Imagine returning home to your parents’ old house years after leaving and finding your favorite toy from childhood (if you haven’t carried your childhood on your back).
It took some digging through dusty basement bins, during which memories of the old toy came flooding back. Times spent on trips, the comfort of the toy. Fantastical adventures of all sorts. Unforgettable family trips. Boundless scary nights, truncated sunny days. Meaningful, but faded, memories slowly come into focus. Dozens of other, less important toys are nothing more than plastic chaff to chuck to the side.
Finally the toy is found, but the memories seem different holding it there. Flaws and imperfections are more noticeable; the “made in (X)” tag reminds you of the political dimensions that have come to dominate your awareness. It’s not the same toy it used to be, and you’re not the same person you used to be.
Toy Story 4 tells us that’s perfectly OK.
The first Toy Story (1995) was a clever tech-demo that launched dozens of “what if (inanimate object taken for granted) were sentient” animated movies, itself derivative but nonetheless influential in its humorous, heartfelt approach to the subject matter and computer-generated imagery. Toy Story 2 followed four years later, the product of an initially direct-to-DVD approach that somehow managed to cleverly capture the deeper questions at the heart of the “living toys” premise. Jessie’s song, “When She Loved Me,” remains a series’ high point. Toy Story 3 (2010) came well-regarded but is mostly a less-inspired retread of the ideas contained more efficiently within that song.
Credit where credit is due: Toy Story 4, following almost another decade later, doesn’t just retread the previous sequels. Instead, it twists some of the central tenets of the franchise on their head and becomes a story about identity that is, unfortunately, bogged down by trappings that try unsuccessfully to harken back to the earlier movies.
Toy Story 2 and Toy Story 3 both rely on the idea that the toys in these stories are happiest when loved by a child. Their memories are implied to be temporary in some way, their agency partly reliant on the child who loves them. Of course, the rules are fuzzy. There are no Three Laws of Toydom here. Woody the Sheriff belonged to Andy’s grandfather, a wrinkle never explored. These observations don’t feel like nitpicks. As the flagship franchise of Pixar, a studio built around making children’s movies with deeper themes for adult audiences, it seems fair to lay out the established assumptions that Toy Story 4 twists.
Here, in what feels like an epilogue to Woody’s previous sagas, we come to understand that the “toy” label is as much reliant on his own perception of himself as it is his owner’s use for him. Suddenly everything we assumed in our last outings with Woody is called into question, and the conflict is whether that’s acceptable.
It’s a brave expansion for a fourth entry in a 25-year-old series. Forky (Tony Hale) is an animated spork created by Bonnie, the new human owner of Woody’s crew. Forky’s existential crisis mirrors Woody’s, as he sees himself as nothing more than cutlery. Certainly not a toy. “I’m trash!” he screams, flinging himself into wastebaskets.
Woody is forced to rescue Forky, which leads to an adventure at a carnival and an antique store. He also reunites with Bo Peep (Annie Potts), his long-lost love who disappeared between the second and third movies. She’s now a Furiosa-type rogue toy who rescues abandoned playthings and finds them new homes. There’s plenty more going on in Toy Story 4, too. Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) returns to do about as little as he did in Toy Story 3, while Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele appear as extremely annoying stuffed carnival favors. Keanu Reeves is around, too. None of them adds anything to the story that amounts to much compared to the Woody-Forky relationship.
The interplay between Woody and Forky is as clever as anything Pixar has put onto film in the last decade. Once we’ve established rules and parameters for ourselves and, by extension, the lives we live, what does it take to reflect on ourselves and make changes? Moreover, what does it take to accept changes that have happened to us while we weren’t looking, too consumed by the roles to which we’ve grown accustomed? It’s hard to be reflexive, to compare what was with what now is. Sometimes learning who we really are, and who we can be, is easier with help from something as simple as an old toy.
Special features include deleted scenes and several documentaries, including “Bo Rebooted,” about the direction taken with Bo Peep to align her with modern tastes; “Woody and Buzz,” a look back at better stories that feature the two interacting in a meaningful way; and “Toy Box,” “Toy Stories” and “Let’s Ride!,” interviews and featurettes about new characters and the cast and crew who brought them to life.