The Gospel According to Toy Story 3
July 26, 2023
Call me cynical, but Disney and Pixar are not sources I would expect for a movie that contains a credible depiction of the gospel story. Recently Linda and I spent 26 straight days with our six grandchildren, ages one to ten. We enjoyed watching kid’s movies together but became challenged with the discernment needed to avoid those that seemed so innocent on the surface but promoted a thinly veiled but unmistakably secular humanistic morality.
So we launched into Toy Story 3 with a bit of trepidation. We have all loved the Toy Story series, and the first two additions were enjoyable from beginning to end. Overall, this third edition was darker than the other two, which was annoying as some of our younger grandkids watched a few of the scenes from between their fingers. Yet, as I watched it, I detected an oddly familiar theme in the storyline. My curiosity was piqued, so after everyone went to bed, I watched it again, with pen in hand. And sure enough, there it was.
The context for this discovery came from a line from my devotions earlier that day. Working through 2 Corinthians 1, I paused to meditate on verses 21 to 22, “He anointed us, set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.” What an image. God has actually sealed us, his stamp of ownership is indelibly impressed upon us as a guarantee of his love for us. This resonated deeply with my passion for understanding that we are stewards of all of life. We do not own our life. None of it. It belongs to God. He is the owner of all things, including us. It is as if somewhere on our body, we have stamped on us “property of God.”
With that image already bouncing around in my head, I watched the plot of Toy Story 3 unfold. Woody, Buzz, and their toy companions face their fate as their owner, Andy, prepares to go to college. Their future is about to be decided; they will be placed in a box for the attic where they can wait for his return or tossed in a garbage bag to be incinerated at the dump. Due to a mix-up in communication between Andy and his mom, all but Woody are left in the garbage bag by the side of the road. However, with Woody’s help, they end up being donated to a local daycare facility instead of being taken to the dump.
At the Sunny Side Daycare, they meet a cast of characters led by an old, seemingly lovable purple teddy bear named Lotso. At first, Sunny Side seems like a toy paradise. Lotso welcomes them with glowing promises of loving children who will tenderly play with them for the rest of their existence. He lures them into the last room in the daycare, where they are put away for the night to await their adoring children and a lifetime of living out their dreams. Indeed this was better than returning to their true owner, who had abandoned them.
What unfolds is more of a version of hell. They are in the preschool room and soon find themselves severely mistreated by screaming, rambunctious three- and four-year-olds. At the end of the day, they realize they have been had. They seek out Lotso to find out what had happened, and it is then that his sinister side comes out.
They have only one request; they want to return to their owner. They want to believe that their owner still loves them. Surely he will take care of them better than what they are facing at Sunny Side. However, Lotso reminds them that their owner threw them to the curb. His words are stinging in their truthfulness, “we don’t need owners here, we own ourselves. We’re masters of our own fate. We control our own destiny. Where is your loving kid now?”
Betrayed by Lotso’s promises and the lure of life apart from their true owner, the rest of the movie is a wild and hilarious campaign to escape Sunny Side Daycare and find their way back to Andy. What drives them is Woody’s unshakable belief that Andy still loves them. At one poignant moment, he reminds them that they belong to Andy and that Andy will always be there for them. Only when they lost their faith in Andy’s love for them did they venture out and find themselves in this place. To prove it, Woody lifts his boot, and on the bottom of it, scrawled in pen as clearly as the day a little 5-year-old boy marked it there, was the word “Andy.”
As I watched that scene, 2 Corinthians jumped into my mind. The small band of toys faced a decision to either believe in their owner’s love for them, even when circumstances seem to contradict it, or to take control themselves and try to find love in other places, from other kids, other toys, or other settings. Ultimately, the question came down to whether they belonged to Andy, who still loved them, or they did not.
In the saddest scene of the movie, Lotso is challenged by his own story. He is confronted with the fact that his owner, a little girl named Daisy, did not abandon him, but he was accidentally left behind when she fell asleep. She searched tirelessly for him and wanted nothing more than to have him back. She loved him then, and she loves him now. His owner never abandoned him, stopped loving him, or stopped calling him to come home. However, despite this compelling truth about the reality of his existence, Lotso is too bitter, too far gone to accept it. His heart closed tight, and he smashed the necklace that had once hung from his neck with Daisy’s name on it.
What a commentary on life! There is nothing but emptiness apart from the assurance that the God who created us will always love us, come for us, and call us back. Regardless of the circumstances we face, our owner loves us. The Sunny Side Daycare is a metaphor for all the lies the Lotso’s of the world offer us. They paint a picture of paradise, but the reality is the opposite outside of God. The question is, will we figure it out soon enough to still find our way back to our owner? Put in true gospel language, will we realize that our owner has never left us? He is always there, ready to receive us back as soon as we turn our eyes to him.
Woody, Buzz, and that wonderful band of toys did find their way back to Andy. They did so because of Woody’s undying belief in his owner’s love for him. I believe that saw them through every adversity and compelled them to find their way back to their kid who never stopped wanting them back.
At the end of the movie, I wanted to look at the bottom of my foot and see if “property of God” was printed on it. While we cannot see them, those words are promised to us in Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth. Our God, our creator, our Redeemer, the God who loved us before creation, redeemed us on the cross with the blood of his precious son, who calls us through the winsome power of the Holy Spirit with a love that will not let us go has set his seal upon us, his seal of ownership that nothing can erase.
May we live our lives enjoying this affirmation and responding to that indelible imprint of the maker’s hand upon us. May we not be tempted by Latso’s invitation to play the owner of our lives, take control and be the masters of our own fate. And may the metaphor remind us of another great phrase of the apostle Paul to the Corinthians when he says, “You are not your own; you were bought at a price.” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20)
You may not be able to see it, but you have been marked permanently and forever with the seal of God. Never doubt that you are his. Thanks be to God for such an indescribable gift!