In general, movie franchises tend to get somewhat tired by the time they reach their fourth installment. There are a few exceptions and Toy Story 4 is one of them.
In the opinions of the two twelve-year olds, three fifty-ish year olds, and two 70-something year old viewers (those being the members of my family I actually asked for their opinions) the responses varied from “good” to “really good”. This may not seem an overwhelming endorsement, but they are a tough crowd when it comes to movies. And they never hesitate to voice their thoughts. Any thought. So, a very positive critique.
Toy Story 4 has no subtitle, unlike other franchises. It doesn’t need one. It is what it is: the continuation of a story begun in 1985 about the journey of a group of children’s toys that have their own lives, ones that we as humans cannot see.
The thing about toys, though, is that their popularity tends to be ephemeral. Children have always had toys, of course, but toys reflect the world around them. That basic concept set the premise of the first film: that Woody, a Roy Rogers type cowboy toy from a black and white television show, would suddenly be competing for the attention and affection of “his child”, Andy, with Buzz Lightyear, a toy from the exotic world of space exploration. Subsequent films, kept beloved old toy characters, while adding newer toys, and began the exploration of purpose, of loyalty, of the meaning of friendship, of changes in life and the world, and, ultimately, in what gives life meaning.
That all sounds pretty heavy for animated movies about toys, but the Toy Story franchise is truly one that operates on levels meaningful for both children and adults. Toy Story 4 certainly tells a story that, while not quite as linear as some other children’s tales, is clear enough to be followed by images alone. For adults, there is plenty of metaphorical content, and reactions can and do vary between viewers.
More specifically, Toy Story 4 features, as always, Woody the loyal cowboy toy, who at the end of Toy Story 3 was given by his grown up “first child” Andy, to a new child, Bonnie. Woody has transferred his loyalty, and protective instincts, to Bonnie. In her kindergarten orientation class, she has her craft supplies taken by another child, and Woody, as always, comes to the rescue by tossing items out of the trash can that Bonnie uses to craft a new companion, Forky—made from a spork, some pipe cleaners, popsicle sticks, and google eyes.
Forky’s evolution from seeing himself as trash to understanding himself as a toy, and a thing of great value is one theme of the film. Yet another personal evolution has occurred in Bo Peep, who has been a “lost toy”, a primal fear for Woody, for about seven years. Instead of being pathetic, Bo has grown into a fully empowered woman, who wields a mean shepherd’s crook. If there is an action figure in this film, it’s Bo. (minor detail—how did that shepherd’s skirt get changed into a tight pair of toreador pants?)
Most of the action in the film occurs in a small town, somewhere, that happens to have a fully stocked antique shop and a travelling carnival side by side. The settings are a tribute to the art of computer animation. The artifacts in the antique shop are not just a background for Woody and Bo’s antagonists, but are perfect renderings of vintage items that deserve to be scrutinized for themselves. The antagonists, a Chatty Cathy type doll named Gabby Gabby (not so minor a detail—Pixar has evidently given up licensing actual toys remembered by viewers for recognizable rip-offs) and her head henchman, Vincent, a ventriloquist’s dummy, who has a couple of equally scary, though unnamed copies.
The carnival is equally detailed, with rides and booths that glow enticingly, promising fun and adventure, cotton candy and game prizes. It’s in the carnival that two promising new characters are introduced. Ducky and Bunny are plush game booth prizes, who hilariously imagine experiences that far exceed their lives of being tacked to a prize wall.
As all these characters, and others, come together, each questions their identity as toys, as possessions, as comrades. The film should make viewers also question their own views of the past, the present, and the future. Change happens, and choices are made.
Early in the film, Woody is asked about Forky’s need to throw himself into any trash receptacle available.
“Why does he do that?”
“Because,” Woody answers, “that’s where he is from.”
It’s not a spoiler to say that Forky progresses from trash to toy. And that’s the question. Do we go back to where we are from, do we fade into obsolescence, do we become valuable in a new or different way?
Some, like Forky and Bo, move on. Some choose not to change.
The film doesn’t judge.
If you see it, and you should, you decide.