Toy Story 4 is a beautifully tender look at trust and growth and goodbyes and I hope they never make another one. It’s for any particular singular complaint; it’s funny and heartbreaking and emboldening all at the same time and to a degree that many films wish they could hit. But it certainly doesn’t contribute anything new to this series wholly about growth and goodbyes and doesn’t improve on the perfectly melancholic signoff Toy Story 3 gave.
It does pull a smart move early on, though, by taking trademark franchise character Woody (Tom Hanks) and removing him almost completely from all that you would find familiar and comforting from past films. His longstanding counterpart Buzz (Tim Allen) is as much a part of the story as beloved side character RC Car. This allows the film to feel both newer despite being the fourth film while poking at the larger theme of alienation, otherness, and moving on.
This is done primarily through putting Woody through a new twist on the old tune of being a lost toy. His child Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw) is starting school for the first time, which Woody assumes will be traumatic for her despite the leader of Bonnie’s toys telling him otherwise. And it turns out they were both a little bit right as Woody stows away in her backpack and helps her craft her own new toy in the form of trash aggregate and millenial psyche Forky (Tony Hale).
On a family trip, Bonnie ends up “losing” Forky, which isn’t as accurate as saying Forky simply wants to be in the nearest trashcan at all times because he is, as he frequently states, trash. Woody, forever the epitome of self-sacrifice, attempts to recover him by leaping from the family’s RV and thus begins their journey back to Bonnie. That is until he gets waylaid by the return of an old flame in the form of Bo Peep (Annie Potts).
And through Bo Peep, we see one of the few entirely new wrinkles to this psychologically disturbing world. (Bonnie literally created a consciousness out of garbage, and she has no moral imperative to tend to that fabricated existence. Like, FUCK.) She was sold off years and years ago back when Woody and co. were still with Andy (John Morris), but now she’s a lost toy—the entire crisis of the original film—and thriving.
She and her loose-knit collective freely give themselves to a local playground so kids can come and play with them as they please. They’re genuinely happy and free, a shocking contrast to Woody’s constant worry and anxiety borne from a lifelong obsession with belonging to and caring for a single child. Why impact one life when you can change many? It is a hard turn from the parallel obsession of every plot of the franchise so far and, quite honestly, a welcome twist.
It’s making a lot of sense to Woody, even if every fiber of his soft body says otherwise. All of the love and care that flows so freely from Bonnie to Forky is what he used to get from Andy, while now Woody collects dust in the closet during playtime. Is it jealousy or responsibility that fuels Woody’s desire to make Forky understand this? Or perhaps it’s simply obsession, an addiction to an old way that he slowly accepts is no longer his but must be someone’s.
This is laid out against a new toy named Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), an old fashioned doll that appears to rule over a local pawn shop. (Albeit with the help of several terrifying and identical marionettes, which allows the film to flex some old school horror moves with luscious abandon.) She is missing her voicebox, which she believes is the only reason the storeowner’s granddaughter refuses to play with her. It’s the only thing stopping her from being perfect for this child. This is Gabby Gabby’s obsession.
Which, you may notice, is the same as Woody’s but from a different perspective. It’s a smart juxtaposition. Woody’s entire existence has been based around love, especially one that goes both ways. But with Bonnie, that base assumption has eroded away. Gabby Gabby, on the other hand, never had it. And slowly, their points of view seem to align. A complete toy with seemingly nothing to offer and an incomplete one with everything to give if only it were whole—different flavors of desperation. Maybe it is time to let old things die.
This sounds like it may be a miserable ride, but true to Pixar form, there manages to be plenty of time for goofs and gaffs. Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, for instance, play a pair of carnival game prizes with a maniacal bent toward life. Keanu Reeves as a Canadian stuntman toy is ideal casting, giving his particular slant on theatricality plenty of room to maneuver. And, of course, Forky’s modern rallying cry of I’M TRASH, perhaps the most relatable piece of content this year.
But also true to Pixar, it gets into some bleak considerations. Woody’s adventure puts him far afield from his staple constituents, putting us as viewers also far from what we know and love. And once he’s put face-to-face with Bo Peep’s once irredeemable and untethered existence, we can see maybe it’s for the best. It’s time to move on.
It’s just that sometimes the person that needs to hear it the most is listening the least. As funny and heartfelt and poignant as Toy Story 4 is, I hope Pixar hears their own lesson loud and clear.
Final score: 9 out of 10