Almost every parent of a young child I know has the same lament: “I buy my kid the most expensive toys money can buy and all he wants to do is play with this [insert common household object].”
That, at least partly, is the premise behind Toy Story 4, yet another funny, heartwarming, and uncommonly wise chapter in Pixar’s enduring film series.
Shortly after the film starts, our hero, the brave and loyal cowboy doll Woody (Tom Hanks), is separated from his girlfriend Bo (as in Peep). She’s been put in a box and is being shipped to, well, God knows where. She says it’s not too late for Woody to slip into the box and join her. After all, toys get lost all the time, she reminds him. Woody takes her hand, tempted. But then Andy—Woody’s boy—comes rushing out of the house, frantic, calling Woody’s name and they both know that Woody isn’t going anywhere. He’s was born to be Andy’s toy.
As always happens in these Toy Story movies, Andy gets older and gives Woody—and all the rest of his toys, including Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) and cowgirl Jessie (Joan Cusack)—to his little neighbor, Bonnie. Bonnie plays with Woody at first—there’s a great, gleeful sequence that shows first Andy and then Bonnie running in circles, holding Woody aloft like an airplane—until she doesn’t. More and more, he’s being left in the closet when she pulls out her toys for playtime. Then Bonnie is sent to orientation for kindergarten and, despite her tears, is told that she can’t bring a doll. Woody, in protective mode, sneaks into Bonnie’s backpack so he can look after her. And it’s a good thing, too. With a little help from Woody—who fished the materials out of the trash can—Bonnie creates a doll out of a spork, some pipe cleaner, some ice cream sticks, and some mismatched googly eyes, and names it Forky. Because she made it herself and because the teacher praised her cleverness, Bonnie is immediately attached to this toy above all others.
But Forky (voiced wonderfully by Tony Hale) wasn’t born to be Bonnie’s toy—or anyone’s for that matter. Forky was born to be used for one meal and then thrown away. “Trash?” Forky keeps saying hopefully, trying to do everything in his power to get to the comfort and warmth of a garbage can. It’s Woody’s job, in his mind at least, to keep Forky out of the trash and teach him that he now has a more noble purpose in life.
The Toy Story films, on top of being super nostalgic and bighearted remembrances of childhood, are always rollicking adventures and this one is no different. Bonnie’s family goes on a roadtrip and all the toys—including Forky—go along. Woody has to stand vigil because every time he lets Forky out of his sight, the little utensil goes dumpster diving. And then Forky escapes from the RV and Woody follows him to a quaint town that’s next to a big carnival (the elaborate and neon-lit computer animation at the carnival is wonderful, some of the best of the entire series). They end up at antique store, presided over by Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), a bitter doll with a broken voicebox and no child to call her own, and her henchmen of ventriloquist dummies. The imaginativeness of this is off the charts. Toy Story has rarely veered into “creepy doll” territory, but it’s absolutely perfect here. Those dummies are terrifying and Gabby is a perfect cross section of cute and menacing.
Toy Story 4, more than the other films, is about all the other dolls, the ones who don’t have kids. So we meet those needy antique store dolls and then we meet the carnival dolls, stapled to a wall and waiting to go home. “So this is what gravity feels like,” says Ducky the plush doll (Keegan-Michael Key), released from his wall perch. We meet a bunch of dolls who live in a playground, waiting patiently for the daily rush when school gets out. And we are reunited with Bo, now a streetsmart “Lost Doll” who doesn’t feel she needs to be found. (Also look for a funny Keanu Reeves as Duke Caboom, a Canadian doll modeled after Evel Knievel, who has lost a bit of his nerve.)
At the center of all this is Woody, who embodies every quality of decency and honor and fealty you could ever hope for in a best friend. But what is Woody’s purpose if he’s not a treasured toy? Toy Story 4 asks the question: Can we reinvent ourselves? Can we find a new purpose in life? Can we muster up the courage to be exactly who we are supposed to be in this very moment?
Yup, Toy Story has done it again. They are four-for-four in making me laugh, ugly-cry, think, and marvel at the ingenuity of it all. Just take my money, Pixar. Take it all.