Toy Story 4 is a weirdly existential meditation of love, life, family, and finding purpose. Much like Incredibles 2, it’s a bit of a mess but still more fascinating and engaging than the majority of the “adult” movies. It is a kids movie brimming with such empathy and love I found myself gasping every once and awhile at the revelations.
Roger Ebert once called sequels, “A filmed deal.” The fourth installment in a franchise is the one where we expect studios to play it safe. Josh Cooley, and Pixar Studios, however, have swung for the fences. Rarely has a kids film been this stuffed with ideas and philosophical meditations since The Iron Giant.
Cooley is unconcerned with chase scenes and action beats. In fact, one of the things that separate Toy Story 4 from other movies in the franchise, indeed other Pixar movies, is the lack of a great climatic chase. There are currently two movies in your local theaters right now, both sequels, which have a climactic train chase. Neither of them has half the intellectual derring-do as Toy Story 4.
Take Forky (Tony Hale) for example. As a gag, he’s a weird surrealistic poke in the eye of the audience reminding them of the artificiality of the characters. A character who exists to solely question why. “Why do I exist?” “Why do I have to be a toy?” “Who is Bonnie” “How is this possible?”
The genius of Forky is not that he represents all of us, though he does. No, the genius is that he represents a child’s innocence and unquestionable thirst for knowledge. He has a child’s faith in that everyone he questions is telling him the truth. More to the point he has the gift of not having the burden of preconceived notions. He has been made in the image of his creator Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw).
Bonnie is nervous about her first day of Kindergarten. The Secret Life of Pets 2 has a similar scene. The difference, as they say, is all the difference. Unlike Pets 2, Cooley and his animators follow Bonnie into the classroom and let us see the anxiety and loneliness written on her face. Whereas the former just used the kid as a plot device, the latter treats her as a character whose feelings and happiness has value to us.
Woody (Tom Hanks) has stowed away in her backpack to keep her company on her first day of school. He is by no means Bonnie’s favorite toy. Woody isn’t even in charge of the rest of the toys. Bonnie has a doll called Dolly (Bonnie Hunt) who leads the toys now. But none of that matters to Woody as much as Bonnie’s happiness.
Long story short a sad and lonely Bonnie creates Forky. A spork with googly eyes, a rubber band for a mouth, some red twine for arms, and popsicle sticks for feet. Thus Forky is born.
Stephen Folsom and Andrew Stanton wrote the script stealing from time to time, as all writers tend to, from The Iliad. Toy Story 4 is not one story but four stories that seem wholly apart but who bit by bit begin to come together. Forky is one part as is Woody’s feeling of desolation as he wrestles with his sense of purpose and how it’s not as fulfilling as it once was.
The third part is Bo Peep (Annie Potts). Those who have seen the other Toy Story movies will know Bo Peep and Woody are the closest things to lovers the franchise dares to come. Oh, sure we have Buzz (Tim Allen) and Jessie (Joan Cusack) as well as Mr. (Don Rickles) and Mrs. (Estelle Harris) Potato Head. But few match the looks and glances of Sheriff Woody and his Bo Peep.
Bo is given to another child one stormy windy night. Woody chases after her. She offers him a chance to come. “Toys go missing all the time,” she says. Woody almost climbs in but he pulls back upon hearing Andy’s, his child crying his name. He can not go against his own grain.
Chasing after Forky brings the two upon an old antique store in which Woody sees-Bo Peep’s lamp. A lost toy she roams free living her life on her own terms. Woody feels sorry for her that she has no family. But he can’t also feel envious of her freedom. He is a cowboy after all and he has spent much of his life not roaming the plains but inside one bedroom or another.
The fourth piece is the villain and is the script’s great masterstroke. Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) is a forgotten doll with a damaged voice box. She sits on her shelf and watches the grandchild of the antique store owner with forlorn longing. She came out of the box defective and so she has never been held by a child. Her desperate need to fulfill her purpose drives her to extremes.
Yet, Cooley, Folsom, and Stanton find a way to make us not just understand Gabby Gabby but to make us root for her to have some sort of fulfillment. Because in the end Woody, Bo Peep, Gabby Gabby, and even Forky, want not just love but to be loved as well. Forky’s quest is for understanding which comes from self-love and embracing the life one has.
It may feel as if I’ve given everything away but trust me I have not. I have been reviewing movies for a little while, and have been watching them for a great deal longer. I am not lying or exaggerating when I tell you I audibly gasped during a scene involving Forky and Woody watching Gabby Gabby. In other words, I’ve only scratched the surface.
Perhaps part of the emotional impact of Toy Story 4 is due to Randy Newman’s score. It reminds us of the huge Randy Newman shaped hole in the wall of modern film scores. A bouncy yet sadly beautiful melancholy it tiptoes through the film never overpowering yet never invisible either.
Newman is a composer much loved by greats as Hans Zimmer. Like Burt Bacharach Newman’s music is deceptively simple. But like Bacharach and Zimmer, his music can haunt and delight in equal measure.
I find myself almost giddy as I look back upon Toy Story 4. Unlike the last installment, I was not a mass of tears and snot by the time the credits rolled. But I was smiling and by no means disappointed. But with this installment I find myself replaying moments in my head in a way I haven’t done with other Toy Story movies.
The jokes come from a much darker, more surreal place as well. One gag revolves around Woody having to sleep in the trash can near Bonnie’s bed so he can toss Forky out whenever he jumps in. It’s not a gag so much as an absurd situation which perfectly encapsulates what many of us are feeling during this tumultuous period of time.
One character, Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves) a toy of a Canadian stuntman who was thrown away after his owner realized he couldn’t do what the commercial promised. His catchphrase is “Duke Caboom. Canada’s greatest stuntman” But Duke is emblematic of the feeling of not being enough because we don’t live up to somebody else’s expectations. It doesn’t hurt that Reeve’s gentle melodic thoughtful voice adds extra layers to such lines as “Yes, I Can-ada!”
Cooley and the rest of the filmmakers have made a serene and lovely anthem of hope and compassion for the modern age. Some movies don’t hit you right away. Toy Story 4 somehow never feels rote or cynical. Despite the ‘4’ in the title it feels as fresh and bold as it did twenty-four years ago.
Image courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures