During the climax of Toy Story 3, villain Lotso Huggin’ Bear (just the mention of his name still gets me all worked up) makes a statement. He says, “We’re all just trash waiting to be thrown away. That’s all a toy is.” In the context of the scene, his perspective is in reference to the literal trash dumpster he stands on top of, and indicative of the perilous sequence to follow taking place in an incinerator.
Nine years later, his words serve as a creative starting point for Toy Story 4, a follow-up that features a spork as its most prominent new character. Forky — as dubbed by Bonnie when she creates him from a spork, pipe cleaner, and googly eyes — lives in a spiritual crisis. Is he trash? Is he a toy? What is his purpose? For a utensil, those are some pretty deep questions, but the Toy Story films have never been stopped from focusing on mature themes just because their stars are seemingly insignificant household items. Toy Story 4 finds success in tackling the existential realities of life head-on, using the grand backdrop of the Toy Story world and the rich talent of Pixar animators to do so.
Forky is Bonnie’s new favorite toy, presenting a fascinating contrast in Woody’s character arc since the original Toy Story in 1995. In that first installment, Woody would do anything to be his kid’s favorite toy, even if it meant jading another, as he did when he pushed Buzz out the window. Here, though, Woody will do anything to protect his kid’s favorite toy, even if it’s not him, and even if it means projecting himself out of a window. It’s this desire for purpose and loyalty to Bonnie that drives an incredibly layered and intriguing narrative for Woody in this fourth volume.
That narrative is supported with a visual tour de force. This is a beautiful film. From set dressing to cinematography to lighting, this is the most gorgeous Pixar movie to date. In direct comparison to the original Toy Story as the studio’s very first film in 1995, Toy Story 4 is nothing short of stunning. Some of its most dynamic locales, including a traveling carnival and an antique store, offer the opportunity for Pixar to flex, and flex they certainly do.
New settings also means new faces, and the bunch introduced in Toy Story 4 is eclectic and wonderful. Keanu Reeves is a particular highlight as Duke Caboom, “Canada’s greatest stuntman,” whose hyperbolized confidence delights anytime he’s onscreen. I could go on with an excessive list of the rest of the superb cast of new characters, but you’re here for a review, not a treatise. Just trust that there’s a lot of winners here. Bo Peep’s much-publicized return to the franchise presents a transition into a bolder, more adventurous character than we last saw her. Bo’s step into the spotlight and the exploration of her identity challenges Woody, and carries much of the emotional weight of the story forward.
Inevitably, with such a strong collection of newcomers, screentime feels disproportioned between them and the classic characters of Andy’s room. Favorites like Jessie, Rex, Slinky Dog, and others are reduced to bit parts. Then again, part of the message of the film is the importance of cultivating new relationships rather than getting hung up on prior ones. Still, a lot of the gang is without much to do and many sequences feel incomplete without them. Perhaps in a perfect world, a running time equivalent to a Marvel film would be permitted and we could have it both ways. Surely there’s no lack of freshness to the veteran characters, as the small tidbits we do get with them are vivid and inventive, as they always have been. What we’re short on is the space to include them in a significant manner among everyone else.
One of the most pressing questions facing Toy Story 4‘s release is the necessity of it existing. Toy Story 3 ended so perfectly. It felt like a finale. Did we need another film? In a word, no. Toy Story 3 was the finale to end all finales. But so was Toy Story 2. And so was Toy Story. In retrospect, each of these films concocts such a satisfying ending that audiences inherently didn’t believe they could be equaled by anything that followed, myself included. With another escapade in the books, Toy Story 3 and Toy Story 4 almost feel like two parts of the same conclusion. They are different waves of the same goodbye. The first two established homebase. The final two lead us onward.
Such a concept is daunting in context to the story of a cowboy doll, and even more so upon realization that this story really isn’t about Woody at all — it’s about us. The same values are true and alarmingly relatable in real life. The best stories reflect our own fears. The best stories allow application. The sucker punch of Toy Story 4 is firstly that its emotional core was 25 years in the making and secondly that its subject matter so brilliantly taps into the psyche of its audience. Place those two factors into one package and the result is incredibly emotional. I teared up during Toy Story 3. I sobbed during Toy Story 4. Every person in the room feels seen in the way these characters wrestle with who they are and the friendships that make up the ebbs and flows of their experiences. We all fear being unloved — of being seen as trash. We turn a very important page when we identify the best capacity in which the love we’re receiving and the love we’re giving optimizes our growth as individuals and initiates joy in others. This story is one sweep of cinema that Pixar has stewarded excellently over the course of two and a half decades. For all of our sake, I’m grateful they didn’t throw it away.