Toy Story 4 is a call to love yourself, even if you are 'trash'
The Seven Ages of Man. The American Dream. Toy Story. These are almost interchangeable at this point. Basically, this franchise is what happens when a bunch of middle aged men make toys act like themselves. The first film is a mid-life crisis where you’re starting to be outpaced by someone younger and flashier, the second is about being offered a new job where you have to travel to a foriegn country for an indefinite period (and choosing your family and friends over it), the third film is about getting laid off and trying to find a new job for you (and your family and friends). Toy Story 4 is about being able to retire young enough to enjoy it. To travel and watch the world go buy, finally letting go of your anxieties that have driven your life up to this point. It’s a clear arc for Woody (Tom Hanks) throughout these films, facing crisis after crisis.
The cowboy’s paternalistic side has always been an aspect of the character, but it feels even more foregrounded in this film. The film picks up some time after Toy Story 3, with our favorite gang of consumer products living with Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw). But Woody has fallen out of playtime favor. Bonnie seems to prefer having Jessie (Joan Cusack) be the sheriff. But this doesn’t keep him down, as he decides to break Bonnie’s parents (Lori Alan and Jay Hernandez) rule about not bringing toys to school and stows away in her backpack to her kindergarten orientation. While there, Bonnie uses some previously thrown away materials to make Forky (Tony Hale), a spork with googly eyes, pipe cleaner arms, and popsicle stick feet. Since Bonnie has made him a toy, he is imbued with mobility and sentience, but his instinct is to want to return to the trash. Woody steps in to try to help Forky adjust to being alive, and showing him the nobility and joy of being a child’s plaything.
The bond between these two characters is the heart of the film, and Hale’s performance and the screenplay (credited to Stephany Folsom and Andrew Stanton, with a “Story by” credit for an additional 6 people) imbue Forky with a deep sense of empathy on top of his confusion and single-minded goal of being trash. Rare is a character who has both a one-note comedy beat (executed beautifully) and an extreme amount of emotional depth. What makes Forky so compelling is not his existential crisis, but his deep empathy for others, especially Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), the baby doll antagonist of this entry. He demonstrates that we can listen to others and be empathetic even while in the middle of our own personal crises. And then he’ll wobbly shuffle off to the nearest wastebasket. Forky is truly a character for our age.
The other major relationship that the film spends much of its time on is between Woody and Bo Peep (Annie Potts), reunited after the latter is given away by Andy’s mom (Laurie Metcalf) in the prologue (Bo Peep was absent in Toy Story 3). Since then, Bo has struck out on her own with her sheep and made a life for herself in the big wide world. The way her and the cadre of toys that she leads navigate the world is another one of those clever Pixar touches that is simple and brilliant. These toys all want to be played with, but unlike Woody (and Gabby Gabby), they do not think they need to be owned by a child to have a fulfilling life, as long as they get played with periodically by children visiting a playground. While they reconnect in a way that is a twinge romantic, she represents a challenge to Woody’s assumptions about what he wants out of life. She essentially presents him with an alternate path to fulfillment now that his previous life goals are feeling outmoded. This is a love story, and Woody and Bo certainly seem infatuated with each other, but it doesn’t sell this as a full-blown romance for me as much as what Bo Peep represents for Woody. Because the film is sort of bifurcated between Bo and Forky, we don’t get a full romantic arc. And by the time the two storylines come together, we’re in our traditional action sequence of toys out in the wider world that is tradition for the series.
In addition to Forky, there a few new characters added to the mix. The standout was Officer Giggle McDimples (Ally Maki), a Polly Pocket-style police officer, and Bo Peep’s supportive best friend. She’s a riot, and her attitude combined with her stature feels like new ground for the series. Hendricks also makes Gabby Gabby an engaging presence, and is able to convey the characters complex emotions well. Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves) is a solid flavor-add, and charming in that specifically Canadian way. Less successful, unfortunately, are the plush Ducky and Bunny (Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele). Key and Peele are great, and their schtick is well-applied, but they seem like extra fluff here, pardon the expression.
Part of the reason this movie feels fresh–even while it treads familiar thematic ground–is the attention given to these new characters like Forky, and new plot lines previously unexplored. However, this does not come without sacrifice. Those coming to this film looking for more of Buzz (Tim Allen), Jessie (Joan Cusack), Rex (Wallace Shawn), and Hamm (John Ratzenberger) might leave a little disappointed. While they get their moments, this is Woody’s story, along with Forky and Bo Peep. The upside is this feels a bit less repetitive than the last two sequels, but doesn't come near the climactic emotional punch of Toy Story 3.
Toy Story 4 isn’t a story that needed to be told in order to resolve anything the series has been lacking, and also doesn’t act as a standalone adventure for our plastic friends. It sits in an odd middle ground, but that is what makes it engaging. But even a lesser Toy Story lands around the top half of Pixar’s typically excellent output. There’s a bit more shine on their sheriff's badge whenever they come back to the toybox, and the care they’ve put into this film. Reach for the sky.
Toy Story 4 opens in Philly theaters today.