Toy Story 4 is the latest movie in the Disney-Pixar saga about a bunch of toys who secretly come to life when their owners aren’t around. It centres around Woody and a new handcrafted toy named Forky, who’s experiencing an existential crisis. But surprisingly, a spork who’s come to life is not the most mind-blowing thing about this movie.
You see, I have a theory that Bonnie, the girl from Toy Story 3 and Toy Story 4, is actually Boo from Monsters, Inc. And her presence in the franchise is the biggest example of the Pixar shared universe... oh, that already exists?
OK, totally understandable. I have plenty more where that came from.
Above all else, the one thing Toy Story 4 needed to do was make itself worthy of the title “Toy Story”. That’s a name with a grand tradition in animation. A name that promises excellence, not some by-the-numbers cash-grab. And while it’s certain to grab a lot of cash, the movie somehow lives up to that high standard. It’s an exciting, surprising, incredibly funny film that’s just as poignant and heartfelt as you’d expect from this franchise.
What if Andy is supposed to represent God, and the whole thing is some weird religious allegory signifying a growth in spiritual understanding? Maybe Andy’s mum was Jessie’s owner, or Sid is the secret hero who became a garbage man so he could save toys after learning they could come to life?
Seriously, all of those are real? How about this: Toy Story is secretly the tale of Andy coming to terms with the loss of his father, who was killed in the line of duty. Woody represents his birth father, and Buzz Lightyear is the new man Andy fears will eventually come into his mum’s life and change their world forever...
I give up. I can’t make a new Toy Story fan theory. All the good ones, and most of the weird ones, are already taken! There are… a lot of Toy Story fan theories.
That isn’t unusual, per se. Disney fan theories are par for the course. But Toy Story is a unique case because there are just so many.
While researching this piece, I found dozens of theories on the films, covering everything from Weezy being the secret villain of Toy Story 2, to how Andy’s dad was Woody’s previous owner who died of polio, so Woody thinks Andy is actually his own dad.
Oh wait, a Toy Story co-writer debunked that. I should’ve remembered: I wrote the original article (cue shame music).
But why? Why does Toy Story of all things have so many weird and outlandish fan theories? I have a couple of ideas. On one hand, I feel it’s because Toy Story is a franchise that’s spanned not one, but two, internet-savvy generations. People who grew up posting in forums, making memes and creating fan theories.
Toy Story debuted in 1995, right at peak childhood for millennials. Toy Story 2 was a quick follow-up, then the third one came out 15 years after the first — centring around now-adult Andy and the pains of saying goodbye to your childhood.
That one paved the way for Bonnie and Generation Z. Now, with Toy Story 4, these kids are growing up with the franchise the same way we did. So it only makes sense that a series which spanned two generations would likewise have two generations of fan engagement. But that’s only part of it. The bigger reason is the nature of fan theories themselves.
Toy Story is about a bunch of toys that come to life, but only when we’re not around. Their owner Andy is a real kid, just like us — and just like us, has no idea his toys are sentient. For him, they’re playthings and his imagination gives them life.
Who didn’t grow up believing their toys were real when they were kids? It’s the nature of play, bringing life into an object and giving it a voice. You could also create your own worlds, have Captain America fight alongside Mr Potato Head, or open a culinary school run by Professor X, Polly Pocket and the raccoon from Pocahontas.
Oh... was that just me?
In a sense, fan theories and fanfiction are the grown-up versions of this phenomenon, using familiar characters in original settings. Creating your own worlds, stories and crossovers.
Granted, fanfiction is not just playtime — even though it can be for some. We’ve seen some amazing writers, artists and stories emerge through the art of fanfiction, to the point where they’ve inspired worlds that feel bigger, brighter and sometimes better than their source material.
(For example, I recently did a deep dive into The Hunger Games fanfiction community, inspired by the news that Suzanne Collins was writing a prequel, and what I found was a rich world that I would love to see represented in the official works.)
It seems natural that a movie franchise about the reality behind make-believe would then inspire so many people to create their own interpretations of that reality. And it’s still happening to this day. Toy Story 4 only came out this Thursday, and already it’s inspiring fan theories such as this one from Reddit about how the series will ultimately end with toys losing their autonomy forever (yikes!).
That’s because Toy Story is special. It isn’t just a fantasy film series for kids, it’s a reflection of our own childhoods, and how the worlds we created continue to shape us. We may be telling different stories, in different ways, but the reasons behind them are the same. We love to create, imagine and play.
Toy Story 4 is in cinemas now.