What are we, who are we, and why are we? Nearly a decade after Toy Story 3 brought Woody, Buzz, Jessie, and the rest of the gang millimeters away from a fiery destruction in an incinerator, Toy Story 4 eases back on the destruction of the self and ponders the meaning of the self. It’s a meta treatment that works beautifully, resonates emotionally, and should finally wrap up the Toy Story franchise. Do you hear me, Pixar? STORIES CAN HAVE ENDINGS. (Also, John Lasseter has a story credit on this thing. That’s pretty gross.)
Toy Story 4 begins some time after Toy Story 3, and it’s clear from the onset that the dynamic of this community has shifted. Bonnie (voiced by Madeleine McGraw) has her own preferences for which toys she likes to play with, and they’re very different from what we saw with Andy in Toy Story, Toy Story 2, and Toy Story 3. In those films, Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks, as good as ever) was the sheriff, the head honcho, the main man, the toy everyone else turned to when they needed guidance or advice or a plan. Now that they’re Bonnie’s toys, though, Woody has fallen out of favor. Bonnie leaves him in the closet, or she passes over him when she wants to play, or she flat-out ignores him. The only time she really pays attention is when she plucks off his sheriff’s badge and gives it to cowgirl Jessie (voiced by Joan Cusack).
So Woody is Bonnie’s toy, sort of, but not really. He doesn’t feel the same connection to her as he did to Andy, but isn’t Woody’s job to protect his kid? To make Bonnie happy? To keep her safe? Isn’t that his purpose? With that guiding principle firmly in place, Woody goes to increasingly ludicrous lengths to prove his relevance, in particular taking Bonnie’s new toy Forky (voiced perfectly by Tony Hale, Gary from Veep, thank you very much), who she makes at kindergarten orientation and is desperately attached to, under his wing.
“You’re just like me—trash!” Forky exalts, but Woody won’t let this be the end of his story. He has so much more to give to Bonnie … doesn’t he? That question, and all of the certainties Woody told himself, are called into question when Forky goes missing during a road trip and when Woody reunites with Bo Peep (voiced by Annie Potts), who had been given away between Toy Story 2 and Toy Story 3. The new life Bo has built and the doubts Woody already had about his relationship with Bonnie drive the narrative of Toy Story 4, which yes, had me crying numerous times.
Of course, Pixar movies have always been good about straddling the line between family entertainment and deeply philosophical undertakings; the opening sequence of Up and Bing Bong’s sacrifice in Inside Out are only two examples among many of how this animation studio pokes at our understanding of life. With the addition of Forky, writers Stephany Folsom and Andrew Stanton get almost blatant in wondering what motivates us, what defines us, what brings us comfort, what separates us from the trash of the universe. Is it love? Loyalty? Friendship? Some combination of all three? Hale is excellent at communicating both wistful innocence and frantic mania (come on, it’s Buster Bluth), and paired with Hanks’s straight man Woody, he helps Forky come alive. Forky’s character design is absurd enough—those googly eyes and unbalanced popsicle feet!—and Hale’s dynamic performance adds to that.
But as much as Toy Story 4 is about Forky realizing his own place in this universe, it’s also about Woody’s relationship with Bo, which is fleshed out more fully in a flashback sequence that is so gorgeously animated, with Woody and Bo in profile as rain falls around them, that it looks like one of those classic paintings of the American West by Charles Marion Russell or Alfred Bierstadt. Bo is an excellently capable, fantastically resourceful character, and although her focus means Buzz and Jessie get pushed aside, it’s a welcome change of pace from the normal Toy Story formula. And the way that Bo inspires loyalty and friendship in her own friends makes her both a good foil to Woody and a nice expansion of this universe to include more women. (In fact, there’s a consistent through line in the film about Woody being replaced or challenged by female characters, including new villain Gabby Gabby, voiced by Christina Hendricks.)
I won’t tell you anything about Keanu Reeves’s Duke Kaboom that you can’t already guess (spoiler alert: HE’S EXCELLENT), and suffice to say that the dynamic between Keegan-Michael Key’s and Jordan Peele’s plush figures feels delightfully like watching a new episode of Key and Peele, and there’s this moment that feels like an homage to Stanley Kubrick that is very unexpected in a Toy Story offering. All of that balances well with the film’s consideration of emotional turmoil and fraught self-reflection, which is very on brand for a Pixar film but still reaches unexpected depths here. If the Toy Story franchise is finally going to end (AND IT SHOULD), Toy Story 4 is a hell of a way to do it.
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