Bonnie’s family’s RV.) When it comes time to part ways with the ol’ gang, there isn’t an emotional punch. Woody is already checked out. Didn’t we already have a significantly more emotional parting of ways in Toy Story 3? That resolution concluded the story from the first movie, dealt with what it means to grow up, and imparted a message to viewers who grew up alongside Andy.
As maligned as the Cars series has been in Pixar’s legacy, Cars 3 pulls off a similar conclusion without feeling like an afterthought. Cars follows the rise of a rookie; Cars 3 comes back 11 years later to evaluate Lightning’s career, as he grapples with the fact that he’s now considered a legend — but no longer a competitor.
Lightning, struggling to stay relevant, pushes himself to race against the up-and-coming youths. He sees most of his contemporaries opt for retirement, lest they push themselves too hard and crash — which Lightning ends up doing. Much like the first film stripped Lightning of his arrogance, the third film puts him at the bottom of the heap once again.
In Cars, Lightning McQueen reinvented himself with the help of a mentor, Doc Hudson, who not only helped his racing career but also reminded him what was really important in life. In Cars 3, Lightning recognizes his age, and the wisdom could make him another car’s Doc Hudson. He uses his position as top-tier racer to elevate his young trainer Cruz and urge her to follow her dreams of racing. He becomes the important mentor figure, and by doing so, remembers what’s important in life.
The realization feels earned. Lightning and Cruz journey back to Doc Hudson’s old stomping grounds in a small Appalachian town. Unlike Bo Peep prompting Woody, Doc Hudson prompting Lightning has the foundation of the first Cars movie to propel it along, and the memories of their relationship to drive it home — impressive, since Doc isn’t even alive in Cars 3.
The end of Cars 3 brings the cars back to Radiator Springs, with Cruz racing along the same picturesque track where Doc Hudson taught Lightning how to “turn left to go right,” and the two — now decked out in Doc’s number and colors — race alongside each other as mentor and student, as the rest of the cars cheer on. Lightning, once again, is reminded of what’s really important.
Toy Story 4, meanwhile, brings back Bo Peep, but by doing so, the movie’s ending undermines what the previous three films concluded before. Woody parts ways with the rest of the toys, with his kid, and seemingly from his entire previous character arc. Forky hugging Woody’s knees in farewell is endearing, but unlike the end of Cars 3, Toy Story 4’s finale just doesn’t quite stick in the same way, mostly because it doesn’t stick with the rest of the franchise.