Growing Up, Letting Go, and Other Life Lessons from Toy Story

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Growing Up, Letting Go, and Other Life Lessons from Toy Story

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

2004

I

’m a twelve-year-old scrawny kid en route to Delhi on the Lucknow Mail on a summer night. It’s well past midnight and my parents have fallen asleep to the rocking of the train, but not me. I’m lying awake and excited for the summer vacations. And in my excitement, I’ve packed nearly everything that I own into a bulging backpack: from my favourite clothes, to my textbooks, to WWE trump cards, to most importantly, all of my toys.

More than the holidays, I’m eager about flaunting the wide assortment of toys that I own to my cousins. GI Joes are stuffed alongside He-Man, Batman, and Spider-man action figures — including all of their accessories — into one bloated Superman backpack. The action figures share space with my new Star Wars Lego set, complete with Luke Skywalker and Obi Wan Kenobi riding a landspeeder. And of course, no pre-teen boy’s collection is complete without a set of Hot Wheels.

As I gradually slip off to sleep, I manage a final glance at my Superman backpack, tucked under the berth on which my dad sleeps. Everything that I hold dear in this world is in that bag. This would be the last time I would be within touching distance of those prized possessions.

That night, there was a robbery inside the train, and the thief made off with my Superman bag. When I found out the next morning, I was utterly devastated. Too shocked to tear up, too stunned to even croak a sigh of disbelief. You see, it wasn’t just a bunch of toys that I lost in that backpack, or an opportunity to gain cool cred from my cousins. They weren’t just some products I could buy again from another Funskool or Mattel store. Those were some of the closest relationships I had formed in my young life, and some of my fondest memories were of those toys. Being an introverted, nerdy little kid, I didn’t find my place on the playground, or in a circle of friends. In free periods, I’d sit alone at the back of the classroom playing with my action figures.  It wasn’t just everything that I held dear which I lost that night, it was also the innocence with which I believed that I’d always be playing with them that I lost as well.

That night on the train in the summer of 2004, in a sad sort of way, I grew up.

*****

2000

One Sunday afternoon, the nine-year-old me is simulating a jungle adventure with my GI Joes, when a movie begins on the Disney channel. I steal a glance at the telly and I’m surprised to find another kid, scrawny, like me, also playing with his toys. He’s simulating a bank robbery that involves an ugly potato toy, a piggy bank, a dog with a built-in force-field, a dinosaur who eats force-field dogs, and lastly, a heroic cowboy sheriff who makes his entrance with the zingy one-liner, “Reach for the sky.”

This is unreal. This is unprecedented. I’m used to animated films being about anthropomorphic animals, and witches, and mermaids, and genies. I have never seen a film about a kid playing with his toys before. I’ve never seen a film about me. As I look down at the Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow figures clutched in my hand, Randy Newman bursts into song proclaiming, “You’ve Got A Friend In Me” and my gobsmacked face looks up to the television screen once again to find bold, colourful lettering that reads two words which would go on to define my childhood: Toy Story.

Toys become our first friends, ones that we not only choose, but also shape in our own minds.

The film entertained the possibility that the playthings I hurled across my room and made do my bidding could possibly be sentient creatures who vie for my love and care. Suddenly, the imaginary worlds that I visited with my toys started feeling more real, the adventures that we had together felt more legitimate, and the memories of our playtime became that much more cherished.

For me, the appeal of Toy Story stems from the love and care we give to our toys; the investment of imagination and the fantastic appeal of a story world that we co-author with these playthings. They are the physical participants in our childlike, fanciful wish-fulfilment. As kids, we are both storyteller and audience, and the toys are our actors, the vessels to tell our story. How Toy Story deftly taps into that mindspace is both miraculous and simple. The toys’ stories, with their twisty misadventures, are a delight to watch, but the films’ true enjoyment lies in approaching the playtime scenes from a toy’s perspective.

Toys become our first friends, ones that we not only choose, but also shape in our own minds. We give them names, and we give them character traits that become the bedrock of our interactions with them. Woody is a daring, do-gooder cowboy because that’s how Andy sees him, whereas the only voice of dissent to Woody’s authority among the toys comes from Mr. Potato Head, a toy who serially plays the bad guy in Andy’s adventures.

But toys are also the first friends that we lose. Not just physically on a countryside picnic, but also emotionally after we outgrow them and make some real-world  friends, ones whose names and characteristics are beyond our control. But to a child the purest emotion still remains playing with a toy and projecting his own aspirations onto it in the attempt to create a mini-hyperreality.

*****

2010

After about a decade, Toy Story 3 releases to much excitement on behalf of my 19-year-old self. And even more compelling than the fact that I’d get to go another round with Woody and Co is the film’s premise. Andy, like myself, is now in college and has seemingly outgrown his toys, who yearn to be played with. That simple logline is enough to harken me back to the good old days but also inspire within me a retrospective longing. I wonder where my toys are now. And if they are being played with. I couldn’t enjoy them, but I could live vicariously through Andy’s adventures with Woody and Buzz Lightyear.

I watch Toy Story 3 with unquantifiable excitement. And the film more than meets my expectations. It surpasses them by infinity, and beyond.

There’s been a Toy Story for every decade of my life. At nine, at 19, and now at 27, for nearly 30 years it has given wings to my imagination and added colour to my dreams.

The one thing that it perfectly encapsulates is the nostalgia associated with totems of our childhood, here shown as toys. All of us yearn for that forgotten part of our lives when everything was much simpler and the stakes were all saved for playtime. And in making a grown-up Andy come face to face with his past and engaging with it through one last playtime with Bonnie, the toys’ story comes full circle, all the while neatly setting off another progression of childhood and tying into the cyclical nature of these relationships. Kids grow old and then are replaced by newer kids.

And so, in the final scene when Andy passes on his toys, including Woody, to another kid, I find myself coming to terms with my own loss after about a decade. The scars of that fateful train journey are finally healed as I truly achieve the final stage of growing up: letting go. I wish that my toys have found another home, another family, another Andy.

*****

2019

At 27, I don’t play with toys anymore. Now I collect them. In fact, action figures are primarily a hobby, one maintained by hefty expenditure. However, toys remain as a final link to a forgotten past. Especially the ones from Toy Story. Woody and Buzz are the two best friends that I remember from my childhood. While I am still connected to my old classmates over Facebook, the connection that I share with Woody and Buzz can never be matched.

And so, when I hear Disney/Pixar is making yet another Toy Story, I’m initially wary of the decision to go for one more, especially after the perfection with which they capped off the trilogy. But the fact they refrained from capitalising on the popularity of Toy Story 3 and took nine years to make a follow-up reassures me that this one too, must be something truly memorable.

There’s been a Toy Story for every decade of my life. At nine, at 19, and now at 27, for nearly 30 years it has given wings to my imagination and added colour to my dreams. It occupies a special place in my heart. Maybe it’s the way it makes me reconnect with the child inside me — reminiscing about the warmth of those sunny holidays spent playing with my own toys and going on my own adventures, which is so purely recaptured in these films.

I miss those holidays. And I miss my toys. But more than anything else, I miss the child that I was. And in a world of chaos where everything is dialed up to eleven, I miss the calm of a Sunday afternoon spent watching Woody and Buzz and Andy live out my life on screen in a world where I find solace and one that so reassuringly sings, “You’ve got a friend in me.”

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