Toy Story 4 is a product of staggering creative anxiety. Nearly ten years after the last outing provided a satisfying end to the trilogy, it exists as its own component. The toys have been transferred from Andy to Bonnie and Pixar have crafted another swan song, a second final entry to a series that deserves the closure. The new film delves darker, deeper than ever before.
The plight of Forky (a brilliantly funny Tony Hale) is the heart of the new story. He is a Frankenstein of Bonnie’s nervous creation. She sits alone at Kindergarten orientation making crafts, shaping something totally organic: a spork, with googly eyes, pipe cleaners for arms, and broken popsicle sticks for feet. “I’m trash!” Forky exclaims when he comes to sentience, and spends the rest of the film trying to eject himself into the nearest trash can, while the other toys assure him of his usefulness in Bonnie’s life.
Nobody captures the intensity of youthful feeling quite like Pixar. The moment Bonnie enters her Kindergarten, the picture swells and burns with the familiar pang of emotion. The changing dynamic is felt thoroughly. I heard the theater make a collective “ahhhh,” as she could not immediately connect with her surroundings. We feel it with her. Pixar can bring that out and bend it toward their needs. They are not only masters of animation but are experts of empathy.
Woody (Tom Hanks) has entered the twilight years of a toy’s shelf life. Once Andy’s favorite toy, he’s been passed down and Bonnie deserves her own original favorite toy that reflects who she is (not trash, but that she is original). He is still the de facto sheriff of the original toy group. He once represented our childlike propensity for imagination. Now, he is the embodiment of the adult, the caretaker that salvages Forky out of the trash and Bonnie’s caretaker. We put away childish things in Toy Story 3 (2010) and the new film is not about that. It is about facing obsolescence and the tremendous sacrifice we must make to allow others the same capacity for joy we once held. Toy Story 4 is principally a film for parents, that children will also love.
The most surprising character of Toy Story 4 is Annie Potts’s Bo Peep. When the family visits an RV park, Woody reconnects with her at an attached antique shop. It’s important to consider the context for the characters: Woody always represented Hollywood’s diverted attention, initially, from Westerns to Sci-Fi films, and even those have since been replaced by the episodic Superhero film. And so, a character like Tim Allen’s Buzz Lightyear is agreeably sidelined for Woody’s exceedingly well-emphasized female counterpart. Annie Potts does not fall into any of the pitfalls common of the modern series that needs to feminize to get with the times. Instead, Pixar flexes her capabilities and strengths as a character, making her the greatest success of the film’s writing. You’ll notice, Rashida Jones is credited as a part of the writing team and left due to the poor representation of women on Pixar projects (and perhaps the controversy surrounding John Lasseter, who it’s worth noting, is also credited.)
First time director Josh Cooley finds the charm of his spaces. The antique store, and its antiquarian toys, are wonderful additions to the franchise. Most crucial to the plot, Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), is a Chatty Cathy with a faulty voicebox since her manufacturing. This means she cannot communicate with humans, a broken doll, left as the leader of a group of murderous ventriloquist dummies, who bring back the series penchant for properly scaled horror. The setting also provides wonderful set pieces of design. There is an old chandelier in particular, which is the most lovely thing in the film, akin to the moment in Coco (2017), where we enter the Land of the Dead and there are millions of drawn lights. This moment finds Pixar posturing, always finding a moment to remind other studios, they are the most talented animation studio in the world and will kick any other studio’s ass at their own game if they dare step into the ring.
While Toy Story 4 is a meditation on sentience and the angst of obsolescence, it’s still a warming and often hilarious comedy. Keanu Reeves plays Duke Caboom, Canada’s greatest stuntman (dressed as a Canadian flag), still forlorn that he did not fulfill a young French child’s deepest wishes on a Boxing Day long ago. Keegan-Michael Key & Jordan Peele (of Key & Peele fame), are the hilarious duo of Ducky & Bunny, who create large imaginative plots to accomplish small goals, usually unnecessarily. They are the representatives of this new toy land. Attached to the RV park and antique store is a rousing carnival playground, where Pixar gets to infuse the film with spirit and fun-loving adventure. It’s clear that Toy Story 4 could have been several different things over a long stretch of time, that it was stuck in a certain development hell (originally slated for a 2017 release), and has miraculously pulled together many disparate parts into a fundamentally cohesive whole.
It’s worth noting, this is the first Pixar film without a short attached. And this statement does not feel totally true or like it will represent their future work. The film begins with a baked in short story. It recalls the time with Andy and a small adventure in that world of nostalgia. The palettes awash with heavily exaggerated rain (occasionally Pixar achieve an effect of making particles and natural things look more real than their real-life counterparts). It’s a touching memory of the adventures we used to have. When Toy Story (1995) and Toy Story 2 (1999) were just about anthropomorphized toys and figuring out how to get early computer animation right on more pliable subjects. Yes, Toy Story 4 ably recalls the simpler times, while pairing them with the winning angst of Toy Story 3. It’s a success on every count.
Pixar films look the best but also sound as good as anything in the business. Many may feel that Randy Newman’s contributions are the soundtrack of their childhood. It would be fair to venture that this entry is on equal footing. Here, the songsmith creates a touching rendition of all the film’s themes. His new song is called “I Can’t Let You Throw Yourself Away,” which imbues not only the themes of the film but how we must all feel about the franchise, four films in. This time the entire project is a rousing success. Please do not make any more, for the sake of our collective anxieties.
I loved Toy Story 4 when I was at the movies. It wasn’t until I was home, recounting the story to my daughter as she fell asleep with one arm wrapped around me, that the emotional core of the film sunk in. I found the pure relation to the characters there. Lately, I’ve been discussing with my wife, when do we want her to go to Kindergarten? Have we done everything we can to prepare and socialize her? There is never a right answer as a parent. We are there to do everything we can to provide our kids with the best chances of success in the world. Eventually, we’ll step aside and let her create her own world. That is terrifying anxiety, one that brought me to tears several times during Toy Story 4. It is a film that shares this feeling. We can retreat, just for a moment, into the safety of our old friends, before finally letting them go, and that is Toy Story 4, as final as it is inevitable.
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