Pixar’s fourth trip into the toybox opens up fascinating existential questions while maintaining its delightful core of childlike whimsy.
It’s a strange feeling to see a fourth Toy Story movie on the horizon: it’s a series that’s been going since the mid-90s, the franchise that effectively popularized CG children’s entertainment while elevating it to the status of high art. 2010’s Toy Story 3 seemingly served as the perfect sendoff for Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz (Tim Allen) and the gang, completing their journey with Andy and handing them off to a new child to create all-new memories. Nine whole years later, we’ve got a followup in Toy Story 4, and miraculously enough, it might be one of the best Toy Story films of all time.
The transition from Andy to Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw) has been rough on Woody — he’s no longer top of the totem pole, Bonnie instead playing more with cowgirl Jessie (Joan Cusack) and leaving him in the closet with the other forgotten toys. “I don’t remember it being this hard,” he confesses to Buzz. That said, he’s still loyal to Bonnie, and stows away with her to her first day of kindergarten. There, bereft of toys, Bonnie creates her own: a spork with googly eyes, pipe-cleaner arms and popsicle-stick feet named Forky (Tony Hale), to which she becomes instantly attached. Upon his creation, Forky is immediately thrown into an existential crisis — what is he? Is he trash? Why is he alive?
Immediately seeing Forky’s value to Bonnie, Woody appoints himself Forky’s protector, standing on perpetual suicide watch as Forky constantly tries to throw himself in the garbage. Matters get more complicated when the family takes a road trip to an amusement park, and Woody and Forky get separated from the rest of the gang. Their journey back to Bonnie leads them to an old antique shop, where Woody reunites with the long-missing Bo Peep (Annie Potts, returning to the films for the first time since Toy Story 2), now an itinerant ‘lost toy’ who relishes her life free of her attachment to children. With her help, along with some new toys from the carnival and the antique shop, Woody hopes to keep Forky alive and get him back to the kid who loves him more than anything.
Rest assured, if nothing else, Toy Story 4 fulfills its series’ mandate to leave you a blubbering mess by the ending credits.
Pixar is no stranger to using kid’s animation to tackle tough, complicated emotional questions, and the Toy Story series is no exception. Heck, the third one was already a pretty deep dive into the agony of obsolescence, and the apocalyptic despair that sets in when you realize your purpose has been fulfilled. So it’s a delightful surprise to report that Toy Story 4 not only revisits those questions in interesting ways, but finds inventive new solutions that still manage to entertain and resonate.
Working from a script by Pixar stalwart Andrew Stanton and co-writer Stephany Folsom, Toy Story 4 keeps its laser focus on Woody and Forky’s respective journeys — one toy at the end of his usefulness, another at the very beginning. “I am not a toy!” Forky maintains, horrified by his own creation, thrust into an existence Woody has to acclimate him to, even as he grows more disillusioned with his own. Hale’s made a career of terrifyingly childlike characters (e.g. Buster Bluth), and his panicked, yet genial voicework as Forky ably fits that mold. Hanks, meanwhile, puts in some of the most dynamic voice work of his career as a wizened, disillusioned Woody, a toy who clearly loves his kid but who recognizes that she doesn’t really need him.
With the switch from boy to girl owners, Toy Story 4 also smartly leans harder into a more equitable dynamic for its female characters. Though the film remains Woody’s journey, his own participation in the action is fairly passive, circumstances throwing him from one scenario to the other. Bo Peep, meanwhile, has thrived outside of the gendered expectations her costumes and accessories placed on her; she’s traded in her long, flowing skirt for sensible pants and a cunning resourcefulness that puts her at the forefront of the gang’s adventures. If Woody’s Mad Max, she’s Furiosa, taking charge while he’s mostly along for the ride, rediscovering a dynamic of equal love and respect.
While the film finally opens its universe up to the possibility that toys don’t need kids to live exciting, fulfilling lives (a metaphor that’s not too hard to unpack for childless families), Toy Story 4 is emotionally mature enough for both perspectives to find purchase. On the other side of the toys-need-kids equation is Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), a desperate doll with a defective voice box who sees Woody’s pull string as the key to getting a kid of her own. While she serves as the film’s primary antagonist, she’s never outright villainized, and her journey serves as an intriguing parallel to Forky’s. The toys of Toy Story are permitted to forge their own destiny, whether or not it’s attached to the happiness of a human child.
But amidst all the philosophical and emotional import Pixar is known for, Toy Story 4 doesn’t forget to be fun. First-time feature director Josh Cooley slides easily into the visual dynamism the series is known for, crafting eye-popping chase sequences and effortlessly balancing the film’s humor with its greater moments of pathos. You’ll laugh when Buzz teams up with a wisecracking pair of enthusiastic carnival plushies (Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key), guffaw when Keanu Reeves appears in yet another scene-stealing 2019 turn as Canadian stunt racer Duke Caboom, and reach for tissues when you see a lost child in tears. Rest assured, if nothing else, Toy Story 4 fulfills its series’ mandate to leave you a blubbering mess by the ending credits.
In a summer filled with disappointing duds — X-Men, Godzilla, Men in Black — Toy Story 4 couldn’t have come a moment too soon. Entertaining and uplifting in equal measure, Cooley and crew have successfully managed to continue the legacy of Pixar’s flagship series (with alleged sexual harasser John Lasseter blissfully absent, save a story credit) with a big plastic wind-up heart. Questions may still abound as to how the toys come to life, or what their purpose may be. But I, for one, am glad they’re around.
Toy Story 4 springs to terrifying, mesmerizing life in theaters June 20th.