By Preston Wilder
First things first, for parents who might be skimming this: Toy Story 4 may be slightly scary for very young children (the villain is a sinister doll with a glassy expression and some downright creepy ventriloquist’s-dummy minions). Then again, the reactions of very young children seem increasingly irrelevant. Somewhere along the line, the pitch for the Toy Story franchise seems to have morphed from ‘Your toys are talking and living secret lives when your back is turned’ to ‘Your toys are navigating existential crises the likes of which you, as a child, have never known or cared about’.
The, shall we say, philosophical dimension of being a toy gets a lot of play in this fourth instalment. Toy Story 2 (1999) kicked things up a notch, making Woody (voice of Tom Hanks) and the other toys aware of their own obsolescence – and fear of obsolescence is almost all that happens here, the ‘What is life?’ angst made plain (and, rather beautifully, answered) in a cute post-credits sequence. Fortunately, that’s not all that happens. Unlike the third instalment (from 2010), which rambled a bit, Toy Story 4 returns to the tight plotting of the 1995 original, two-thirds of it taking place over 24 hours in a single location, a carnival fairground – plus a nearby antique shop – where Woody and friends embark on a single-minded quest: to find Forky.
Forky is a DIY toy, actually a spork which Bonnie has made into a plaything. Bonnie is a kid, indeed she’s ‘the’ kid. “You have a kid?” other toys ask Woody with awe (and envy) in their voice. Being “played with” is a toy’s nirvana, giving a child joy and comfort is “the most noble thing a toy can do”. Forky is Bonnie’s favourite, so Woody – no longer the favourite, but still a good toy – must ensure that Forky is found, negotiating the aforementioned “weirdo” doll and dummy minions, a vicious cat, Bonnie’s oblivious parents, the distance involved just in getting to the antique shop, plus of course the imperative that all toys must play dead – pretending to be lifeless bits of plastic – if people are looking.
All these ingredients, plus a clutch of lively supporting characters (a Canadian Evel Knievel doll named Duke Caboom; a buffoonish pair of fluffy-animal toys named Ducky and Bunny), are juggled with verve and invention; it’s not quite an action film, but there’s enough action to keep the kids happy while their parents stifle sobs and ruminate on life as we know it. Parents are toys, needless to say, or perhaps the toys are parents. “You watch them grow up to become a whole person…” muses Woody – ‘they’ being kids, of course – then they leave you behind, “your purpose fulfilled” which is another way of saying you feel old and useless. (Growing up is a kind of death in Pixar cartoons, see also Inside Out where the little girl hits puberty and suddenly starts feeling sad.) Kids are also God – Bonnie having literally ‘created’ little Forky – or any external force giving purpose to one’s life. Toys are like slaves, in a way (Forky has Bonnie’s name painted on his feet, like an owner’s brand) – yet their attachment to their youthful overlords is like an attachment to a lover, or an old flame. “Why, Rejean, why?” laments Duke Caboom, recalling the owner who spurned him. “I don’t think he’s ever gotten over Andy,” confides one of the toys, speaking of Woody’s original kid.
Forky appears to be the wild card here, an improvised toy who doesn’t get the rules – or indeed the point – of being a toy; but in fact the wild card is Bo Peep, Woody’s long-lost beloved from Toy Story 2 who’s now literally lost, a “lost toy” without a kid to worship. The surprise (to Woody) is that she’s loving it, broadening the cowboy’s horizons and giving the film a way out of the grim situation it’s contrived – yet the fact that such bone-deep angst exists in a kids’ cartoon is still remarkable.
One imagines Pixar creatives treating the Toy Story franchise – the franchise that made their name – as a small self-indulgence, taking a break once a decade or so to make a film just for them, one that speaks to their adult anxieties instead of their audience’s. ‘Who are we really?’ asks this pensive (but fun!) movie. Why are we here? Can we find our own purpose in life, or must it come from beyond? “Is that how we look on the inside?” gasp Ducky and Bunny, catching sight of a disembowelled toy. “Why am I alive?” asks Forky’s friend in the post-credits sequence. Whoever named that famous emporium had the right idea: Toys are us.
DIRECTED BY Josh Cooley
WITH THE VOICES OF Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Annie Potts
US 2019 100 mins