The series’ latest, and maybe last, lesson is about how love defines us.
Heading into the fourth movie of a 24-year-old franchise, even one helmed by Disney and Pixar, it’s hard not be cynical. What could Toy Story 4 do that Toy Story, Toy Story 2, or Toy Story 3 couldn’t? And what would it take to make yet another story about Toy Story, which has constantly outdone itself in movie after movie, feel new?
New toys, like a pair of neon carnival plushies with murderous desires, help. So does the return of old favorite characters who may have skipped the previous entry, like Bo Peep (Annie Potts), who’s now more Indiana Jones than a meek-and-mild keeper of sheep. A road trip and a truly frightening villain help too.
But the simple answer in the gorgeous, absolutely charming Toy Story 4 is to go back to where it all began: telling a story centered on the pull-string cowboy Woody (Tom Hanks), and about fictional toys’ very real feelings about life, love, and the meaning of it all.
And in telling that story, Pixar once again takes us to an emotional place — one where many of us never may have expected or dared to visit, especially by way of an animated kids’ film.
Toy Story 4 introduces new wrinkles into a story we thought we already knew
This installment picks up from the end of Toy Story 3, when Woody, Buzz (Tim Allen), and the rest of Andy’s toys found a new owner in Bonnie, a kid at Sunnyside Daycare. We begin now in Bonnie’s room, greeted by all our beloved toys — minus Toy Story 3 standout Barbie, who stayed behind at said day care to transition it into a better, fairer place for all toys.
But for some of Bonnie’s toys back home, life isn’t quite as good as they’d hoped.
There’s no guarantee that when you hand over your favorite toys, as Andy does to Bonnie, their new owner is going to love them all as equally as you did. Each kid has their own preferences, and when it comes to Bonnie, Woody — the mainstay of Andy’s toys and this four-film franchise — is the odd toy out.
Woody waits in the closet while other toys have become Bonnie’s new favorites. It kills him to watch the toys play games like “hat shop” with Bonnie through the closet slats. But instead of taking out his frustrations on longtime friends like Jessie, who has replaced him as the playroom sheriff, he turns that envy into effort, trying even harder to make Bonnie like him by sneaking into her backpack and going to kindergarten with her.
It’s at school that we get to the meat of this story. During arts and crafts time, Bonnie breathes life into a spork, a pair of leftover googly eyes, popsicle sticks, and a red pipe cleaner to create a new best friend named Forky (Tony Hale). Forky is a hilarious visual gag: Since he was put together with clumsy kindergarten hands, his limbs are always slipping down, his eyes pop off, his smile slopes off his face, and he waddles with a click-clack sound in each step.
To Woody and the other toys, Forky checks off the all-important “loved by the kid” box; he’s definitely a toy. But to Forky himself, born of throwaway materials, he’s nothing more trash. He has no desire to do all the expected toy things, like comfort his kid or bring joy to their lives. He just wants to be with the other pieces of trash, with which he knows he belongs.
The love from Bonnie that comes effortlessly to, and is rejected by, Forky is what Woody lives for. And therein lies the tragic, existential rub of this story: Woody wants what Forky has but has never been able to attain himself. He wants Bonnie’s affection as badly as Forky doesn’t want it.
Toy Story 4 is a celebration of love more than anything — the magic in it to transform us and the terminal pain that arises when that love goes unreturned. If love sustains us, as Woody explains to Forky in so many ways, then we do everything we can to return and preserve it. It’s what pulls us through the rough patches, and it’s the one thing that keeps us going. And for toys, love has mortal implications: To love, and to be loved, is their life’s entire purpose.
If Woody’s reason to exist relies on love, Toy Story 4 asks bleakly, what happens if that love is taken away?
In Woody’s search for love, Toy Story 4 reminds us how hard it is to let go
Woody’s existential dread is wrapped around an adventure, a road trip that Bonnie takes with her parents, Forky, and the rest of the toys. Bonnie and her gang visit several new locales, like an RV they travel in, the Second Chance Antiques shop, and a carnival.
In making each of these locations feel like unique, mini-adventures of their own, the animation team delivers.
Toy Story 4 is easily the series’ best-looking entry yet, playing with new, radioactive color palettes in characters like Bunny (Jordan Peele) and Ducky (Keegan-Michael Key), a pair of maniacal stuffed animals at the carnival. With the Canadian action figure Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves), Pixar makes life in plastic look fantastic and almost tangible. The antiques store setting allows for its own lived-in beauty on the other end of the spectrum, including one particularly gorgeous scene — sunlight glistening off the glass from vintage Tiffany-like chandeliers — that you’ll be thinking of later.
But an antiques store, no matter how beautiful it is to humans, is essentially purgatory for toys. It’s the place where the dusty toys of grandmas and grandpas are left, passed over and over. Nothing is new and shiny, as the icily creepy doll tenant Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) proves.
Pigtailed and freckled, Gabby Gabby is that vintage doll, the one you’d find in a glass case in a musty room in someone else’s house. Made with a defective voice box, Gabby Gabby has seemingly spent her whole life in the antiques store, waiting patiently for a child to love her. That pesky voice box of hers, she believes, is the only thing that’s keeping her from experiencing love.
Finding a kid to settle in with is everything that she wants. So much so that it consumes her.
Gabby Gabby’s obsession with affection isn’t that different from Woody’s. But unlike Woody, Gabby Gabby’s never experienced it, and that makes her more desperate. Her desperation makes her not only the most extreme villain but also the most relatable and heartbreaking one in the Toy Story series thus far.
The antique store isn’t just a graveyard of unloved toy souls, though. It’s where the toys reunite with Bo Peep, who was given away to the same antiques store as Gabby Gabby nearly a decade ago. Bo Peep has experienced the highs and lows of love and loss: Whiling away in plaything purgatory isn’t the life she wanted or expected.
Bo and Woody’s reunion is sweet, but then it turns bitter. While he’s happy to see her, there’s part of him that looks down on the life she lives, making the most of her new circumstances. He can’t see himself living as a self-sufficient toy like her, even though we all see the dead-end situation he’s in.
This rings loud and clear for us, the viewers: The need to let go and say goodbye can be so obvious to everyone except the person who has to do it.
The lesson sits heavily with us, the viewers, because it mirrors the life of the Toy Story franchise. Kids who watched the first movie in 1995 are now adults, possibly with their own children. Parents who took their kids could now be grandparents, perhaps still buying Woody and Buzz dolls for their grandkids. This collection of stories about a pull-string cowboy, a space commander, and their secret lives in the toy box has shaped our own lives has made us reflect on the journeys we’ve taken alongside them. Letting go of Toy Story isn’t something any of us wants to do, and we haven’t yet had to.
But leave it to Toy Story to teach us one final lesson, if this is in fact the end (boy, does it sure feel like it). Toy Story 4’s message to us is that we don’t have to stop loving someone just because they’re not in our lives anymore. There’s going to be a time when we won’t be there for someone we love, and there will be a time when they won’t be there for us. What matters is the time we did share, and the feelings we did, and do, have for each other.
Feelings may fade, but they don’t have to disappear. I mean, after all, we’re still talking about these toys, right?
Toy Story 4 is out in theaters on June 20, 2019.