he critical moment in Toy Story is Buzz Lightyear’s epiphany, the scene in which he discovers that he is not really a space ranger charged with the awesome responsibility of protecting the universe. He is, instead, a mere toy, "a child’s plaything." This moment of awakening provides a retort to Friedrich Nietzsche’s primordial believer: it is enough that we love and care for those with whom we live; we must not look to heaven for our raison d’être.
The plot turns on the rivalry of two toys. Woody, an old fashioned cowboy, is introduced to us as the incumbent. He has "been Andy’s favorite since kindergarten." At the beginning of the movie, Andy receives for his birthday a state of the art space-action figure complete with retractable wings and laser cannons. Woody finds his privileged position usurped by Buzz, who all but replaces him as the object of Andy’s affection.
Woody, whose viewpoint we are meant to adopt, is a realist: he sees the world as it truly is, without gloss. Even as he mouths calming platitudes to his companions, Woody understands the true nature of a toy’s life. Woody knows that toys may be discarded or worse, that favor may be lost, that there is something to win and something to lose. Buzz Lightyear appears on the scene claiming to be "a member of the elite Universe Protection Unit of the SPACE RANGER corps." Because this strikes Woody as preposterous, we, the viewers, know that it is preposterous. Throughout the movie, Woody may be observed alternately groaning and jeering at those toys who believe "the palpably not true."
Buzz’s concern for the safety of the galaxy is taken as a kind of misguided altruism; such high and lofty concerns divert Buzz from seeing the immediate needs of those around him. What’s more, the Galactic Alliance serves as a mere pretext, elevating Buzz to a position of exaggerated importance: "Emperor Zurg has been secretly building a weapon with the destructive capacity to annihilate an entire planet. I alone have information that reveals this weapon’s only weakness." Woody shares and is vulnerable to this desperate, psychological need for identity and purpose. Unable, however, to believe them, Woody cannot take refuge in idle fantasies. He would find his purpose in the "real" world of toys.
One of the most disturbing scenes involves the little three-eyed aliens found at the arcade of Pizza Planet. Buzz enters the game mistaking it for an actual rocket ship. Inside, he discovers a large group of little toy aliens. When Buzz asks, "Who’s in charge here?" the little toy prizes point upward to their god and cry out, "The claw is our master." "The claw chooses who will go and who will stay." Presently, one of the aliens is selected by the claw. "I have been chosen!" the poor creature exclaims as he rises heavenward, "Farewell my friends. I go on to a better place." The camera immediately shifts to the diabolical features of Cid Phillips, the sadistic child next door and villain of our tale. This scene is awful because it is obvious to Buzz, Woody, and the audience that this innocent rubber soul is tragically deluded. He believes he is held in the benevolent "claw" of Providence. In reality, he has become the property of a devil. "Nirvana is coming," the alien whispers gleefully to his new companions. "The mystic portal awaits." In the next scene, Woody and Buzz look on in horror as Cid gives the space rocket prize to his dog for a chew toy.
Eventually, Buzz’s moment of truth arrives. He sees a television commercial advertising the Buzz Lightyear action figure, and it is not a flying toy. Struggling to dismiss a flood of doubts, he attempts to fly out of the window of the house in which he and Woody find themselves trapped. The space ranger and his faith crash to the floor below. The entirety of Buzz Lightyear’s self-esteem had rested upon the proposition that he was engaged upon a mission of unimaginable importance. The fate of the whole universe lay upon his actions. At the terrible realization of his true identity he is struck down with grief. The film reaches its turning point as Woody explains to Buzz that his value does not derive from his status as a spaceman. It is redundant to attempt to find one’s purpose outside of the community of toys. Our value lies in our ability to affect for good the lives of those around us. As he and Woody make their escape from Cid’s house, Buzz comes to terms with his loss of faith.
The implications of this toy parable are dark indeed. Like Buzz, the believer gazes beyond the horizon to discover his ultimate purpose. If he would but lower his eyes to his immediate surroundings, so the argument goes, he would find he has no need for a gory cross or a great commission. He would discover reason enough to live "in here."
But Woody’s solution is a trick, a means of coping with intolerable "truths." Far from setting us free, these awful truths threaten to negate us; they threaten to reduce us to our constituent molecules. Though we cannot say, "I will reason so far and no farther," we are left with no choice but to try. Woody and Buzz will not, by this means, avoid becoming hollow men, "leaning together, Headpiece filled with straw."
Ultimately, it is Buzz Lightyear’s stumbling from the staircase that offers the film’s deepest insight, as he shouts to us the uber-Nietzschean motto of our post-secular condition:
"This isn’t flying! It’s falling with style!"
"To love man for God’s sake—that has been the noblest and most remote feeling attained among men. That the love of man is just one more stupidity and brutishness if there is no ulterior intent to sanctify it; that the inclination to such love of man must receive its measure, its grain of salt and dash of ambergris from some higher inclination—whoever the human being may have been who first felt and ‘experienced’ this, however much his tongue may have stumbled as it tried to express such delicatesse, let him remain holy and venerable for us for all time as the human being who has flown highest yet and gone astray most beautifully!"
—Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, Section 60