After Toy Story 3, there was no real reason for this movie to be made. Pixar could have easily let its predecessor close out the trilogy, and leave Woody living out the rest of his days with Bonnie and the gang. There was the small question of what might happen once Bonnie grew up and whether the toys’ lives would just turn into a cycle of finding new owners, but this wasn’t exactly weighing on anyone’s mind. So for Toy Story 4 to justify its own existence, it needed to do something special. And in the eyes of this skeptical reviewer, it succeeds in doing so.
The introduction of Forky, a literal plastic spork with pasted on googly eyes and pipe cleaner arms, is an extension of the themes laid out in the previous instalments, but with a dose of existentialist dread for good measure. Tony Hale’s voice performance is reminiscent of his time on Arrested Development as Buster Bluth, painting Forky as a nervous wreck who is similarly always on the edge of a breakdown.
Being made out of trash, Forky is way outside of his comfort zone, believing that his place is in the garbage rather than by a child’s side. It seems as if this level of comical self-deprecation is aimed directly at the millennial audiences who grew up with the early films, yet it never strays too far from the themes of self-sacrifice and emotional support that the franchise has always advocated for. Unfortunately, the resolution to Forky’s own story arc comes a little too early, with the filmmakers missing the opportunity to prod these kid-friendly existentialist themes a little more than they do. While disappointing that this isn’t developed further, Forky remains compelling throughout the film simply for his comical naivety and the novelty of his character concept.
Forky’s disconnection to his environment also reflects Woody’s own diminishing sense of pride now he is no longer a child’s favourite toy. In his mind, a toy’s worth has always been directly correlated to the joy they bring to their owner, and every time a character has struggled against this belief they have always been starkly painted as villains. Toys such as Wheezy and Jessie who have been pushed aside often crave a child’s attention, basing their entire self-worth on whether they get played with. But the more that Woody explains this worldview to Forky, the more he is forced to question it. The ensuing story mirrors that of the first Toy Story movie – Woody’s owner brings home a new toy who is quickly lost, which compels Woody to go on an adventure to bring them home safely. What allows this sequel to stand on its own is Woody’s matured attitude that has been built up throughout the series, and sets up the final pay-off.
With Bo Peep’s appearance in this film, we see for the first time a toy who wishes to live an independent life without an owner and isn’t depicted as confused or evil. She recognises a much deeper truth to her existence than Woody ever has – that while providing emotional support to a child is a noble purpose, there is also value in knowing when you are no longer needed. In this way, Toy Story 4 becomes a moving metaphor for parenting and retirement and lets Woody make the largest shift in his character development yet.
The Bo Peep we see here is no longer the dainty ceramic doll from the first two movies. While she is living a liberated life without any attachment to an owner, she has also quite literally become a shepherdess to lost toys, helping them find owners while developing a passion for adventure. We see something inside Woody click as she shows him the beauty of the world outside a child’s home, and Pixar takes these as opportunities to demonstrate exactly why they are the leader of the animation industry. The beautifully coloured landscapes and the scarily photorealistic cat show just how far their technology has come since Toy Story 3 in 2010, drawing in particular from the innovative use of lighting and colour in 2017’s Coco.
The gradual increase in the size of Woody’s gang over the years reaches a tipping point in Toy Story 4, and with the introduction of new toys, many of the regulars are sidelined. Even Buzz Lightyear has relatively less to do than usual, though he does get his own hilarious running joke as he attempts to tune into his “inner voice” and eventually tries to take matters into his own hands.
Among the new toys is antique doll Gabby Gabby, this movie’s sympathetic antagonist, who is after a new voice box with the help of Benson, a terrifying ventriloquist doll. Being a puppet, his lack of talking is a clever touch to his character, as is his zombie-like limp and stiff, wooden movements. Once we realise there are multiple, identical Benson dummies we never feel safe again. Our heroes might be watching unassuming Bensons from a hiding spot, but we know that there could always be just one waiting to ambush them from the shadows. His apparent omnipresence and unsettling physical features easily make him one of the creepiest toys we have seen in the series.
The rest of the cast is filled with celebrity names such as Keegan Michael-Key, Jordan Peele, and Keanu Reeves, and each of their characters are instilled with distinct backgrounds, motivations, and styles of humour that support our main characters in their adventure. But the scene-stealing minor character who will win the hearts of the adults in the audience is Bonnie’s dad, who just can’t catch a break. The escalating attempts by Jessie and the other toys to delay Bonnie’s family’s departure from the carnival always end up leaving her unsuspecting father bearing the brunt of their actions. His tired resignation to their constant meddling continues the joke from previous Toy Story movies that the small actions of oblivious toys often have amusingly large ramifications on the adults around them.
Toy Story 4 as a final chapter works just as well, if not better, than Toy Story 3. Its bittersweet ending asserts the value of loyalty and selflessness that the series has always stood by, but it also moderates its own message by acknowledging that there is also a time to take a step back from expired relationships. In this way the movie could perhaps be a criticism of franchises that have served their purpose and need to be put to bed, further suggesting this really is the final Toy Story movie. Is that a stretch? Maybe. But the fact that Pixar managed to pull this off just goes to show that their focus is still on crafting compelling stories for children and families.