Okay, I have to say I'm a bit reluctant to write about this because I fear that the most common reaction will be: “Lighten up! It's a kid's movie!”
I would simply dismiss the philosophical problems of Toy Story. But the films hit such deep emotional chords which require you to take the pain of the toys seriously in order for the empathy to have effect. But if you take the pain of the toys seriously, that means you have to take the universe in which they live a bit more seriously as well. We don't feel heartache when Daffy Duck is tied to a log heading for a buzz-saw because the Looney Tunes are silly-smart nonsense. But when our Toy Story heroes are falling to the fiery pit of doom, a collective knot fills all of our stomachs. That is because we believe that they are in real peril because their world does have some kind of reality.
I also have to say that the Toy Story universe, while in many ways beautiful, always drove me a little nuts because of the philosophical implications of the story. So, without further ado, here we go:
There is obviously something quasi-mystical/magical about the Toy Story universe. The toys are animated, but by no scientifically presentable force. The life of the toy is not generated by the children as in Winnie the Pooh or even Ted. But what gives them their life force? We don't know. But they are designed and created with purpose.
In the original Toy Story, Buzz is captured and about to be blown up by the vicious Sid. Woody plans a rescue with the other abused toys. To this he says: “We're going to have to break a few rules.” It is very clear that the number one rule that a toy lives by is that they cannot appear to be alive in front of any human (animals are okay, as witnessed by the dogs in the movies). But where did these rules come from? Who is the great rule giver? And what is the consequence for breaking these rules? The answer the last question would appear to be none since Woody, Buzz, and the rest of the toys face no negative consequences of the escape.
I think there is a reason why the ultimate metaphysical question remains blank, and that has to do with the very messed up anthropology. But first let us look into...
How do the toys know that they are toys? Most of them simply know, but the premise of the first movie centers on Buzz Lightyear who thinks he is human. Buzz appears to be the exception, but he can only accept that truth when he realizes that he cannot fly. Once the delusion is broken, he enters into a state of depression until Woody explains the greatness of being a toy.
But others like Woody may have a personality already implanted in them (note how Ken and Barbie seem to be made for each other), but he has no knowledge of his character's back story. That is, Woody is surprised by his origins in Woody's Roundup along with his relationships with Jesse, Bullseye, and Stinky Pete. Most toys appear to simply appear and know that they are toys.
Here's where things get kind of messed up. The toys are not human. They make clear separations between humans and toys. But toys appear to have reason and free will. They are only bound by the rule that they do not let their independent existence be known, and even this rule is not hard and fast. This rule is less a metaphysical necessity as it is a plot contrivance because if the humans knew that the toys could think and feel then the movie would be intolerable.
Think about it. If humans were aware that they were inflicting harm on thinking and feeling beings, then every child in this universe would be as monstrous as Sid. Andy himself hits and throws his toys. That they do not seem to mind is irrelevant for the question of how to view Andy. If he knew or even suspected that he was injuring “Evil Dr. Porkchop” when he knocked him down, then Andy would be a villain. But in this case, every human loses some moral culpability because they do not know what they are doing.
But regardless, they may not be intentional monsters, yet they are unintentional monsters. Even if they don't mean to, humans uses and then throw away their toys. Lotso said to the rest of the toys towards the end of Toy Story 3, “We're all tomorrow’s trash.” The sad part is that he is right. Toys in the Toy Story universe do not simply die. They must be killed. Woody, Buzz, Rex, and the rest do not age. They exist until their bodies are destroyed. Their end must be a violent end. You could argue that humans also end when their bodies are destroyed, but that can happen from within (e.g. old age) or without (e.g. fatal accident). For the toys it must always be from without. Their end will come primarily from being thrown into the trash. Even if they escape the dump at the end of the third movie to live with Bonnie, that end is still waiting for them at some place down the road.
Also notice how a toy finds its fulfillment The toys are only happy when they are loved by a child. The love that a toy has for a child is complete; it gives everything for the child's happiness. Jesse talks about how when she played with her child, Emily, she almost felt alive. This points to an ordered end or purpose to the toys. Natural Law theory holds that if you want to know how to behave (ethics) you have to look at a thing's nature, particularly its end or purpose. The purpose of a toy is to bring joy to a child. It is only by loving and being there for the child that the toy can find happiness. But that love can never be reciprocated. Andy can never truly love Woody they way Woody loves him because he only knows the character he has given the toy. Ham, for example, is smart, sarcastic, but he also generally good natured. He is nothing like evil Dr. Porkchop. Andy never knew that Woody was murderously jealous of Buzz, because that part of Woody's life is completely cut off from him. Andy can only love what he invents about Woody. And that means that he only loves and illusion.
The anthropology of Toy Story implies that there are some intelligent beings who deserve to be kept in servitude to the higher ones. Aristotle agreed with this, except he did not call the lower beings toys.
He called them slaves.
The heart of the Toy Story morality is selflessness.
A toy does not exist for itself but for another. Its existence and its only real happiness are tied to another. When Woody loses sight of his purpose in the first Toy Story, his jealousy causes the problems that lead to he and Buzz getting trapped in Sid's house of doom. In part 2, Stinky Pete has no desire to make anyone happy, thus making him the central villain. He only wants to stay out of storage, which is an abyss of limbo-like darkness. And in part 3, Lotso seeks only live a life free from pain at the expense of other toys suffering. Like the rabbits of Cowslip's warren in Watership Down, they only serve to help him put off the inevitable end of the garbage heap.
The only thing that saves Buzz from his depression in the first movie is the idea of being Andy's toy. He can make Andy happy and this idea pushes Buzz into action. When Woody feels the conflict of going to the toy museum in Japan or staying with his doomed relationship with Andy, he chooses Andy because of the love he bears him. In the third movie, the rest of Andy's toys look to their own self-interest in going to Sunnyside to be played with. It is only Woody that stays committed to serving Andy. As a result, the other toys become trapped in the daycare torture chamber and Woody finds a home with Bonnie (whom I am convinced is Boo from Monsters Inc.). At the end of the movie, Andy's mom says that she wishes she could go with her son. But Andy replies that she's already done everything for him. It is only at that point that Woody realizes that he has served Andy to his fullest capacity and moves on to Bonnie.
In the Toy Story world, love must be what the Greeks called “agape” meaning completely self-giving, not looking for its own interests. It is only when doing this that the toy can fulfill its purpose and find its happiness.
The message about unconditional love is nice. But the problem is that love can only occur between persons. The toys will never be recognized as real persons by the humans and thus these relationships will always be doomed to failure in the end. A toy can get passed on from child to child until such time as it eventually will be doomed to the blazing inferno of the garbage dump.
The main problem is that ultimately the toys are disposable. But love does not work that way. Love is indispensable