Do you remember how old you were when your imagination first started to wane? When it became harder to play with toys, to see magic in the ordinary, to enter the kingdom of Make Believe?
For me — as, probably, for most — it started around the time I was twelve years old. I remember one specific evening when my younger sister asked if I wanted to play with her, and I was surprised (and even a tiny bit heartbroken) to realize that my answer was no. It wasn’t because of her — my sister and I are close, and always have been. It’s just that I simply couldn’t conjure up the desire to grab some toys and give them life. At that point, my own life was taking the front seat, with all the angst and insecurity befitting a girl of twelve years old. Why create imaginary worlds when there was so much drama in the real one?
By the time the first Toy Story movie came out in 1995, I was fourteen years old and had bid a fond but final adieu to my childhood years. I remember seeing a trailer for Toy Story and laughing with a friend. A movie about TOYS? Ridiculous. And so it seemed to me, but I went to see it with my family anyway, despite feeling a bit silly and more than a little skeptical.
It was with no small amount of delighted astonishment, then, when I found myself loving everything about the movie. I experienced the whole gamut of desirable movie-feelings: I laughed, I cried (well, I got a little misty-eyed, anyway), and I found myself relating to all of the main characters, toy and human alike.
I believe it was the first time I really understood the power of Story, and the utter disregard a good story has for demographics. Who’s our audience? Everyone! Toy Story was more than an inane and obvious “family” film with (supposedly) something for everyone: a little cuteness for the kids, a little comedy for the teens, a little wink-wink-nod-nod over-the-head innuendo for adults. That’s the tired formula of so many movies that hope to appeal to a wide swath, but Toy Story didn’t parcel itself out in pieces to each audience member — the whole movie was for the whole audience. Every scene was for everyone, although we all received it in different ways.
Now, just to be clear, I grew up around good stories. My parents made sure to fill my head with characters like Bilbo and Frodo and the Pevensies and Marshwiggles and Anne with an ‘e’ and a wolf named White Fang and a girl named Mary who found a garden. There was a rich cast of fictional characters inhabiting the world around me, just beyond the veil. I knew that my parents enjoyed those stories every bit as much as I did, and so it’s not as though it was any kind of surprise to me to discover that a movie made for children could also appeal to someone like me, a newly-minted pre-adult. But for the first time, I realized that there is something transcendent about good storytelling, that if something is actually true and good, then it is true and good for all people at all times.
Am I saying that Toy Story is a perfect movie? No. Am I saying that every single person must love it as I did? Yes. I mean no. What I am saying is that there is a lot of terrible storytelling out there, and it is a gift when a wonderful story gets told well. It is a gift when the same story that delights a child also delights a busy adult or a cynical teenager.
J.R.R. Tolkien, in his essay On Fairy-Stories, says this:
It is the mark of a good fairy-story, of the higher or more complete kind, that however wild its events, however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give to a child or man that hears it, when the ‘turn’ comes, a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears, as keen as that given by any form of literary art, and having a peculiar quality.
I recently went to see Toy Story 4 with my own kids — the oldest of whom is now fourteen himself — and somehow, magically, this most recent installment is still telling true and good stories, stories that can cause a “beat and lifting of the heart,” if you will. It’s still telling us that self-sacrificing love is the best kind of love, that dying to self is noble, that childhood is precious. And it’s still making us laugh, and cry.
The thing about living in this beautiful but sin-stained world is that it just isn’t easy. It will never be easy. As Bible-believers, we know that it isn’t meant to be easy, not on this side of heaven. But we also know that, by the Spirit, we keep striving, and we keep loving, and we keep doing what we know to be right, even when it feels overwhelming and difficult. As Woody says, “I was made to help a child, but I don’t remember it being this hard.” We were made to serve God and others. And it’s hard.
I’m thankful for stories that awaken our imaginations and, in so doing, encourage us to press on. I’m thankful for the adventures that happen in Narnia and Middle Earth and Aerwiar and Natalia. I’m thankful for the imaginary world and surprising wisdom of Andy’s toys. And I’m thankful for the Story that all good stories ultimately point to, whether the authors themselves realize it or not, the one crafted by the grand Story-Teller himself, who saw fit to weave us into his tale, who made us in his image, and who placed in us such a strong longing to understand his Story that we are all compelled to tell and hear stories of our own.