The Toy Story saga seemed entirely complete by the gorgeous bookend that was Toy Story 3, so it was strange to hear that Pixar and Disney were teaming up for another go. Yet somehow, with all that history behind it, with the journey over and the toys in a new home—
—they did it again. They made me cry in the theater again.
(Non-spoiler review below)
At face value, the fourth Toy Story film seems like standard fare that covers much of the emotional ground these movies have already tackled. Woody is having a hard time adjusting to his new role at Bonnie’s, particularly since he no longer “runs the room” as he did in Andy’s house. Sneaking away to kindergarten to ensure that Bonnie is taken care of on her first day, he accidentally enables her to create a brand new toy from scratch out of a spork. “Forky”, as he is named, is having considerable difficulty with his new role, convinced that he belongs with the rest of the “trash”. Through Woody’s desperate desire to keep Forky around and ensure Bonnie’s happiness, the sheriff winds up on a new adventure, encountering another antique toy named Gabby Gabby and reuniting with his old love, Bo Peep. Suddenly, Woody’s future doesn’t seem so cut and dry.
Toy Story 4 is only possible due to several retcons of the previous stories that do work out despite said retcons evoking a tacit acknowledgment of the weak spots in previous films. We see Bo Peep’s (finally given her due in Annie Potts’s ever-capable hands) final day at Andy’s house, instead of her just vanishing into the ether. The filmmakers are clearly more cognizant that they ignored certain bonds, particularly those between female characters—lip service is paid to the idea that Jessie and Bo were friends, and it’s noted that Bonnie might actually have a preference for making Jessie the sheriff of her play-towns rather than Woody. With these relationships tweaked and re-situated, a more complex story emerges.
Absences are made up for with the addition of new, wonderful characters. Without the endearing grouchery of the late Don Rickles (who played Mr. Potatohead), we are treated to Kristen Schaal’s Trixie the triceratops, Jeff Garlin as a misanthropic unicorn named Buttercup, and Ally Maki’s teeny tiny pocket cop named Giggle McDimples. The film makes excellent use of its standout cast, from Keanu Reeves’s Duke Caboom action figure to Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele’s reunion as the joined-at-the-hand carnival prize pair Ducky and Bunny. And then, of course, there’s Tony Hale’s turn as the spork-turned-toy, Forky, who spends the first half of the film in a deep existential panic. If there is one complaint to be had about Toy Story 4, it is only that the film never gives complete focus to Forky, so there really isn’t enough of the character and the terrifying questions he poses by simply being there.
While the intention behind Toy Story 4 was clearly to highlight the romance between Woody and Bo, the movie treads lightly and never oversells their affection for each other as some sort of solution or cure-all for the plot. Bo and Woody have different philosophies, different desires in their lives, and the narrative makes the right choice to never frame these differences as strengths or weaknesses on either of their parts. Because of that, the romantic arc of the story never feels forced or unearned, which is impressive given how easily Bo was cast aside in Toy Story 3 with barely a word.
It seems important to note that Toy Story 4 doesn’t feel like it belongs to the rest of the series. It features the same characters and similar antics, but the focal point of the story is markedly shifted from the first three films, which was ultimately a story about Andy, even if the kid is forever on the periphery. The entire universe these toys occupied was shaped by Andy, his preferences, his love, his indifference. What made Toy Story 3 so successful was how it chose to end its tale by having Andy say goodbye to his toys, effectively allowing the first generation of Toy Story viewers—many of whom were around Andy’s age from start to finish—to turn toward adulthood with him. So what is left in its place?
The answer is (and always truly has been) Woody the Cowboy, voiced with his familiar tender panic by Tom Hanks. If Andy provided the framework for the Toy Story universe, Woody was always its beating heart, an antique with an abiding love of the children in his care and a total commitment to his duty as a toy. But can Woody ever truly be Bonnie’s when he was so dedicated to Andy? This is not a story of jealousy or pettiness or devotion, like the previous installments, but rather one centered on questions about time, about losing, about realness. It is, for all intents and purposes, Toy Story’s version of The Velveteen Rabbit.
We think of that story as a metaphor for love, for life, for all the ups and downs contained within it. But Toy Story 4 seems to be positing something a bit more jarring by comparison—perhaps Woody, so dearly loved by Andy, has simply outgrown the role he was made for. Perhaps Woody is too real to belong to anyone at all. All of the trials and questions posed to Woody in this story test his devotion to the concept of being a toy that safeguards children, but the cowboy never truly wavers on that front. The question he ultimately has to contend with is whether or not there comes a time when memories are enough, and your life can have meaning beyond that central purpose.
We can call it a metaphor for parenting, or for growing up, or for the looming threat of midlife crisis, but these metaphors are only made possible by situating Woody as something new among his little family. The Toy Story series essentially revived its storytelling capabilities beyond the initial trilogy by acknowledging that love changes you. Permanently, incontrovertibly, and perhaps beyond your own ability to recognize yourself. It allows you to forge new paths, to gift parts of yourself to others (both figuratively and literally in this case), and evolve.
Love remakes us all.
With that in mind, Toy Story 4 manages to evoke the same intensity of emotion that its predecessors always promised us. Because toys can be metaphors for a lot of different things, but they are best equipped to remind us the ways in which change is hard-wired into the natural order of the world. As long as they continue to teach us that lesson, we’ll always need them, just a little.