All three Toy Story movies rely heavily on the name-on-your-boot motif—both visually and in dialogue. This motif is set in the context of all toys’ basic desire: to be played with.

The beginning of Toy Story threatens Andy’s toys’ assurance that they will be played with; the day is Andy’s birthday. That means gifts, which likely means new toys, which might replace the old toys. “What if he gets another dinosaur?!” Rex worries, “A mean one? I just don’t think I can take that kind of rejection!”

Rex isn’t the most ferocious dinosaur. Just moments before, he tried to “scare” Woody—to no effect. (Of course, Rex is forgetting that in Andy’s hands he is ferocious; he is Woody’s force-field-eating dinosaur!) The possibility of a dinosaur who is actually mean threatens Rex’s existence.

For these toys, every birthday and Christmas is no celebration, it is a time of uncertainty and potential death—“next month’s garage sale fodder” as Hamm pessimistically calls it. Apparently as he does every birthday and Christmas, Woody reminds the toys that they are Andy’s, and they should rest in that assurance. “Hey, listen, no one’s getting replaced. This is Andy we’re talking about. It doesn’t matter how much we’re played with. What matters is that we’re here for Andy when he needs us.”Ironically, after implying that the toys’ worth is not rooted in utility (that is, how often they’re played with), Woody irritatedly yanks the toy mic, Mike, along as he walks closer to the assembled toys. For Woody, Mike’s worth is rooted in his utility. It’s easier for Woody to say “we need to be there for Andy” because he is the one that gets played with the most. That is the reminder and meaning of Andy’s name scribbled on the toys’ boots or feet. Each one is Andy’s. This defines who they are and what they do.

The Name-on-your-boot Motif

This is highlighted by the first explicit use of the name-on-your-boot motif. Buzz approaches Slinky Dog and Rex, saying: “Say there, Lizard and Stretchy Dog. Let me show you something. It looks as though I’ve been accepted into your culture. Your chief, Andy, inscribed his name on me.”In comparison, see Ezekiel’s prophecy about the new covenant, Ezek 36:22-38. Out of concern for his name, YHWH will place his own Spirit in his people (see further Acts 2:1-4; 10:44-48).

Buzz is still deluded, thinking that he is a space ranger whose sole purpose is to defeat the evil Emperor Zurg. So when he is marked by Andy’s name, he doesn’t fully understand the meaning. But the significance of this moment is not lost on Slink and Rex. They’re impressed. At the sight of “ANDY” on Buzz’s foot, Rex even exclaims: “With permanent ink, too!”

This is no small thing.

Although Buzz’s acceptance as one of Andy’s toys ironically causes Woody to doubt his own status as Andy’s, still this further emphasizes the meaning of the name-on-your-boot motif. Woody sorrowfully looks at his own boot with Andy’s name scrawled childishly on it with a backwards “n.” He acknowledges Buzz’s permanent acceptance through the name but is so caught up in being useful he forgets what the name on his boot means for him. Bo Peep reminds Woody of the significance of those poorly formed words: “He’ll always have a special place for you.”

Later in Toy Story Woody and Buzz together (re)discover the rich significance of the name on their boots. Woody is imprisoned; Buzz awaits his execution by rocket. After Buzz laments, “I’m not a space ranger. I’m just a toy. A stupid, little, insignificant toy,” Woody begins to exegete what it is to be a toy for Buzz.

“Whoa. Hey. Wait a minute. Being a toy is a lot better than being a space ranger.  . . . Look, over there in that house is a kid who thinks you are the greatest. And it’s not because you’re a space ranger, pal. It’s because you’re a toy. You are his toy.”

During Woody’s monologue on true toyness, Buzz looks down at his foot, seeing “ANDY” covered in grime and dirt. He touches the name. Now knowing who he is, Buzz is able to do what he must. Buzz, Woody, and Sid’s tortured and mangled toys get Buzz and Woody out of Sid’s clutches and back to Andy.

Episodes 2 and 3

This thick meaning of the name is carried into the next two Toy Story films. In Toy Story 2, as Woody frantically searches for his hat so that he won’t be left behind for cowboy camp, Bo Peep commands him to look under his boot.

“Don’t be silly,” Woody protests. “My hat is not under my boot.”

“Would you just look?”

“You see! No hat, just the word ‘Andy.’”

“Uh huh. And the boy who wrote that would take you to camp with or without your hat.”

Woody’s identity is not defined by what he has, but who he belongs to. Although the importance of the name is not used explicitly as often in Toy Story 2, it still orders the toys’ decisions. Woody has lost sight of the name on his boot. He allowed himself to be persuaded to join a set of vintage toys (Woody’s Roundup gang) in a “museum where he would be cared for meticulously forever—but never be played with or loved again.”Paik, To Infinity and Beyond!, 144. Pixar’s Pete Docter notes that this “would be awful for a toy. You’re preserved perfectly—you don’t get slobbered on or ripped or whatever. But you don’t get to do what you were fundamentally meant to do. You don’t get to be played with.” He believes Stinky Pete and Jessie, who tell him that he is “valuable property.”

But Buzz and his search party find Woody and remind him that “it’s only worth living if you’re being loved by a kid.” Although Woody initially demurs to Buzz’s exhortation, while listening to his own voice sing “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” on his show, he scratches off the paint covering Andy’s name on his boot and resolves to return. Even though Andy is growing up, Woody gladly accepts his impending obsolescence because “this is what it’s all about: to make a child happy.” To do that it’s worth risking anything even for one day with Andy (compare with Ps 84).

In Toy Story 3, Andy’s toys believe that they are confronted with a conundrum: choose to be Andy’s or to be played with. As Andy prepares to leave for college the toys think they will either be thrown away or placed in the attic—neither of which they’re excited about. Mr. Potato Head even wonders if not existing might be better than the attic, than not being played with: “Andy doesn’t want us! What’s the point?” Woody commits to being Andy’s, whether that means going to college, the attic, or the trash; the other toys commit to being played with at Sunnyside Daycare.

At Sunnyside they’re “played” with; that is, they’re used as paint brushes, hammers, and chew toys. They’re abused. Choosing utility over identity, Andy’s toys lose both. Because of his own “abandonment,” Lotso (Sunnyside’s tyrant) concludes that “ain’t one kid ever loved a toy” and thus he treats his peers as trash. “You’re a piece of plastic! You were made to be thrown away.”

And it is Andy’s toys’ experience at the garbage dump that helps them recognize what good news it is to have an owner. Covered in a pile of old food and wrappers, Mr. Potato Head admits to his friends: “Y’know all that bad stuff I said about Andy’s attic? I take it all back!” Now embracing their identity as Andy’s toys, they also get to be played with. Andy entrusts his toys to a young girl with a vivid imagination, Bonnie, asking her “to look after them while I’m gone.”

Existence Identity in Toy Story and Beyond

Existence identity is a gift and example—components that are distinguishable but inseparable from one another.This person-works distinction resonates with Martin Luther’s gift-example distinction concerning Christ and the gospel, see “Short Instruction: What Should Be Sought and Expected in the Gospels,” Luther’s Works 75:7-12 (WA 10,1.1:8-18; E2 7:8-13; cf. LW 35:113-24). Knowing who they belong to, Andy’s toys are able to do what toys do: be played with. But if they do not acknowledge their owner, they will not be played with—at least as they’re intended to be played with. When these toys submit to their owner as passive objects they gain their true agency.Or, as Trinity Evangelical Divinity School’s Professor of Educational Ministries Donald C. Guthrie would put it: “facilitated agency.”

“Only in the hands of Andy does Woody become a real cowboy,” Mockingbird’s Todd Brewer and David Zahl observe. “Andy’s loving hands make Woody and Buzz [and all his toys] who they are designed to be.”Todd Brewer and David Zahl, The Gospel According to Pixar, 58. But if they try to exercise agency outside of this confession they are lost or abused. Only by submitting themselves to Andy their owner do they have the freedom to be who they are. Paradoxically, in this submission the toys fully experience their own agency. As Bonnie’s toy unicorn Buttercup informs Woody: “We do a lot of improv here. Just stay loose, have fun, you’ll be fine.” There are rules to this improvisation, but in those rules there is freedom.On theology as improvisational, see Kevin Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology.

This resonates on a deep level with the Bible’s claims about human beings’ relationship to Jesus of Nazareth. According to Paul’s baptismal theology in his Epistle to the Colossians, every person’s identity and work are rooted in “a circumcision made without hands—by putting off the body of the flesh, in the circumcision of Christ you have been buried with him in baptism, in which you too were raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead” (Col 2:11-12).

Through union with Christ through the Spirit human beings participate in the victory of his disemboweling of sin, death and the devil. Having died with Christ, put to death whatever is earthly in you (Col 2:20-23; 3:5-11); having been raised with Christ, clothe yourself in him—his identity and works (Col 3:1-4, 12-17). Through this obedience comes true freedom. “As Son, Jesus brings a new freedom,” Joseph Ratzinger reminds us. “Not the freedom of someone with no obligations, but the freedom of someone totally united with the Father’s will, someone who helps humankind to attain the freedom of inner oneness with God.”Joseph Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, 120-21.