At the height of Pixar’s creative boon, Toy Story 3 threatened the impossible: a sequel would be the animation studio’s best movie to date. This on the heels of the triple-threat punch of Ratatouille, WALL-E and Up, to this day the finest consecutive output Pixar would manage. Toy Story, to this point in the studio’s history, was Pixar’s only ongoing franchise – Cars 2 would come along and bust their Fresh streak just one year later – but its sequels managed to keep pace with their starkly original one-off creations by diving deeper into the pathos of its collection of anthropomorphic toys and achieving an even greater sense of world-building. Woody, Buzz and the gang discovered things about themselves by exploring larger sandboxes and, accompanying them, we too saw the world with eyes renewed.
Themes of hope, companionship, trust, love, and loyalty became hallmarks of Toy Story’s oeuvre, a series that seemed able to communicate these ideas trans-generationally, and perhaps moreso than just about any other animated work of fiction. But all of its deep-seated big ideas needed a comfy platform to lay its head, the groundbreaking animated films never shying away from the wholesome and at times irreverent humor needed to engage the wee ones in the audience alongside the adults. Leave it to Pixar then to feature a sequence where the entire collection of living toys stared down into the seething maw of an incinerator, linking arms as they faced certain death, united as family soon to be scrap metal.
From 1995, people have grown up with these toys’ stories. The kids who first watched the original in theaters are adults now, many with children of their own and Toy Story 4 presents a very bold and perhaps unprecedented message to the candy-stained kiddos and hipster dads alike: it’s ok to let go. Toy Story 4 is about second and third chances, a movie that examines how shifts in our lives can leave us feeling meaningless. Lost. Unworthy of love. Despite our best efforts, sometimes life just chews us up and spits us out. This is where we find Woody (Tom Hanks), the world’s most loyal plush cowboy sheriff. But he doesn’t quite know it yet.
Ever since leaving Andy’s room, Woody has struggled with irrelevance. Sure he has a new kid in the doting Bonnie but he’s far from her favorite toy and often finds himself left in the closet when play time commences. He doesn’t want to admit it to himself but he’s gone from Belle of the Ball to Kevin McAllister’s ice skates – collecting dust in the closet. With Bonnie trepidatious about her Kindergarten orientation, the oft-sidelined Woody inserts himself to save the day in a ploy ultimately for his own self-worth, tagging along to help Bonnie’s day go just a little bit better wherever he can. Woody’s efforts go ignored but his impact does not. But it’s her new creation Forky (Tony Hale), a spork with googly eyes and pipe cleaner arms, that’s the target of Bonnie’s affection.
What follows is a slight and breezy adventure that takes Woody on a path of self-discovery across campsites and carnivals. Woody stumbles across a long lost love, Buzz (Tim Allen) discovers his inner voice, Forky tries to repeatedly… kill himself? Finding solace only in the trash can where he believes he belongs?! (I feel ya Forky, I feel ya.) It’s played for laughs but as Woody’s hoisted-upon companion, it speaks to the larger theme of rejection and feelings of uselessness. There’s a strong female empowerment vibe with Bo Peep (Annie Potts) discovering for herself a rewarding second act as a lost toy and the impact she has on Woody is central to the movie’s emotional core and messaging.
The rest of the gang are brushed to the side for the most part, leaving room for Keanu Reeves’ Duke Caboom (a Canadian equivalent to Evel Knievel) who inadvertently steals the show and Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele reuniting as a conjoined stuffed bunny and chick who dream of having a kid of their own. They get the bulk of the laugh lines in a movie that is genuinely very funny when it gets the formula working right.
How Woody got his groove back is the simple driving force of this epilogue of sorts and while it doesn’t reach the high water mark of the series, Toy Story 4, as written by Andrew Stanton and Stephany Folsom, does more than enough to justify its existence. Woody’s search for purpose can be taken as a meta-textual commentary on the film itself – how to stretch a franchise that’s already ended perfectly into another dollar or billion? How does Pixar make this sequel to a sequel to a sequel meaningful after already achieving what many assume to be the perfect capstone? Fortunately, the final product doesn’t reek of cash grab even if it can’t hit the same falsetto notes, Toy Story 4 comfortable settling as a lightweight swan song that smartly focuses on the heart and soul of this whole endeavor: Woody.
Just as Woody must find his place in the world when his life abruptly changes, Pixar holds a mirror to the audience, particularly those in a rut, experiencing self-doubt, or struggling with mental health issues like anxiety or depression and tries to offer just a hair of sage advise: don’t give up. There’s always another angle you attack life with. There’s usually a friend to be found somewhere. You can let your old self go and trudge on renewed. The film from first time director Josh Cooley is remarkably cool in imparting these somewhat radical messages in what is obstensibly a kids movie. The challenges facing those who seek to redefine themselves is deeply felt and Cooley opens it up to his audience, whether they be moving to a new city, going through a divorce, or changing their physical appearance to finally match how they feel inside. As I mentioned folks, this movie’s got something to say.
Despite its emotional heft feeling second-rate to its predecessors or relatively minor in terms of its plotting, largely this is a movie driven by deeper themes and subtext. No one can ever top the emotional wrecking ball that was Toy Story 3; but while that punched me in the heart, Toy Story 4 hit me in the head. There’s commentary on privilege and classism expressed through the hierarchy of toydom. Just as in our world, there are the haves and the have-nots; those that have their owns kids, and those that do not. That element of Toy Story’s world has been explored before but in a very black and white, Jedi and Sith manner. In a sense, Toy Story 4 is The Last Jedi of the Toy Story universe, in that it kills the past to make room for the future.
Shucking out traditional ideas of what a toy needs in this world to be happy, Toy Story 4 wants to remake itself outside the shadow of what it once thought it was. In a saga about unchecked selflessness and blind devotion, it represents the first time that the franchise has opened itself up to the possibility that perhaps “having a kid” isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. There’s an almost Ayn Randian commentary about finally putting your own needs above the needs of others, of championing the individual above the many. But also about coming to peace with that, of realizing that the world will go on without you. All of which are pretty heady concepts to put into a movie about an animated spork voiced by Tony Hale constantly trying to throw himself in the trash.
CONCLUSION: ‘Toy Story 4’ succeeds as a fleet-footed and charming animated spectacle but its underlying deconstruction (and denouncement) of the moral imperatives of blind love and loyalty that have always driven the franchise make it worth dwelling upon long after closing time. Another deep endeavor from Pixar.
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