The Toy Story saga series of films that have been produced by Pixar over the course of the last 15 years have received both popular and critical acclaim. This summer’s second sequel, Toy Story 3, has proved just as popular as the first two films. It has also become something of a cliché for adults – and especially men – to describe their emotional rollercoaster ride as they viewed it with their largely unmoved children. For those of us who are sensitive souls, there is much in the film that is likely to turn on the waterworks to a greater or lesser extent. However, as one journalist has commented, it is just a story about toys. This ‘just about toys’ comment is perfectly true, but this seems to add to the strange effect that it has had on grown women and men. How is it that these toys –and not real toys, but computer-animated toys – can elicit such emotion?
The answer seems to be in the power of the stories. The Toy Story series has at its heart the mutually faithful relationship between a boy and his toys. The story uses that fairly familiar plot device of the toys coming to life when they are not being observed by humans. So we are able to hear the joys and woes of being somebody’s plaything.
The third film in this trilogy has taken the story on to the time when Andy, the toys’ owner, is about to leave home to go to College. The film chronicles the trials and tribulations the toys face when they are inadvertently put out to be donated to a children’s day-care nursery, rather than be put in the loft as Andy intended. However, not far below the surface of this tale, there is an existential story of loss, betrayal and the leaving of innocence. If you’ve not seen the films, this might sound a little OTT and you will be wondering how what used to be called a cartoon can bear the weight of such obviously amateur psychologising. I’m not sure I can answer these doubts, but if you are a Christian then I offer what I hope is a helpful comparison.
The preferred teaching method of Jesus was to use parables. These were stories – sometimes long, but often just a line or two – in which he used fictional characters to illustrate a truth about life. It has been said that the Bible is all true and that some of it happened. An easy example is that while people may have been mugged on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, the incident that Jesus described in which a Samaritan helped a Jewish man was a story, not a news report. Few would disagree with that, although we might get into a debate over whether Adam and Eve in Eden tells us about ourselves, or about the dangers of listening to the opinions of talking animals.
We need stories to tell us about ourselves, because that’s how we understand who we are. Whether it is the Pixar people’s offering about life’s impermanence, or the Bible’s stories that speak about our place in God’s world.