Nostalgia is one heck of a thing.
Nostalgia got me, a 27-year-old man, out of my apartment to go watch an animated movie on my own this Saturday. If the previews were any indicator, I am certainly not the target audience for this film. I am not particularly likely to go see Trolls 2. I’m still not convinced that Angry Birds 2 is a real thing and not just a fairly elaborate joke trailer that got shuffled into the promo reel by mistake. I’ll probably see Frozen 2 but like, after it comes out on Amazon or something. But there was never really any question that I was going to go see Toy Story 4. Pixar has their hooks in me pretty good, and I’m not really all that upset about it, to be honest. But apart from the sequels to Cars, this is the first time I’ve felt like they’re pressing their luck with a franchise that should have wrapped up long ago.
That is not to say that I think the movie is bad. It isn’t. It’s just needless. Everything it’s doing has really already been done in earlier entries, and done better. It’s a very lovingly crafted, painstakingly designed, and elaborate movie that nobody really expected or asked for. It’s like all of us finished dinner back in 2010 and felt full and satisfied, and then the waiter comes by with another slice of pie. You’re not upset to see it, exactly, but just what the hell are you supposed to do with it?
For starters, the plot itself is a re-tread of themes that we’ve already dealt with. At the start of Toy Story 4, Woody is having something of a crisis of meaning. He’s been relegated to the bottom of the toy box, by and large, and his new owner, Bonnie, doesn’t find him nearly as appealing a toy as the rest of the crew. He’s not just playing second fiddle, he’s being almost entirely ignored.
If you’re thinking that perhaps this bit of initial exposition should be told through a montage sequence set to Randy Newman’s “Strange Things”, then you’re likely not alone. The idea of Woody losing his position as “favorite toy” was the central concept of the very first Toy Story movie, after all. It would be unfair to say that this is an exact re-tread of that story, as it’s not: while Woody’s reaction to his loss of status in the first movie was jealousy and bitterness, Woody (like all of us) is older now. His reaction is less petty and more existential this time around. Instead of plotting how to regain his status, he’s focused instead on finding a new role for himself, and insisting a little bit too hard upon it. If he can’t be the top toy anymore, then he’ll need to find out how he can best support whoever is in his stead. It’s a more mature and measured motivation for our protagonist than what we saw the last time he went through this scenario, but it is nonetheless a familiar scenario.
Woody’s newfound mission in life leads him to zealously support the new favorite toy: a disconcerting little creation named Forky. A collection of craft pieces haphazardly attached to a plastic spork, Forky is… a troubling character. Not just for the metaphysical questions of being he brings into the world of Toy Story but… well, I imagine some of you will probably find yourself feeling deeply uncomfortable during the first half hour of this movie.
Forky is made from items literally pulled out of the trash, and his default mentality is that he really, really wants to go back in the trash. This gives way to a running gag where the little Frankenstein’s monster of a toy continually tries to throw himself into the nearest waste receptacle. This is played for laughs (and it works) but it’s also pretty unsettling. Forky is given life by a being that has seemingly endless wells of love for him, and the other toys recognize that he is a valued figure in Bonnie’s life. Forky doesn’t see it that way, though, and continuously hurls himself into garbage cans, out of windows, and tries to get himself tossed out with an upsetting single-minded zeal despite the efforts of his friends to keep him around.
I don’t think I need to spell out the parallels that can be drawn here. Depending on your circumstances in life, you’ll probably still laugh at the absurdist nature of the running joke but damn if you won’t feel a kind of creeping unease at the entire thing.
But Forky eventually gets it at the end of the first act, and comes to terms with some of the fundamental lore in the Toy Story movies: the purpose of a toy is to bring joy to others. That’s their highest goal, their ultimate cause, and nothing is better than fulfilling that goal. It’s what I would argue is the bedrock theme of the Toy Story movies. It’s what helps Woody accept Buzz in the first film, it’s what stands as a foil against the cold, sterile perfectionism of the collector in the sequel, and it’s what eventually leads to Woody et al letting go in what we all thought was the capstone entry: in every instance the big idea was “toys are meant to bring joy to children”. It’s very clear, unabashedly wholesome, and an excellent thematic foundation for a series of Children’s movies.
But this theme gets muddled and perhaps contradicted in this film. Woody’s dedication towards making sure Bonnie is happy is a continuation of this idea, and it serves as the driving motivation for most of the action in the film. It runs into some opposition, however, when Woody meets up with Bo Peep, who was given one mention in Toy Story 3 as having been one of the toys culled from the group in the intervening years. Bo has been sold to another kid, then to an antique store, and then set out on her own as a “Lost Toy”: a toy without an owner. For most toys, this is the worst fate imaginable, as they cannot fulfill their core purpose without a kid to whom they can bring happiness. Bo has seemingly done fine on her own, though, and runs a kind of independent repair service for other dispossessed toys. It gives her some much-welcomed character where before she had none to speak of, really, but it messes with some of the central ideas of these movies.
To skip ahead a bit, Woody eventually decides to depart Bonnie’s collection and his friends and stay with Bo, his pseudo love interest. Together, they help other toys find new owners of their own, helping them fulfill that same purpose they themselves had already done in movies past. It’s a noble enough goal, to be sure, but it’s hung up somewhat on the fact that Woody appears to go with Bo mostly because he himself wants to, which undercuts the selflessness of the act a bit. The whole story is mostly one of saying goodbye to Woody, as he moves away from being the principal source of happiness for kids and instead facilitating it by linking kids and other toys.
It’s… fine. It is. But it just feels to me like it’s straining a bit against the ideas of the previous films. This is all the more pronounced given the fact that Toy Story 3 ended with a very similar message: things can’t continue indefinitely, other people will need you, too, make them happy however you can. It’s the same concept, more or less, but more consistent with Toy Lore (and good God, I can’t believe that’s a thing I just said) and all in all, a better send-off for these characters.
And then of course there’s the question: is this a send-off? Toy Story 3 had a definite air of finality about it, but here we are nearly a decade later with a fourth film. Toy Story Land was just opened in Walt Disney World, a strange choice if we’re going to let this franchise end and move on, one would think. And a decent number of well-performing Pixar movies have all gotten sequels by now. How many more false endings are these toys in for?
There are two things, then, that stood out to me in a meta sense while watching this movie. At the end of Toy Story 3, Woody watches Andy drive off to college with a bittersweet “So long, Partner”. At the end of this movie, Buzz and Woody share a hand-off catchphrase with “To infinity… and beyond”. Comparing those two, which sounds like a tidy bow on your franchise, and which sounds like a promise for future continuation?
Secondly, the plot beats in this movie start to feel repetitive and drawn out after a certain point. A recurring point of drama is that toys are just about to be left behind or forgotten. A common bit of dialogue you’ll hear is “we have to go back”, as Woody tries to recover Forky, Buzz tries to recover Woody, and so on and so forth. I lost track of how many times this near-abandonment plot point was broken out and used to push the story forward. And as I sat there watching the fourth numbered sequel to a franchise started in the late 90s and seemingly neatly ended three different times now, I couldn’t help but picture the board room at Pixar. New ideas, new voices, and new stories probably having been pitched their way plenty of times now, but a voice in the back of someone’s mind whispering diligently “No wait! We have to go back…”