For almost a quarter of a century now, Pixar has been blowing us away with their filmmaking, where even the films which were considered misfires (such as the Cars franchise) are praised for the quality of their animation. While there are countless things about the studio’s back-catalogue of films which are worthy of merit, one thing which few studios do as well as Pixar is create moments which catch us in the feels.
The number of moments from Pixar films which deliver emotional gut-punches and leave the viewer welling up are huge in number, and more often than not it is the adults in the audience who will be weeping the most. Hearts everywhere broke when Sulley and Boo said goodbye in Monsters, Inc., while countless adults were emotional wrecks within the first ten minutes of Up.
It is quite fitting then that some of the Pixar films to deliver the most emotional punches over the past 24 years have been the Toy Story franchise – the studio’s most iconic property, with the first Toy Story also serving as the studio’s first feature-length film. Over the course of 24 years and 4 films, this is a franchise which has caused both adult and child alike to laugh and weep on countless occasions.
With so many emotional moments over the course of the long-running franchise, there will of course be some which affect us far more than others, which this article will discuss. Be warned, however, this piece will contain spoilers for Toy Story 4, which has upheld the franchise’s long-standing tradition of leaving adults desperately rummaging in their pockets for a Kleenex.
10. Acceptance (Toy Story)
The first entry on this list is a tender moment between Woody and Buzz, in which the two toys have a heart-to-heart. After coming to realise that he is a toy and not an actual Space Ranger, Buzz is left in a state of depression and accepts that Sid will blow him up with a rocket in the morning. Trapped under a milkcrate, Woody refuses to give up on Buzz and tells him that he may be a toy, but he has a kid (Andy) who loves him and considers him the greatest toy in the world.
In that moment, Woody sadly accepts that Buzz is a greater and more appealing toy than he is, and that he was kidding himself in believing that Andy would want to play with him more. In a poignant moment, he tells Buzz not to worry about him, but to make a break for Andy’s house. To see the usually headstrong Woody so broken-hearted and seemingly defeated is an emotional gut-punch, but the real emotional weight is found in the significance of what the cowboy doll is saying. In this moment, Woody shows true selflessness as he wants Buzz to return to Andy so that he can be happy, showing just how much he adores their kid, in a complete u-turn to his earlier view on Buzz and Andy’s relationship.
9. “I Wouldn’t Miss It for the World” (Toy Story 2)
After being stolen by greedy toy collector Al, Woody eventually agrees to go with Jessie, Bullseye and Prospector to the Konishi Toy Museum in Japan, after Prospector talks him round by stating that Andy will eventually grow up and move on from his toys, whereas being in the museum would mean being adored by children for generations. When Buzz and the other toys who set out on the rescue mission arrive at Al’s apartment, they are deeply saddened when they realise that Woody will not leave with them, and a broken-hearted Buzz tells him that to be stared at through glass for eternity is no life for a toy. By the time that the other toys leave, the viewer has already been hit in the feels by the sense that this is the end for Woody and Buzz (the original Pixar double-act), while the devastated expression of Slinky in particular at the prospect of losing his friend is a heartbreaking example of how brilliantly the Pixar animators bring expression to their characters.
Hope is not lost, however, as Woody sits down to watch an old episode of Woody’s Roundup, in which a child hugs the on-screen Woody marionette as it sings a rendition of “You’ve Got a Friend in Me.” In this moment, Woody comes to his senses and says “You’re right, Prospector, I can’t stop Andy from growing up. But I wouldn’t miss it for the world”, before yelling to Buzz and the others that he has changed his mind and will return to Andy’s house with them. In this moment tears of sadness become tears of joy, as Woody accepts the fact that his time with Andy will ultimately be limited, but declares his love for his kid and affirms his desire to spend every last moment with Andy that he can. At this point in the franchise it was impossible to picture Woody anywhere else, making this scene an emotional rollercoaster with a happy ending that cannot be forgotten.
8. Rejection (Toy Story 4)
Pixar has created some excellent antagonists over the last twenty-four years, many of whom actually have quite a tragic backstory behind their motivations (one of which will be found later on in this list), and Toy Story 4 antagonist Gabby Gabby is the latest such example. The doll was made at a similar time to Woody (roughly the late-1950s), but had never been loved by a child as her voicebox was faulty. As she and Woody were made in a similar era, his voicebox had the parts which her’s needed in working order, so she made it her mission to get them, even holding Forky hostage to do so. Recognising that Bonnie needs Forky, Woody sacrifices his voicebox so that Gabby Gabby’s will work and she can at last fulfil her dream of being played with by Harmony, the granddaughter of the old lady who owns Second Chance Antiques.
Despite Gabby Gabby’s voicebox working, Harmony rejects the doll, leaving her heartbroken in a moment which really changes the viewer’s perspective on her. Prior to this, Gabby Gabby had been depicted as quite a sinister figure, but her motivations implied a greater depth and vulnerability to her by revealing that ultimately she just wanted to be loved – a desire which is relatable to viewers, as we all long in our hearts for love and companionship. To see her so heartbroken and defeated by Harmony’s rejection of her is a very poignant moment, and we come to view her as a tragic antihero rather than the sinister antagonist she had previously come across as. While we may not be toys, none of us like the idea of being rejected by somebody, and it is impossible not to sympathise with Gabby Gabby as we see her go through such a heartbreaking experience.
7. Prologue (Toy Story 4)
Early in Toy Story 3 we learn that many of Andy and Bonnie’s toys had been sold or given away during the time period of approximately a decade since Toy Story 2. One of those toys was Bo Peep, and that Woody was still broken-hearted over the loss of his love interest. Long before Toy Story 4 came out, Pixar announced that Bo would return as a major character for the film, and if you had completely missed the film’s marketing campaign then that would have become apparent in the prologue. Set nine years before the events of Toy Story 4, the prologue is a flashback to Andy’s childhood in which Bo and Woody coordinate a rescue operation after RC is left stuck in a storm drain during torrential rain. After Woody and Slinky successfully rescue RC, Bo begins to reel them back into Molly’s room through the open window.
However, the window is suddenly closed before Slinky, Woody and RC can re-enter the room, and Woody can only listen in horror as his beloved Bo is sold to a man who had arranged to come round and collect her. It is heartbreaking to realise that Woody’s loss of Bo came as such a sudden, emotional gut-punch to him, and the sombre mood is only elevated by the dark skies and heavy rain. Sneaking over to the buyer’s car while he goes back into the house to grab something he forgot, a devastated Woody tries in vain to convince Bo to sneak back into the house with him, but she refuses and tells him that it is part of a toy’s life to move on to a new kid.
Woody reluctantly accepts that this is goodbye, and it is impossible not to get hit in the feels by the wonderfully animated expression of heartbreak on his face, but what makes this such an emotional moment is the relatability of it. At some point in all of our lives we will part ways with somebody important to us, and how difficult it is to say “goodbye” often catches us off-guard, meaning that it is the relatability of this prologue which will catch you in the feels the most.
6. Lotso’s Backstory (Toy Story 3)
This piece mentioned earlier that Pixar is no stranger to giving their antagonists a tragic backstory in order to explain their motivations, and arguably no example of this is greater than that of Toy Story 3 antagonist Lotso. When Bonnie’s toys explain to Woody that Sunnyside Daycare is a prison (which would motivate him to return there to coordinate an escape plan with the rest of Andy’s toys), Chuckles explains to him how Lotso became the cruel dictator who ran Sunnyside. Years ago, Lotso, Chuckles and Big Baby had been owned by a little girl named Daisy, with whom Lotso shared a special bond. When they were separated one afternoon after Daisy had fallen asleep while out on a picnic, Lotso, Chuckles and Big Baby walked for miles to get home, only for Lotso and Chuckles to see that Daisy’s parents had bought a replacement for Lotso.
Heartbroken and enraged, Lotso intimidated Chuckles into silence and lied to Big Baby that they had all been replaced. Lost and directionless, the devastated toys hitched a ride on the back of a Pizza Planet truck and eventually stumbled upon Sunnyside. Not only was it heartbreaking to see Lotso’s entire world come crashing down around him, in a backstory which fleshed out the character very well, but the scene is made particularly harrowing by the pathos that it gives Big Baby. Up until this point, the enormous doll was little more than Lotso’s main henchtoy, who intimidated the others at Sunnyside, but this moment makes him a tragic character as we realise that Lotso robbed him of his last chance of happiness with the child whom he loved and referred to as “Mama”. While the screenwriting alone is enough to make this one of the most heartbreaking moments in the franchise, the sombre mood is elevated further by the torrential rain which the toys get caught in on their journey to Sunnyside, and also by Randy Newman’s beautiful score, which features a harrowing leitmotif by the string section in this scene.
5. “Not a Flying Toy” (Toy Story)
The central conflict between Woody and Buzz which drives most of the narrative in Toy Story is not only caused by Woody’s fears that Buzz is replacing him as Andy’s favourite toy, but also by the fact that Buzz refuses to accept that he is a toy, insisting that he is a real Space Ranger. When the pair are trapped in Sid’s house they try to make a break for it, only to be forced to flee from Scud, Sid’s vicious dog. Hiding from the canine, Buzz finds himself in a room with Sid’s father, who has fallen asleep in front of the television. On the television, Buzz sees a commercial for Buzz Lightyear toys. At first Buzz is excited, but the animators do an excellent job of gradually changing his expression from excitement to bewilderment, and then finally to horror and disbelief as the commercial ends with the words “Not a Flying Toy”.
While this point is itself a poignant moment due to its relatability, as at some stage we will all experience moments of realisation which will leave us in a stunned sense of disbelief as we come to realise something which gives us a complete perspective change on a matter, it is what follows that is most harrowing. In a state of denial, Buzz desperately tries to fly, only to plummet to the stairs below. Devastated by the realisation that he is a toy which cannot fly, Buzz just lies there in stunned silence. Throughout the film Buzz has held his head high and has been a beacon of strength and confidence whom all of the other toys had admired, and to see him become this numbed by sadness and pain is a total u-turn for the character, which is absolutely heartbreaking to watch.
4. The Furnace (Toy Story 3)
Woody and the rest of Andy’s toys come so close to successfully escaping from Sunnyside, but thanks to Lotso they ended up at the Tri-County Landfill, along with the villainous teddy bear. They put their differences aside in order to try to survive, with Woody and Buzz saving Lotso from a shredder. However, when the bear has the chance to save Woody and the gang from an incinerator, he chooses not to and sadistically smiles as he says “Where’s your kid now, Sheriff?” The toys desperately try to clamber away from the intense flames, but eventually they come to realise that they are simply prolonging the inevitable, in a scene which is made up of one harrowing moment after another.
Try not to feel like you have been hit in the feels when Jessie places her hand on a terrified Bullseye’s foot to comfort him, or when Rex and Mr. Potato Head grab hands, with the latter giving the former a solemn nod in which he seems to convey a heartfelt apology for having dismissed the toy dinosaur for years. One-by-one, the toys all grab each other’s hands, culminating with Woody holding Buzz and Slinky’s hands as he sombrely accepts his fate, hitting the viewer in the feels as we come to see characters (whom we have grown to love over the course of multiple films and many years) accept a horrific fate. Tears of sadness ultimately become tears of joy, however, as the toys are saved in the nick of time by the Aliens, who managed to take control of “The Claw”, in a lovely little nod to the first film. Nine years later and I will never forget the sense of relief which reverberated around that cinema auditorium as a room full of long-term Toy Story fans realised that the beloved characters would live to see another day.
3. Jessie’s Backstory (Toy Story 2)
When Woody was being held prisoner at Al’s apartment, he ended up at loggerheads with cowgirl doll Jessie, who was angered by his wish to get back to Andy, which she considered selfish as his wish would mean that she, Bullseye and Prospector would not go to the Konishi Toy Museum in Japan. After Woody’s torn arm is mended, he is ready to leave for Andy’s house via the air vent, but Prospector (who is the father figure to the toys) convinces Woody to make amends with Jessie before he leaves. When Woody goes to a disheartened Jessie, she tells him that she understands Woody’s relationship with Andy, as she had had a similar relationship with a girl named Emily years earlier.
We then see Jessie’s backstory in a flashback, which shows that she had been Emily’s favourite toy until Emily got older and discovered music and make-up, leaving Jessie abandoned under the bed for years. Emily eventually retrieves the dust-coated Jessie from under the bed after some make-up rolls there, and Jessie is overjoyed at the prospect of another playtime, only for her hopes and dreams to be crushed as she is donated to charity, and can only watch in sadness as Emily drives off into the distance.
While previous films Toy Story and A Bug’s Life had moments which caught viewers in the feels, this is considered to be the first Pixar moment to reduce adults to floods of tears. The screenwriting alone gives real poignancy to this scene, as we see Jessie go through such an emotional rollercoaster, which culminates in her being left heartbroken and lonely, giving her real vulnerability after she had been depicted as feisty and somewhat hot-headed up until this point. However, what really gets the tears flowing is the accompanying song – “When She Loved Me” – an absolutely beautiful original song, which composer Randy Newman wrote to further evoke an emotional response to this scene, and which gained a thoroughly deserved Oscar nomination.
2. Final Farewells (Toy Story 4)
After reuniting with Bo, getting Forky back to Bonnie and helping Gabby Gabby get an owner, Woody says his goodbyes to Bo and the new friends that he has made in the final minutes of Toy Story 4, preparing to join Buzz and the rest of the toys in Bonnie’s parents’ RV. On the roof of the RV, however, Buzz sees just how sad Woody is to be saying goodbye to Bo again, and recognises that the cowboy doll’s place is now with her as opposed to with Bonnie and the other toys. Buzz gives his best friend his blessing to stay with Bo by assuring him that Bonnie will be fine, reflecting not only that he understands Woody’s sense of conflict, but that he is at last ready to be the toys’ leader.
Woody is overjoyed by this, yet visibly upset to have to say goodbye to his friends, and we the viewers are hit in the feels as we see some of the closest and longest-serving friends in animated cinema say farewell. Woody shares a hug with Jessie and gives her his Sheriff badge (a staple of his character design), an action which signifies the closeness of their bond, before sharing a group hug with Hamm, Rex, Slinky, Bullseye and the Potato Heads. He then shares a farewell hug with Buzz, in a tender moment which is all the more emotional when Woody tightens his hug around his best friend, emphasising just how hard it is for him to say goodbye to somebody with whom he has been through so much, and who has helped him grow over the years.
In interviews prior to the film’s release, Woody and Buzz voice actors Tom Hanks and Tim Allen described having real difficulty in recording this scene due to how emotional they found it, and it is not difficult to see why. Woody and Buzz are the original Pixar double-act, have become beloved characters worldwide whom many of us have grown up with, and after almost a quarter-century cannot be imagined apart. To watch them say a final farewell to each other is an enormous emotional gut-punch, as we see their journey together conclude once and for all, and realise that this really is the end for the iconic double-act. However, it is impossible not to have some tears of joy mingled with those tears of sadness, as we come to realise that Woody is making a fresh start with a new purpose and a chance at true happiness with Bo, and that Buzz and the others have said farewell to him, content in the knowledge that he has found his place.
1. “So Long, Partner” (Toy Story 3)
Nine years before the ending of Toy Story 4 gave us an emotional gut-punch, the ending of Toy Story 3 caught us right in the feels more than the ending of any other Pixar film to date, which was exacerbated by the fact that, as far as we were concerned at the time, this was the very end of the franchise. Boy, what is it about the endings of supposed final Toy Story films catching us in the feels in ways which we did not see coming? Thanks to Woody’s intervention, Andy stops by Bonnie’s house on the way to college to give her what is left of his childhood toys. He gives Buzz, Jessie, Bullseye, Hamm, Slinky, Rex, the Potato Heads and the Aliens to her, and asks her to promise him that she will look after them as they mean a lot to him. That alone is enough to catch us in the feels, as the toys had spent a huge portion of the film wondering how much they meant to Andy, having not been played with for years, but now the fact that they are still important to him was being confirmed beyond any shadow of a doubt.
However, the scene gets more emotional from here when Andy, to his surprise, learns that Woody is also in the box that he brought the toys round in. Andy is incredibly reluctant to part with Woody, his favourite toy for longer than he could remember, and is visibly upset at the thought of having to give away the cowboy doll. However, realising that Bonnie would offer his beloved toy a good home and great playtimes, Andy accepts that the time had come to part ways with Woody, and gives him to Bonnie, before having one final playtime with his childhood toys, along with Bonnie. This was an absolutely heartwarming moment, which evoked tears of joy as we got to see Andy’s toys have that one last playtime which they had spent years yearning for, and through Andy we (the adults in the audience) felt a sense of nostalgia for the innocence of childhood and the hours of fun which could be gained through playing with toys.
After the final playtime, Andy gets into his car and thanks the toys for everything as he takes one last look at them. As he drives off into the distance Woody says “So long, partner” and, if you had not already begun to weep, then this is the moment which would change that for you. It is clear in Woody’s expression and Tom Hanks’s wonderfully heartfelt voice performance that parting with Andy is an incredibly difficult thing for the cowboy doll to do, but it is also clear by this point in the narrative that Woody knows that it is the right thing to do, that his role in Andy’s life has come to its natural end. After fifteen years and three films, it was heartbreaking to watch Woody and Andy part ways, and nine years later this ending still has us weeping. However, like the ending of Toy Story 4 would do almost a decade later, this scene will see tears of joy mingle with tears of sadness, as the toys whom we have come to love are getting a fresh start and the chance to bring happiness to a new child, who will cherish them for years to come. If that is not a fitting way for their journey with Andy to end, then what is?