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5 questions parents can ask kids when engaging with popular culture

Practicing with Toy Story as it turns 25

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November 19, 2020

“Sergeant?” “Yes, sir!” “Establish a recon post downstairs . . .”

That dialogue from the VHS trailer for a new movie called Toy Story enthralled me in 1995. When the film finally released on Nov. 22, my family saw it in theaters. Pixar Animation Studios’ debut made me a lifelong fan of this story and the studio.

Toy Story proved a worldwide phenomenon. Its revolutionary computer-generated animation inspired generations of growth in animated films and “live-action” special effects. Meanwhile, director John Lasseter and the Pixar brain trust’s simple story drew on children’s love of toys, parents’ nostalgia for Mr. Potato Heads and Etch-A-Sketches, and the fantastic idea that we’ve all probably wondered at any age: that sometimes, when we’re not around, toys just might come to life.

Twenty-five years later, Pixar has released three critically acclaimed Toy sequels as well as television specials and animated shorts. Toy Story has become a franchise powerhouse. Your own child probably owns something Toy Story–related: not just the films, but plenty of toys and merch. Depending on your age, you may have grown up enjoying the original Toy Story and its first sequel, Toy Story 2 (1999).

Familiarity may dull the impact of these tales. More likely, however, these films’ now-generational appeal may give families a perfect chance to re-watch Toy Story around its 25th anniversary. You could even more formally engage the story, world, common graces, idols, and gospel reflections of Pixar’s fantastical debut.

To organize such engagement of any popular cultural work, I recommend some basic questions. Grown-ups can first ask these questions of themselves, and then share them with children, taking into account children’s ages and attention levels.

Oh, and the purpose of this pop-culture parenting isn’t to “be cool” or “be like the world” (as some could conclude before reading an article about engaging culture). Instead, our goal is threefold. First, we want to worship God, and when we enjoy his good gifts to his image-bearers, who then share his common grace mixed with their own idols, we’re motivated to praise our Creator. Second, by engaging popular culture as families and Christ’s people, we build relationships, especially with our children. Third, this engagement with our real world—real people who cannot help but enjoy movies, TV, and beyond—we build relationships with others and have greater ability to share Jesus’s gospel with our neighbors who so badly need it. 

So, here are five questions to ask yourself and your family. 

1. What’s the story?

For this question, we ensure we get the basic facts right about any cultural work.

In Toy Story, vintage cowboy doll Woody (voice of Tom Hanks) oversees all the toys in his owner Andy’s bedroom, helping preserve domestic law and order. But his top-toy status falls when new arrival Buzz Lightyear (voice of Tim Allen) arrives with flashing lights, pop-up wings, and the space-ranger delusions. After Woody and Buzz get lost, they need to team up and return home before their family moves. When at last Buzz snaps out of his delusion and finds his own purpose, the story truly launches and “falls with style,” and our two heroes become lifelong friends.

2. What’s the style and shape of this world?

Here we explore the story-world’s “rules,” including genre and morality. We’re not yet sorting right ideas from wrong ideas. Our goal for now is observe and report. 

Magical realism reigns in the Toy Story–verse. Viewers must accept that toys really can come alive when people aren’t around, without explanation for how toys get this ability. Toys always follow certain fantastical/moral rules. You have to return to your place before a child sees you. You likely want to stay loyal to your particular child owner, and risk jealousy or heartbreak if the owner seems to reject you.

For Woody, and eventually also for Buzz Lightyear, a toy’s greatest purpose is to make a child happy. To fall out of a child’s favor means you will face abandonment and lost purpose—big themes, by the way, for a young child to confront in a story.

Pixar Animation Studios broke creative ground in scripting and storyboarding Toy Story’s plot, and then digital ground in designing, sculpting, scanning, programming, animating, and rendering Toy Story’s three-dimensional world. CG animation now takes viewers to entire universes of superheroes or alien realms. But in the mid-1990s, it took all a studio’s processor power to build just two small family homes, their surrounding streets, and a blinking, blooping Pizza Planet arcade/restaurant.

3. What’s good, true, and beautiful in this story? 

Now comes a happy task: we can invite our kids to join us in finding the honorable, virtuous, and artistically excellent elements of a creative work like Toy Story.

Toy Story’s world is explicitly moral. It presumes toys benefit from organization and moral behavior. Toys behave almost like parents themselves, often arguing and reconciling in order to make their children happy. And, while we (infamously) never see Andy’s dad, it’s clear his mom loves her family and wants to support them.

Our answers can include these elements that are clearly “good.” But we should also find the story’s “bad” elements, which the story actually wants to show as negative.

The gospel gives us and our kids the greatest hope that our favorite stories can only reflect in part.

For example, characters may believe or act in ungodly ways, yet the story itself may clearly show this as undesirable behavior. At first, Woody shows envy and anger. He hilariously but rudely mocks Buzz Lightyear for his space-ranger delusions. Later, Woody’s ill temper gets the best of him and backfires. He’s forced to rely on Buzz when they’re both trapped in the house of the toy-abusing neighbor kid Sid. (For grown-ups and older children engaging with advanced popular culture, a story’s violent moments or even language can also serve as reflections of truth.)

Meanwhile, Pixar’s team here shows the talents that made them famous. Animators brought in their own favorite toys, “becoming as little children” to recapture the thrill of simple play. Writer Pete Docter nailed old shoes to a board to better study the movement of little green army men. Sound designer Gary Rydstrom used filters to make the toy’s celebrity voice actors sound “plasticky,” yet without obscuring their identities. All the way, using mid-‘90s machines, Pixar’s best took extraordinary lengths to make Andy’s bedroom and Sid’s mutant creations look believable. With this creative excellence, they reflect the gift of God’s imago Dei to the world.

4. How do we find and subvert the story’s idols?

This question doesn’t refer only to cussword-counting or expectations of “clean” stories. Instead, we’re seeking out whatever good things the story offers to fulfill its characters’ hopes. Then we can show kids how these good things can actually turn into idols that cannot fulfill our heroes’ hopes, either in their world or in our reality.

For example, Woody hopes to regain his place as Andy’s favorite toy. We’ve shown this can reflect a good purpose: to do everything we can to please another person. What happens, though, when Andy grows up and goes to college? Will any toy be able to stay happy then? (Astute Toy Story fans know that sometimes a film franchise continues for so long that its own writers may eventually explore such a subversion themselves!) Without some greater purpose, Woody will find no lasting fulfillment.

In reality, we can do all we can to please a family member, boss, or spiritual leader, but that person’s pleasure will not last and will not ultimately fulfill our longings.

5. How does Jesus answer the story’s good hopes?

Now we can answer the story with the gospel. Yet the gospel is not just moral support for the story’s good parts, or moral judgment on its bad parts. Instead, Christ’s true story calls the story’s “bluff” of a happy ending. The gospel gives us and our kids the greatest hope that our favorite stories can only reflect in part.For example, we can show kids the lack of any creator in Toy Story. The film gives us no master “toymaker” who gives the toys their purpose and provides the rules they have been following. Now, switching to reality, we can recall that our real-life Creator has not left us so lost. God has created us for a purpose: to enjoy perfect happiness in him alone. His Word endorses good gifts, like making toys and stories, but focuses on describing the true and best

story about Christ’s quest to rescue his people from evil. Someday he will renew all creation and make us happy forever. In that day, no one will grow up and abandon us, and no toys will be left behind.

To be sure, you’ll find more beyond this introduction to engage about Toy Story. As a parent (or teacher, pastor, guardian), you’ll need to vary your approach, depending on your child’s maturity level. Briefer comments will help younger kids stop to think, while detailed questions will help older kids work through their thoughts.

Either way, always challenge kids to see all stories in light of God’s true story. Help them think and imagine how only our true Hero, Christ, can give us what we need.

E. Stephen Burnett

E. Stephen Burnett creates sci-fi and fantasy as well as nonfiction, such as The Pop Culture Parent: Helping Kids Engage Their World for Christ (coauthored with Ted Turnau and Jared Moore, from New Growth Press). Stephen explores biblical truth and fantastic stories as publisher of Lorehaven.com and cohost of the … Read More