When Pixar announced Toy Story 4, I was incredibly skeptical. The original Toy Story was groundbreaking and thrilling. Toy Story 2 was the first Pixar film to make me cry in the theater. Toy Story 3 was not as great as the first two but ended the trilogy beautifully. I didn’t believe that there were any more stories to tell with Buzz, Woody, and the rest of the toys we know and love. I was afraid this was a cash grab and that the humor, the heart, and the story would be less than what these characters deserved. I worried when Rashida Jones left the film, worried when John Lasseter’s issues became public and worried with news stories of rewrites and tales of disenchantment behind the scenes.
I am here to say that I was wrong. Toy Story 4 is the funniest of the films, and rates just behind Toy Story 2 for me.
This is Pixar at the top of their game. Themes of knowing your place in the world, accepting your purpose, and how to still have a love for others that have moved on without you are heavy topics that could swamp lesser artists, but Pixar moves you from laughter to tears effortlessly.
The third Toy Story saw the toys given to Andy from Bonnie and appeared to give Woody, Buzz, Jessie, and their friends a new home and a new lease on life. But, Bonnie is a much different child than Andy was, and this has Woody lost as to how to help her. She chooses other toys to play with and leaves Woody in the closet where he collects his first dust bunny. He’s hurt, but he won’t show it in front of the other toys. He’s still going to be an optimistic leader and will be there when Bonnie chooses to play with him again. In one poignant scene, he tells Buzz that he doesn’t remember it being this difficult before. Bonnie’s struggling to adapt to her kindergarten orientation, where the other children aren’t playing with her, so Woody inadvertently creates a brand new best friend – Forky. Voiced by Tony Hale, Forky is a neurotic plastic spork with different sized googly eyes, pipe cleaner arms, broken Popsicle feet, and a Play-Doh mouth. He’s made of items that had been thrown away and is convinced that he’s not a toy. It’s up to Woody to teach him that to Bonnie, he’s the most important toy in the world. This is more than just a child with a toy, it’s a metaphor of the sharing of love between one who cares and one who receives that care: for parents, children, lovers, and ex-lovers.
The main plot of each of the Toy Story films has centered around a toy going missing, and that is the case again here. Forky says he “was made for soup, salad, maybe chili, and then the trash.” and he keeps trying to jump into the warmth and coziness of any nearby trashcan and Woody has to keep bringing him back to Bonnie. When the family leaves town for a road trip before Bonnie officially starts kindergarten, Forky slips out of a window, and Woody bravely jumps out of the moving RV and vows to meet the other toys at the RV park 5 miles up the road. He finds Forky and starts the long walk back to Bonnie. Woody shares his story – Andy, the other toys, finding Bonnie, and reinforces the idea that Forky has become the most important, and most loved toy in Bonnie’s collection. Ultimately, they arrive at the RV park where the small town has an antique shop and a carnival that play big roles in the plot. Woody is reunited with Bo-Peep and her three-headed sheep who were absent for a lot of Toy Story 2, and all of Toy Story 3. We learn where she has been and the adventures she has been having. They meet new characters – Ducky, Bunny, and Duke Kaboom steal the show and Gabby Gabby and the Ventriloquist Dummies named Vincent round out the rest. The other toys like Mr. Potato Head, Jessie, Rex, all take a back seat in this adventure. The film is solidly centered around Woody and Bo-Peep.
During this journey, our cowboy discovers what it’s like to live without a child, becomes a parent to Forky, an adventurer/love to Bo, a friend to new and old toys, and discovers his place in this new world. The relationship with Bo is rich, rewarding, tender and truthful – they have been together over 20 years now you know. Bo is the anchor of the film, and he heroism, her love, her heart, her sensitivity, wisdom, and kindness to the other toys is both beautiful and stirring. Annie Potts smashes these complex emotions out of the ballpark and brings real depth and soul to the character.
One of the major themes of the film is the false idea that once you arrive at the end of a goal, you will be happy. When Woody finds Forky, he’ll be happy. When Bonnie is reunited with Forky, she’ll be happy, when Gabby Gabby gets her broken voice box fixed, she will be loved by a child. In a lesser “children’s movie” things would work out and everyone would live happily ever after. Toy Story 4 aims higher and delivers an ending that is complex, emotional, strong, humorous, and full of heart. It doesn’t end the way I envisioned, but it ends the way it should, and isn’t that a lesson for us all? After 20 years of giving love and joy to children, 20 years of friendship with other toys, 20 years of adventures, Woody finds himself at the top of the world. “Was it as wonderful as it sounds?” Gabby asks Woody. The answer is a resounding yes. Every moment of it. As Neil Peart wrote, “The point of a journey is not to arrive – anything can happen.”
At its heart, Toy Story 4 is a film where a cowboy toy from the 1950s tries to find purpose in a world that passed him by – and by extension us. Woody has always believed that his goal is to provide and care for Andy, Bonnie, and whatever kid he belongs to; that’s his code. But with Forky’s help, Pixar takes a step back and asks us and Woody to re-evaluate his beliefs. Change is inevitable and there is a loss that goes with it. But, there is also friendship, adventure, and love. Woody might have been created for the love he has to give, but he’s only alive because of the love he’s received in the end.
The film is filled with tiny, beautiful moments like Bonnie’s tiny, quiet fear upon entering a busy and noisy classroom; Woody’s blissful expression when Bonnie accidentally holds him in her sleep instead of Forky, the fear of a talking doll with a broken voice box who is afraid a child will never love her; the break in the voice of a weary cowboy who isn’t sure he’s ready for change; Buzz learning to trust his inner voice; and maybe hearing the phrase “To infinity and beyond!” for the very last time.
I had my doubts that I needed a Toy Story 4, but after the credits ended (and stay through all of the credits) it turns out I wanted and needed this last adventure, this one last chance to say goodbye. Thank you, Sheriff Woody, you’ve got a friend in me for sure.