Let’s cut to the chase and admit that Toy Story 3 is a perfect film. There isn’t a thing to change. I’ve tried to pick it apart, too. The third installment was born from a creative team that understands the pulse and lore of what makes these movies special for fans. It felt narratively bolder than both the first and second films. Emotions ran bigger, the fate of each character was questioned, but it reveled in balance. There is not a conclusion to another animated franchise like it, period. I want to say a lot of the success is largely due to the fact that the writers knew the majority of the ending ahead of time. It was more about finding emotional beats to consecutively run though cornerstone moments to tie it all together. Toy Story 4 has every right to exist, though. It’s my belief the testament of a good character is their ability to continue.
There is no part of me that thinks that a fourth film was about making money. It’s about the bigger picture, there was simply more story to tell. Toys are eternal (until you give them to Sid). They have many owners, aspirations, their lens of the world shifts, unlike humans, they don’t pass away. After saying goodbye to Andy, and opening a new chapter with Bonnie the audience witnesses the cycle of these toys from a human perspective. As Woody always has said, they’re meant to be played with. But at what point do these toys question their purpose inwardly, from a perspective of self? What do they want from life? Are they happy? In a lot of ways, these are the same existential questions the children who grew up with the original Toy Story are asking themselves now as post-college, twenty-somethings.
The Adventure, Part Four
The film opens with a tragic goodbye between Bo Peep (Annie Potts) and Woody (Tom Hanks) that takes place circa post-Toy Story 2, and pre-Toy Story 3. She’s being given away, and coyly suggests that Woody could get into her box and become a lost toy. He grapples with the idea. But after hearing Andy searching the house for him, Woody knows his rightful place is with his kid, and lets Bo go. Flash-forward, it’s Bonnie’s (Madeleine McGraw) kindergarten orientation and she’s nervous. Woody has been sidelined to the closet where he’s been spending too much time lately. He is no longer the ‘favorite toy’ like he once was with Andy. Bonnie has even gone so far as to give Jessie (Joan Cusack) his Sheriff badge.
In an effort to take the edge off her fears, Bonnie asks if she can bring a toy to school but her parents nix the idea. Toys aren’t allowed at school. Woody sneaks into her backpack anyways, where he meets Forky (Tony Hale). A sentient, spork-based, craft project Bonnie created to keep her company. Woody introduces Forky to the residents of Bonnie’s room but Forky insists he is trash and not a toy. It becomes Woody’s sole mission to keep Forky away from the trash can because he is the most important toy to Bonnie as of late.
Bonnie’s family then decides to take a family vacation in their RV and of course, she brings her toys along (well most of them; sorry aliens and Pricklepants [Timothy Dalton], you stay home, but at least you didn’t get sold off like the Peas in a Pod or Chuckles). Woody talks to Buzz (Tim Allen) about feeling purposeless. He informs Buzz about the inner voice within all of us that leads us through life. Unsure of what to make of this “inner voice” Buzz assumes his built-in action phrases are his “inner voice” and begins to let them guide his choices.
Forky eventually succeeds at “trashing” himself by throwing himself out the RV window, insisting once again that he is garbage. Woody follows him in pursuit. Upon their way back to the RV Woody tries to make Forky understand his place as a toy but the comprehension of his new role is limited. Just as he begins to get it, Woody spots Bo Peep’s lamp in the Second Chance antique shop and can’t help but investigate. A 1950’s doll, Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) intercepts their venture—showing the duo around from the safety of her baby carriage, pushed by her ventriloquist counterpart, Benson. Gabby reveals she was made with a defective voice box, so she’s never had the opportunity to be played with. Woody connects the dots, Gabby wants his voice box and barely manages to escape. However, Forky is not so lucky and is held captive.
While taking refuge in a playground, Woody is reconnected with Bo after over a decade. It’s surreal. Bo Peep has adapted to life as a ‘lost toy’ doing as she pleases, and living independently without an owner. Even though so much time has passed, it’s easy to see that she is the one that got away. Woody wastes no time in telling Bo about Forky’s capture. Together, with the help of Buzz Lightyear, two carnival plush prizes Ducky (Keegan-Michael Key) and Bunny (Jordan Peele), Officer Giggle McDimples (Ally Maki) and Canada’s greatest stunt-toy Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves) the gang devises a plan to rescue Forky. However, due to Gabby’s henchmen and a toy-shredding cat, they fail.
Woody is still ready to try again, but due to the immense danger the group just faced, they opt out. Bo doesn’t respect Woody’s recklessness, Buzz must return to the RV before Bonnie notices. Woody has one choice left on the table, an even trade. His voice box, for Forky. Gabby takes the deal and is excited at the prospect of finally having a child of her own. The secondary character toys (Rex, Hamm, Trixie, etc.) stall the RV for as long as they can as Bonnie’s parents are desperately trying to leave. Woody and Forky finally make it back to the RV, but Woody can’t leave Bo Peep. He has finally found purpose in love. Buzz realizes what Woody meant about “inner voice” and urges him to follow his heart, and he stays behind to join the traveling carnival with Bo. Sheriff Woody decides to embrace life as a lost toy, now that he’s no longer lost as a toy.
No Longer The Lone Ranger
Toy Story 4 did a really fantastic job at concluding Woody’s arc. There was so much realism in the fact that the same beloved cowboy doll in Toy Story 3, might not be Bonnie’s favorite any longer. Kids sometimes tire of toys fast. As stated in prior films, Woody Pride was a family heirloom of Andy’s. It’s safe to assume that Bonnie is a third or fourth child in his life, and he may be growing tired of the process of being passed along or disregarded.
Toy Story hit theaters in 1995, so when Toy Story 3 rolled around, those same kids who watched the original were also going off to college, much like Andy. The first few movies took place in real-time. This one did not. Even though its been nine years since Toy Story 3 came out, maybe only one or two years narratively have passed since we last saw Bonnie. While the audience who has eagerly awaited each film may not be able able to relate to Bonnie going to kindergarten (unless they now have kids…which is very possible) remember— this movie has commemorated a shift in the franchise. It’s not about being there for a child, it’s about showing up for yourself. Where do you fit in? What is your dream? As I noted above, these are the big life questions the OG fans are now asking themselves. It’s a very intelligent angle to approach an alleged final outing.
I was extremely worried that Forky might feel like the Jar Jar Binks of the Toy Story franchise, but he won me over. His whole mantra of being “trash” felt very millennial slang, but that wasn’t the point. The point was Forky’s underlying message: even though you might feel like trash, you can be so much more. Though even with Forky’s charm, no one stood out quite like Bo Peep. Although I prefer her prior pink costume, it was not conducive to her action-ready, brand-new, badass persona. She is a feminist who doesn’t need no man…or boy or girl…or kid at all. Being lost has always been seen as a huge fear among Woody and the gang. Seeing a character flourish in the worst of environments, finding her happiness in the most unexpected of places, on her own, was really powerful. Another great takeaway for the 90’s kids who watched the first film in theaters.
There were so many easter eggs from other Disney/Pixar movies present (I’m talking about the Star Wars action figures). I loved pointing them out to myself, but not verbally, because I am a respectful movie-goer. Unlike the manchild two rows down from me. Anyways, one of Toy Story 4’s greatest strengths was integrating content from the shorts and specials into the fold. Combat Carl debuted in Toy Story, but actually had a large role in the Halloween special Toy Story of Terror. As did the Old Timer clock, which was in Bonnie’s closet at the beginning of the movie. Reptillius Maximus from the Toy Story That Time Forgot Christmas special appeared on a lunchbox in Bonnie’s classroom. The RV even stopped at Poultry Palace, from the Toy Story Toons: Small Fry. I was beyond impressed at the effort to incorporate all the little pieces that span across the broad Toy Story properties.
On an entirely different note, the animation was nothing short breathtaking. I could see the fibers on Bo’s clothing, the wear and tear on Buzz’s armor, paint scratches on a character as small as Giggle— it’s mind-bending. No studio has quality control quite like Pixar. The standout scene being when Bo shows Woody her favorite view of the antique shop. Shots like that are iconic and people remember them long after leaving the theater. I know I did.
What the Forky?
I don’t want to be the bearer of bad news, but it wasn’t perfect. To my own surprise, I had a handful of problems with Toy Story 4. Primarily that it was not an ensemble film like Toy Story 3 had been. This was a Woody tale, much like the other films in a lot of ways, but the most beloved characters like Slinky Dog stayed in the RV for almost the entire duration of the movie. Instead, we got screentime with Gabby Gabby and Duke Caboom, who were great, but there was little equation of balance between the old and new. It’s hard to accept this as a send-off when my personal favorites were MIA.
Why didn’t the writers give Jessie a chance to show us what she could do as a leader, by organizing a search party for Woody, Forky, and Buzz? Instead of yet another side mission being led by the boys (as they have been in previous films), this could have been her moment to rally the group as future sheriff, and set out to bring back her friends. I don’t care if it would have added another fifteen minutes to the film, it a one hundred minute long movie. Not unbearable by anyone’s modern standard. Trixie and Buttercup could have stayed in the RV to keep watch while the others could have taken to the carnival. Speaking of the carnival, what a underutilized setting. Jessie could have witnessed someone riding a mechanical bull, Rex could have gotten sidetracked and played a Zurg-themed game, Hamm could have put tokens in himself, the Potato Heads could have watched in horror as french fries were being made. Sadly, all of these charming moments are just fan fiction. After thinking those ideas into the universe, I feel a little robbed that they aren’t real.
Another giant issue I had is that the majority of the new characters were fun but didn’t further the plot. Forky definitely mattered, Duke helped with the rescue but Ducky, Bunny, Giggle, Tinny, Combat Carl, all just added humor. Many of the jokes felt a little off. I didn’t enjoy the many cut-away sequences from Ducky and Bunny. After two it felt like overkill. The brand of comedy was so different from the other films, I felt like it kept taking me out of the moment. Ducky and Bunny also never got a kid, which after their desperation for one during their introduction felt like a big plot hole to look past.
In this tale, the villain wasn’t so cut and dry. I suppose it was Gabby Gabby? It was surprising to see that was revealed in the trailers. Usually, Toy Story films throw the audience for a loop. You think Sid and his toys are evil, but it’s just Sid. Big Al and Zurg seem to be the villains, but you don’t suspect Stinky Pete the Prospector. Lotso wouldn’t hurt anyone, unlike the destructive day care children. He smells like strawberries, but it turns out he’s the most sinister of all.
This time, everything is just as it appears. In some capacity it’s refreshing. But it also leaves me begging for another dastardly bad guy to join the TS ranks. A part of me suspected Duke from early on, but my heart was so set on Giggle. I thought, we have never had a female villain, and this is such a female-empowered story that Gabby will be our red herring, only for it to be revealed that the tiniest Toy Story character ever is unhappy with Woody’s arrival. Look at the setup—being a police officer, she’s a natural authoritarian. Her name immediately makes you suspect she’s a happy and gracious character. With the other bigger toys doing the heavy lifting for her, she could have wanted to keep Bo Peep from getting distracted to maintain the status quo. But…I guess no villain is good, too.
Lastly, the human presence in this film was overbearing. It was a lot of Bonnie, Mom, Dad, the Antique Store owner, Harmony, Andy’s mom—less is more. And when did the new-age, cartoony style become canon? Réjean looked like he crawled out of The Good Dinosaur. Seeing his face as Duke jumped destroyed a potentially prolific, underdog moment and made it a throwaway gag. You can tell a lot of homework went into making this movie, but tonally, mistakes were made.
What Is The Film Trying To Teach Us?
Woody did everything by the book. He built community, served his kids, but when he was cast aside by Bonnie—our favorite cowboy quickly did anything in his power to find a way to be needed. He snuck into Bonnie’s backpack, putting her at risk for getting in trouble. He was quick to volunteer to watch Forky, a task that proved to be in part out of boredom. Upon meeting Bunny and Ducky, Woody promises them a kid, a sentiment he will unlikely be able to keep. He sends his friends into a dangerous scenario to sway the outcome in his favor. His actions felt selfish and falsified, everything we love about Woody fell to the wayside. He lost his character in trying to find a reason to keep moving forward. We must try not to do this. Even when we’re lost, our sense of self with see us through.
As soon as Woody took the advice he had been giving to Buzz about listening to your “inner voice” things began to add up. Hearing Gabby talk about a life of solidarity made it easier to give up his voice box. Woody was so concerned about being the favorite, he forgot he was lucky to have been loved his whole existence. His life is the kind that most toys only dream of. And now being reunited with his true romantic love, he was free to listen to his heart. Bonnie has let go, and because of that, so could Woody. Deep down, all along he knew what he had to do. He was always meant to be with Bo Peep. There is purpose in love—loving others, and loving yourself enough to allow yourself to be happy.
As far as Pixar movies go, Toy Story 4 was outstanding (except Knifey, because children don’t make a craft projects with knives, and aren’t even allowed to touch sharp, plastic cutlery). In regards to my personal expectations it just missed the mark. Never the less, it was such a treat seeing these characters again on screen. If Disney and Pixar decided to call this film “The Woody Movie” I’d be endlessly singing its praises, but better than Toy Story 3 it was not. In the best way possible, Toy Story 4 feels like one feature length, wrap-up short, made to give closure to the one character who has given us all so much.
What was your favorite part of Toy Story 4? Let us know in a comment below.
Toy Story 4 is in theaters now