I cannot say for certain whether toys come to life when their owners leave the room. Science tells me that molded plastic and cotton-filled plush cannot function the way human organs do, and even the most advanced neural equipment likely won’t detect a spark of brain activity within a GI Joe or Barbie doll. But despite this, asking whether toys come to life when humans are away is like asking the age-old questions about the tree, the forest, and the lack of anyone to hear a sound: We can never truly say for sure.
It’s this dollop of uncertainty that Pixar capitalized on 24 years ago, when it introduced our younger selves to a world where toys have all the complex thoughts, feelings, and emotions that humans do. We may not have believed in the concept, but we certainly believed the characters as they grew and developed across a 1999 sequel and a 2010 threequel. And now, nearly a decade after the series seemingly reached its conclusion, one final chapter (and once more, I can only assume that this is the final chapter) takes the concept to its most logical extreme, asking us what it truly means for a toy to live.
Yes, as the previous three films were (respectively) about identity, individuality, and obscurity, Toy Story 4 focuses on mortality. Can a toy be “born”? What makes it live? What, if anything, distinguishes it from a misshapen piece of plastic? The series has (ahem) toyed with some of these questions before, but they’ve never been addressed as frontally and forthrightly as in its final entry.
(Full SPOILERS for Toy Story 4 follow.)
The third Toy Story film, bleak and grim as it often was, ended on a sweet and uplifting note. Andy may grow up, but young Bonnie enters the picture. The toys are passed from one owner to the next, suggesting a sort of eternal life for Woody, Buzz and friends.
But as Toy Story 4 opens, we quickly see that the eternity Woody embraced at the end of the last film isn’t as blissful as it seemed. He has a new owner, but she’s not as interested in him as she is with some of the other toys, particularly ones more targeted to her demographic. (Jessie becomes the new Sheriff, while Woody is typically confined to Bonnie’s closet.) Woody is past his prime; despite his designation to bring children joy, the old cowboy has fallen and can’t giddyap.
But that won’t stop him from cheering Bonnie up by proxy. In this case, that proxy comes in the form of some pipe cleaners, a popsicle stick, a pair of google eyes, and a plastic spork. Toy Story 3 may have toyed with the idea of turning its beloved toys into trash, so what better way for the new film to open than by turning trash into a toy?
And the literal creation of this new toy, dubbed “Forky” (in one of the film’s subtler little insights, Bonnie isn’t yet of the age to know what a spork is), changes the very dynamic of the series. Before a young girl glued his body together, Forky (Tony Hale) was but a series of forgotten odds and ends in a kindergarten wastebasket. Yet we see him come to life, moving and speaking just as vividly as any of the toys in Bonnie’s room. (Well, almost as vividly – his walk is an awkward gait befitting someone with popsicle-stick feet.) As soon as Bonnie “created” him, he was given the franchise’s version of life.
The film never explains the mechanics of Forky’s sudden sentience, as it quickly moves on to a more thematically intriguing question – is Forky an actual toy? Woody certainly thinks so – the little spork brings joy to Bonnie during playtime, and thus passes the key threshold to earning a spot alongside Slinky, Rex, and the Potato Heads.
But Forky doesn’t see himself as a plaything – as he accurately notes from his wastebasket origins, he’s trash, resuscitated to live a new life he’s never wanted. Through his many attempts to quite literally throw himself away (he may be the first compulsively suicidal character in a Pixar film), climaxing in him and Woody leaping out the back of Bonnie’s family RV, we see the lines between “toy” and “trash” unexpectedly blurred. If, as Woody states, bringing a child happiness is the defining trait of being a toy, then Forky most certainly qualifies. But where does that leave Woody, who Bonnie doesn’t play with and won’t even notice when he goes missing? Does his inability to make his owner happy mean that he’s become as disposable as trash?
The message is further deepened when we encounter the film’s villain, a wide-eyed doll named Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks). Mirror-image villains are a staple in any long-running franchise, and Gabby fits the mold to perfection. Like Woody, she’s a 1950s doll whose most prominent feature is a pullstring-activated voice box. And also like Woody, she’s chiefly driven by the desire to make a small child happy – the child, in her case, being a little peach named Harmony.
Gabby believes her defective voice box is the one thing keeping her from being a beloved children’s toy, along with her cadre of unspeaking ventriloquist dummies, she makes it her mission to steal Woody’s. That Woody feels a personal connection to his voice box has been in evidence since the first film (when he used it to save Buzz from Sid’s rocket), but is it integral to his value as a toy? Both he and Gabby believe so (as does Buzz, who spends much of the film using his battery-powered “inner voice” as a guiding light) and it’s a heady chase before he finally agrees to trade it for Forky’s safe return.
But Gabby’s plan has been built on false hopes. She has no special connection to Harmony, who may well be the only human girl she knows. (What other young child would make regular visits to an antique shop, unless her grandma were the owner?) Gabby’s wide-eyed, innocent appearance may contrast with her more sinister actions, but they also underscore her childish adherence to selfishness and self-made fantasies. The desire to be loved and wanted, enough to dream up your own happy ending, is as resonant as any other motivation – be it human or toy – in the franchise.
Woody recognizes that there are no easy answers, though he needs some help in this regard from the returning Bo Peep. Once a prize possession of Andy’s younger sister Molly, Bo is now ownerless, happily living life on the lam. (The three-headed lam, of course.) Through Bo’s perspective, Woody learns that a toy’s life is not necessarily limited to the duration of their owner’s childhood. Playing on an old adage, Toy Story 4 suggests that its hero must get lost in order to find himself.
That the film proposes this resolution is unexpected. That it acts upon it is impressive. To see a toy so long tethered to the kids who play with him pass the torch – to Buzz, to Jessie, and to the now-unquestionably-a-toy Forky – makes for one of the most profound and mature moments in a series full of them.
Even more so than the franchise’s third film, Toy Story 4 wraps things up with a beautiful bow. As an individual film, it’s overcrowded and frenetic, and its story is perhaps the least impressionable of the foursome. But after setting such a high bar with the earlier films, it’s amazing that Pixar can even approach them in quality with this new installment. It skillfully turns the trilogy into a tetralogy, giving the series a new finale without feeling like an unnecessary extension.
Toy Story stands as one of the most perfect franchises ever put to film, an ode to childhood that gains more resonance the older its viewers age. As someone who discovered the 1995 original at a young age and have followed the series for decades, I can say that it’s had a profound influence on my appreciation for animation, cinema, and storytelling t large. And though it may be over, I will most certainly revisit it, again and again, for the rest of my life. To infinity and beyond.
– As opposed to the time jump of Toy Story 3, the fourth film doesn’t age its characters in real time. This works well for the story, though it does lead to momentary confusion during the opening flashback, which is captioned “Nine Years Ago.” Rather than referring to the nine years that have passed since Andy went to college, the film refers to an interim period (circa 2001) between the second and third films.
– A stealth continuity nod early in the film comes when Woody tries to comfort a nervous Jessie in Bonnie’s closet. This is in reference to Toy Story of Terror!, the 2013 Halloween special where we learn that Jessie is fearful of closed spaces (due to being trapped in a box for years after her abandonment by Emily).
– Some famous voices are lent to the “Old Toys’ Club” that Woody inadvertently finds himself a part of. I won’t give away who plays Melephant Brooks, Bitey White, Carl Reineroceros, and Chairol Burnett, but I’m sure you can Google them or something.
– As Gabby and Benson lead Woody and Forky through the antique shop, a phonograph plays the theme from The Shining.
– Tinny, the titular one-man band from Pixar’s 1988 short film Tin Toy, makes a brief cameo when Woody and Bo first enter Duke Kaboom’s pinball machine. A fitting full-circle cameo, as the Toy Story franchise was first inspired by Tin Toy.
– Don Rickles, voice of Mr. Potato Head, passed away in 2017. Rather than recast him (as the series previously did with Slinky, replacing the late Jim Varney with Blake Clark), the producers used archival footage to give Potato Head his dialogue. (Pixar utilized a similar tactic for Doc Hudson in Cars 3, years after the death of Paul Newman.)
– A Combat Carl (the franchise’s version of GI Joe) made a brief appearance in the first Toy Story, when Sid blew him up with a stick of dynamite. Carl’s first “proper” appearance in the franchise was in Toy Story of Terror!, where he was voiced by Carl Weathers. Another few Carls make cameos in this film, modeled after the Terror designs and again voiced by Weathers.
– The comedic highlight of the film: Key and Peele as Ducky and Bunny. This is the second animated film to feature the two actors playing a comic-relief duo; the first was Warner Animation’s Storks.
– Keanu Reeves is also quite funny as Duke Caboom, although his arc (such as it were) feels a little underdeveloped. A byproduct of having too many toys in one film.
– The Benson dummies don’t speak much, but their scant lines are provided by Sam and Max creator Steve Purcell. Purcell also previously wrote and directed the 2014 Christmas special Toy Story that Time Forgot.
– This film is Josh Cooley’s feature directorial debut; his previous Pixar work includes short-film spinoffs of Up (“George and AJ”) and Inside Out (the hilarious “Riley’s First Date”).
– Films, ranked: 2 > 3 > 1 > 4. For now.