With only a few recent exceptions I generally only watch Pixar movies on home video but when I do find myself seeing one in theaters it’s a bit of a trip because it means I get exposed to a set of trailers I normally don’t see. These trailers are usually a window into a world of absolute madness. At my Toy Story 4 screening I bore witness to one trailer about a pigeon who becomes a secret agent, some bullshit about a fox that wants to be a sled dog, a sequel to an Angry Birds movie I had assumed was a flop, and another sequel about troll dolls which resembled a candy-colored hellscape of noise and terror. What I’m trying to say is, before you watch one of these Pixar movies you’re immediately reminded of how much worse the rest of the cartoons out there and the way the audience laughs at jokes about butts reminds you that, if they wanted to Pixar could be a lot more pandering and stupid than they are. Of course Pixar has always set themselves apart from their peers, which is something I wasn’t really taking into account when I was reviewing them all in a marathon session back in 2011 (long story). That article series was an exercise in comparing Pixar movies to the best that cinema had to offer, but as the years go on and I get a better idea of what contemporary animation is like and start comparing them to that and they start looking a whole lot better. Still, I have a bit of a quirky relationship to Pixar’s movies, especially their Toy Story franchise, and that made me rather unsure if I wanted a fourth.
Toy Story 4 actually starts with a flashback. It dramatizes something that is alluded to in the third film: the night when Bo Peep (Annie Potts) leaves the rest of the toys because the family decides to give away the lamp that she’s part of. We then flash forward to the status quo after the third film, in which the toys we’ve been following have been given away to a new kid named Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw). I always found it a little bit strange that this 2010 kid would be so interested in receiving a bunch of hand-me-down toys from the 90s which look like they’re actually from the 50s and as this new film establishes, I may have been right to be suspicious. As it turns out Bonnie does not actually spend much time playing with Woody (Tom Hanks), and being the vain attention whore that he’s always been he doesn’t exactly react well. When he learns that Bonnie is about to be going on her first day of kindergarten he sneaks into her backpack under the delusion she needs him and, seeing her distressed on her first day he tosses some scraps up to her table while she’s doing crafts and with them she makes a weird little statue out of a spork, a pipe cleaner, and some fake googly eyes and dubs him “Forky.” Soon thereafter Forky (Tony Hale) becomes sentient, and sensing that he’s a monstrosity immediately tries to kill himself by jumping into the trashcan. Woody determines that Bonnie has formed an attachment to Forky and does everything he can to keep Forky alive, which will be challenging because Bonnie’s parents are about to bring her on a road trip with all her toys.
This is a movie that a lot of people were really skeptical about in the run-up to its release because it was believed that Toy Story 3 had a perfect ending and that this would ruin it. I am a bit of an outlier in that I thought the ending of Toy Story 3 was far from perfect. Where other people were apparently bawling out their eyes at the sight of Andy giving his toys to Bonnie, I was thinking what the hell kind of seventeen year old gives this much of a damn about old toys he should have thrown out when he turned twelve? To me the whole thing was an overly sentimental cop out. Toy Story 3 was basically a retread of the themes established in Toy Story 2 about toys eventually being abandoned by their owners, its one reason to exist was to finally have this calamity to catch up with our characters and force them to face their fate… but the movie didn’t end up having the nerve to finally take the killshot and instead it basically gave its characters a new beginning which more or less set up a new series, so the fact that they’re continuing the franchise isn’t that much of a shock to me.
To me what has made some of the previous Toy Story movies interesting was the world building. A lot of animated movies build fantastical worlds where with talking animals or objects but the Toy Story movies are at least a little interested in exploring how the worlds they create are actually kind of fucked up. These movies make being a talking toy seem like a sort of existential hell of slavery and ingratitude… or at least that’s what I get out of them, the movies themselves would hint at all this while never quite having it in them to truly challenge the system they’ve established. Toy Story 4 is in many ways the Toy Story movie I’ve been waiting for in that the toys in it seem to finally be catching up to my way of seeing things. Case in point the newest addition to the cast, Forky, is the first toy we’ve really met who seems to view itself as a genuine monstrosity and spends much of the first half of the movie seeking death via trashcan. That is certainly an interesting approach but what’s really important is that Forky’s attitude does seem to plant a seed of sorts in the mind of some key characters in that he’s one of the first toy characters we’ve seen that doesn’t seem to have an instinctual desire to be played with by children and is decidedly not happy to be asked to do so. This seed is then watered and sprouted by the re-emergence of Bo Peep, who had been effectively killed off between Toy Story 2 and Toy Story 3 and is now a “lost toy” and happy to be one because she’s free of having to spend all her time making some child happy.
Of course the Toy Story movies have long been meant as a sort of allegory for the relationship of a parent to a child and this fourth movie definitely carries that forward and leans into moments where the characters talk about “having a kid” as if they were parents instead of playthings. That’s part of why I always found the ending of Toy Story 3 to be kind of inadequate given that the toys don’t move on to a new phase of life after metaphorically letting Andy go but rather end up essentially replacing him and starting all over again. It’s as if they’re living out the life cycle of some rich dude who ends up impregnating a new trophy wife right as their kid from a previous marriage is going to college. Toy Story 4, by contrast is more like a movie where the toys (well, Woody anyway) actually do manage to find a new purpose in life after becoming empty nesters. It’s a notably different outlook from what we’ve seen earlier in the series which were usually populated by toys like Jessie and Lotso who, once removed from “their kids,” basically spend their whole lives feeling bitter and incomplete. Bo Peep, by contrast, seems to be revitalized through independence and the film at least understands why Forky (who’s maybe a bit of a stand-in for young father who causes an unplanned pregnancy) would not be pumped to be in played with by this kid.
This all isn’t to say that the series has suddenly become entirely Antinatalist. Plenty of the toys here are still very interested in coming into the possession of a child, like a pair of carnival prizes played by Key and Peele who sort of steal the show as comic relief characters who’ve been waiting three long years for someone to win them in the rigged midway game that’s trapped them. Then there’s the film’s villain Gabby Gabby, who is a bit of a retread of the “villainous bitter toy” thing that they’ve done in the last two films, but who none the less proves to be a rather sympathetic depiction of what is essentially the pain of infertility given that she’s a toy who was deemed defective from out of the factor and has spent decades in an antique store removed from children. Nonetheless, this is the Toy Story movie that finally suggests that there are other legitimate ways for these toys to live and in many ways provides some of the characters with an ending that manages to be happy while still making more allegorical sense. As such I reject the notion I’ve seen floated around that this is some kind of unnecessary cash grab, in fact I’d say that scene for scene it might actually be the best of the series. It manages to tell a larger and more meaningful story than the first movie, its comedy is a lot better than the second film’s, and it doesn’t wallow in the cheap sentimentality of the third. Of course this is coming from someone who didn’t grow up with these characters and has a somewhat perverse take on the whole franchise so take that sentiment with a grain of salt.
**** out of Five