This article continues our Power of Film series, in which thoughtful viewers share their experiences of meeting God at the movies. (SPOILERS are possible in this series.)
I do not typically experience film in a deeply personal and spiritual way, however, last summer I was pleasantly surprised when I encountered God unexpectedly in, of all places, a children’s film. Disney Pixar’s Toy Story 3 was the last place I expected to have a transcendent experience with a film, yet the unassuming packaging of a children’s movie provided the perfect opportunity for an unexpected spiritual encounter.
Toy Story 3 follows the beloved toy cowboy Woody, toy spaceman Buzz Lightyear, and their toy friends, who, unbeknownst to their owner Andy (who is preparing to leave for college), are donated to a daycare center. At the daycare center, the toys are faced with the harsh reality of no longer having an owner or loving place to belong. Upon arriving at the daycare center, they discover an environment filled with mean toys who do not like the newcomers as well as young children who mistreat the new toys. After much struggle with the evil toys, Woody, Buzz, and the rest of Andy’s toys eventually escape from the daycare and make it back to their owner’s house. Upon discovering the old toys Andy ultimately decides to donate them to a sweet little girl named Bonnie (the daughter of the receptionist at the daycare center) who he knows will take good care of his toys. The film leaves the audience with the comforting sense that the legacy of Andy’s toys has been successfully passed onto a new generation to be enjoyed for years to come. Consequently, the film is about the universal need to belong and be loved, as well as the challenges of growing up and moving on from one’s childhood.
Although this description of the film makes it sound like a typical predictable children’s movie, to someone who has grown up on the Toy Story films, it was much more than a cliché kid’s flick. I was 8 years old when the original Toy Story film was released, thus, Woody, Buzz, and the rest of Andy’s toys were a fond part of my childhood experience. As an adult, when I went to see the third animated installment of the Toy Story films, I had low expectations and was expecting a fun, simple children’s movie. Instead, what I experienced through Andy’s character was a reflection of my own childhood and transition to adulthood.
Andy, who was a child in the first two installments, is now a young adult preparing to make the transition to college, closing the chapter on his childhood and embarking on a new phase of life. During the scene in which Andy is shown handing down his toys to little Bonnie before leaving for college, I experienced a sudden and unexpected rush of emotions, which ultimately resulted in tears. This experience was particularly surprising to me because I am not typically one to cry at movies, particularly animated children’s movies, yet I was being very strongly affected by this final scene in Toy Story 3. Upon leaving the theatre and reflecting upon this experience, I realized that what I saw in Andy in the film was a reflection of myself and my own life circumstances, as I too was about to embark on my own major life transition.
A few months prior to seeing the film I had gotten engaged and although I was ready to make that commitment and transition to married life, there was also a part of me that felt like married life would mean the official end to my childhood and the start of true adulthood. Thus, when Andy was depicted as having mixed emotions regarding saying goodbye to his toys, it resonated deep within me. Woody and Buzz were no longer fake animated toys, they were my toys and my childhood. I felt like I was saying goodbye to old friends who were a part of the young me, the me who was carefree and innocent, the me I was willingly but bitter-sweetly bidding farewell. It was strange for me to see myself in the animated character Andy, yet never before has a film spoken so strongly to my own emotions and circumstances in such an unexpected way.
Prior to seeing the film I had been involved in multiple conversations with friends who had expressed their own lack of preparation for marriage and desire to be single and “free” for a while longer. Although that specific sentiment did not resonate with me, these dialogues had started me down the path of reminiscing about childhood and youth, and the fact that my family holidays and childhood traditions would no longer be the same because I would have a second family to share special occasions with and a husband to create new traditions with. Oddly enough, seeing Toy Story 3 allowed me to express and confront those bittersweet emotions associated with making a major life transition. After viewing the film I felt like that unexpected emotional experience was God’s way of helping me process those feelings and ultimately telling me that it was okay for me to move forward.
Andy had passed the legacy of his toys onto little Bonnie so that she could continue to enjoy them. Similarly, I was about to embrace a new stage of life where I would be able to pass on my childhood treasures and memories to my own children one day. With this realization I was able to fully embrace the transition to marriage without feeling the need to cling to my childhood and found myself getting excited about the prospect of creating a new chapter in my life. I learned from this experience that God can speak to you and meet you in the most unexpected places, for who would have ever thought that a 23-year-old woman would have seen herself in a fictional, animated, 18-year-old boy who was giving his toys away.