When Toy Story first released in 1995, many of us millennials were young—even the same age as Woody's human owner, Andy: a young boy who was filled with a creative sense of adventure.
Toy Story presented a simple-yet-compelling premise: that the toys were alive, and when you turned your backs they came to life with wholly realized worlds of their own. For those of us watching at the time, the idea of a plastic cowboy named Woody and how he dealt with the technologically advanced Buzz Lightyear struck a chord. We'd grown up in this liminal space between the retro world of Generation X and the totally wired, technological future of the 2000s. Our everyday concerns about school, family, and friends were compounded by digital disruption and an economic landscape that changed faster than we could keep up.
Eventually, millenials embraced this technological curve—the same way Woody eventually embraced his techy rival, Buzz. But as the franchise evolved, Toy Story began to shape our collection identity as well.
Where It All Began: Toy Story
I still remember the first time I saw Toy Story. Unlike the other animated movies that were coming out around this time, it spoke directly to me and my insecurities. It also gave myself and others a glimpse of a charmed life that you were intimately familiar with if you grew up in suburbia: the kind that many of us were told was something we should aspire to before the housing crash of 2008.
This nostalgia for an idyllic life was echoed by Andy's toys, who lived in a beautiful environment where everything was perfect. The threat of technology was there, but they didn't take it seriously until it showed up at their door.
This threat of technology does not mean that the corresponding millennials actually hate it. Many of us adopted tech from a young age, but study after study have shown that automation presents a huge risk to job security. It's also a well-known fact that social media can have horrible effects on your self-esteem.
So when we saw Woody grapple with the arrival of Buzz Lightyear and how it crushed his self-confidence, we felt that. We understood Woody when he struggled with this change. For many, Woody represented a world that we were born into and our place in it: the elder child in an analogue environment that was suddenly interrupted by something digital.
On a personal level, Toy Story has taken on a more complex meaning now that I'm older. Are we at risk of being replaced by something younger and better? Of course, and it's something our parents dealt with, too.
How do you cope with this overwhelming technological stimuli? By withdrawing into a comforting, make-believe environment, and staying indoors to cope with your anxiety: a form of "adulting" that is often lampooned and makes millennials more likely to stay home instead of going out for entertainment.
As I said, this film speaks to our zeitgeist.
The Evolution of a Franchise: Toy Story 2
The interesting thing to note about Toy Story is that with each successive film the franchise has grown up with us. If Toy Story was centered on the experiences of millennials when we were children, then Toy Story 2 was about our teen years and figuring out who we are.
Toy Story 2 starts off with Woody receiving an injury. This injury prevents him from joining Andy at Cowboy Camp. While Andy is away, his mom puts on a yard sale. Woody ventures into the yard to save another toy, but when he does he's stolen by an adult "collector" who plans to resell him to a museum. From there, Woody is forced to make a decision: does he base his self-worth on his status as a collectible, or does he make his way back to his family and friends?
"You don't know who you are, do you?" says one of the toys to Woody, when they try to get him to understand his own value. This line speaks to the heart of the millennial identity crisis, and how that crisis is soothed through commercial identification.
In particular, Toy Story 2 heavily implies that Star Wars fans are a good example of this trend, and how it can go downhill. These nods range from the ample "I am your father" jokes all the way to the "Chicken Man," the aforementioned toy collector who steals Andy from an actual kid so he can continue to enjoy the things he's outgrown.
But is there a way for millennials to distinguish themselves in this world of mass produced products, as we saw with Buzz Lightyear? Why do we seek to identify ourselves with exclusive goods—as Woody does—in order to derive value?
Growing up and finding your own identity is something we all go through, but this search for validation is made worse by technology. Countless others doing the same thing can drown you out in a world of digital white noise, and social media can be lonely.
"Andy's growing up and there's nothing you can do about it," says Pete the Prospector later on in the film. We exist in a world where it's extremely difficult to "find" yourself, but in order to survive as an adult many of us have to commoditize our online hobbies and personalities. If we don't, we have no value.
Woody commoditizes himself too, by retreating into the term "collectible". It wasn't until his friends came back that he figured out that being a rare toy wasn't everything.
Welcome to Retail: Toy Story 3
If you grew up in the 1990s, you might have been sold a particular story by your parents. One that if you did well in school and went to university, you would be awarded a stable job for your efforts. As many millennials have already learned, this is absolutely false.
By Toy Story 3, Woody and the gang have been with Andy for ages. He's grown up and the toys are being packed away. They're imminently aware that they're being kicked out of the house, just like their human owner (and us millennials).
Determined to make it on their own, the gang put themselves in a box destined for daycare. When they arrive, they see a community with lots of kids and a seemingly idyllic working environment: one that is run by a benevolent bear named Lotso that oversees all the toys in this system.
After they are shown this brief glimpse of wealth, the toys are shoved into an unseen room full of toddlers. There, they spend their time being brutalized and torn apart.
"If you start at the bottom, [and] pay your dues" you'll be able to rise up the ranks to a better job, says Lotso the bear. Of course, this is a lie.
The toys at the top plan to keep the gang there forever. These working conditions are the same ones that many millennials find ourselves in: exploited, without benefits, and without opportunity for advancement.
At present, there is overwhelming wealth disparity in the United States. US wages have stagnated, and two more reports have come out about the long-term prospects of millennials: in the UK, over 600,000 millenials are slated for homelessness when we reach retirement; in Canada, 1-2 bedroom apartments are unaffordable in almost every city on a minimum wage.
"We don't belong there," Buzz says to the toys that run this racket. Lotso smiles and tells him "None of us do, but some have to suffer." Woody and the toys break free of this system, of course, but they do so by moving into another kid's home.
This is comparable to moving back into your "parents" home, only now it comes with a vastly different dynamic. It's also a reality that many millennials have to deal with.
Where It Ends: Toy Story 4
Toy Story 4 brings us to the franchise's most current iteration. By this time Woody and the gang have gone through their childhood, their adolescence, and their young adulthood. They've come to terms with the pace of technology and the fact that things will never be the same.
After adjusting to their new life, things change once more when their owner brings home a toy she made herself: a spork called "Forky" that's constructed out of googly eyes and a pipe-cleaner.
Forky suffers from extreme anxiety. He constantly calls himself "trash" in an act that is so achingly millennial that it's too on-the-nose. When the whole crew goes on a road trip, Forky runs off.
Woody and the other toys have to get him back, but along the way they find a whole host of toys that live outside the confines of the system they were brought up in. These toys have rejected kids and found their own value, and from this point forward Toy Story 4 is about Woody letting go of a system he no longer fits into.
Personally, I think this is a great note to end the series on. It echos the path that many of us millennials have taken ourselves. The world has changed from the one our parents grew up in, but our anxieties over it will not stop this change from happing.
It's best to find a method for living that suits our purpose: one that is unique to us and brings happiness.
For more reading, check out our piece on why "streaming wars" are going to sink the TV and film streaming industry.