About midway through, Toy Story 4 tosses out a 2001 joke, which is only mildly surprising — what is Pixar known for, after all, if not their magically synchronous grasp on both rich maturity and wonder-instilling innocence? Their artistry has always extended past the typical fifty-fifty split between fart jokes to keep the kids drooling at the screen and thinly veiled innuendos to desperately snag the adults: instead, they make great movies that age with the viewer like a fine wine. At six, Ratatouille is a wholesome, silly story about a rat who cooks some soup; at sixteen, it’s a gorgeously crafted and genuinely funny film about embracing your calling; and at sixty, maybe it’s bloomed into a nearly transcendent exhortation of creating and loving what is beautiful. Pixar, at its best, understands and portrays deep truth; Illumination’s Minions isn’t even worthy of memedom. All of this to say, it’s no anomaly to find throwaway jokes in a Pixar script more clever than a competitor’s entire catalogue. Far more surprising — shocking, even — is Toy Story 4’s ending, which quite possibly left me more totally bewildered than the closing moments of 2001.
We’ll get there, though. First, let’s back up — nine years, in fact — to Pixar’s last great film: Toy Story 3, as it happens. Prior to this was the golden age of Pixar Animation, which lasted over ten years and saw the birth of such masterpieces as Up, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, the first two Toy Story’s — the list goes on. Post 2010, though, the studio started slacking, releasing film after film and receiving an abundance of mixed reactions. Inside Out is the standout of this era (it’s very good, but not quite capital-G Great), but more troubling were the painfully average sequels Finding Dory, Monsters University, and Cars 3, not to mention the monstrosity of lazy writing glossed over by visual flair that was Incredibles 2. It was over this period that Pixar’s animation quality skyrocketed with the fervor of a zealous Space Ranger; originality, on the other hand, was no longer needed and retired to a dusty shelf. The movies became more beautiful than ever and emptier than Mr. Potato Head.
Toy Story 4, then, is a dramatic zeitgeist of 2010’s Pixar: another installment in their longest running saga, the most visually gorgeous of their filmography, and a reductive and unnecessary sequel to a series that really ended nine years ago.
If that last bit sounds a little dour, the good news is that it only explicitly applies to Toy Story 4’s ending, and there’s a lot of good to enjoy here before we encounter the very bad. What is this good, you ask? Well, in all honesty, it’s complete trash — some discarded craft supplies, more specifically: a bit of pipe cleaner, two googly eyes, a broken popsicle stick, and a spork, assembled and endowed with sentience and purpose by the adoration of its creator. His name is Forky, and he’s Bonnie’s new favorite toy.
This is more or less where Toy Story 4 begins. It’s only been a matter of weeks since Andy grew up, leaving his beloved toys in the responsible hands of his trusty sheriff (Tom Hanks) and the loving embrace of new kindergartener Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw), who amalgamates her Frankenstein’s monster Forky (an impeccable Tony Hale) during her first day of school. Forky accomplishes in thirty seconds what took Woody an entire film to even consider: a complete and total existential crisis. With the ink of Bonnie’s name barely dry on his popsicle-stick-foot, Forky realizes his ultimate destiny lies in that from which he came: the garbage (his favorite Bible verse would probably be Ecclesiastes 3:20). What follows is probably Toy Story 4’s best sequence: a Groundhog Day-esque suicide montage of Forky HALO jumping into the warm embrace of the nearest waste receptacle. “Why does he want the trash?” Woody’s asked by concerned fellow toys, to which the self-appointed guardian of Bonnie’s new love replies, “Because he was made from the trash!” This blissfully nihilistic piece of plastic is a philosophy freshman’s fantasy.
It isn’t a brave new world for Toy Story, however; they’ve always sheltered a thinly veiled penchant for existentialism. “Why do I have to be a toy?” Forky asks Woody in a wonderful scene of dialogue between the two. “Because you have Bonnie’s name written on the bottom of your sticks,” Woody patiently explains, hitting the heart of the entire series on the process. “You have your child’s name written on your feet,” Forky is told later on. “That makes you a very important toy.” All of this should ring familiar and comforting to anyone moderately versed in theology, and Toy Story’s most basic theme could easily be modeled after the Westminster Shorter Catechism, Question 1: “What is the chief end of [toys]?” “To [be there for] [their kid] and enjoy him forever.” (It’s also worth noting that although the kids of the Toy Story world are obvious God figures, the symbolism works both ways — namely, in the toys’ ceaseless commitment and “unconditional love,” a significant phrase thrown out in Toy Story 4, to someone who, at times, barely realizes they exist.) Forky’s loves are obviously misaligned, calling to mind Lewis’ words from The Weight of Glory: “We are halfhearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”
Forky is obviously a fantastic character, but in the context of Toy Story 4’s predecessors he’s also a redundant one, treading ground already covered mainly by Woody. The arc that spans his first three films essentially sees him grappling with and ultimately shouldering this “weight of glory”: in Toy Story, he embodies an immature firstborn jealous over a younger sibling’s attention-stealing arrival; in Toy Story 2, the throes of adolescence thrust him into an identity crisis of doubt in Andy’s goodness; and Toy Story 3 sees him finally, truly grow up — right beside Andy. That film framed true maturity, as it relates to Woody, at least, as wise and capable leadership: a heavy weight, but one well worth bearing.
Contrast this with Toy Story 4, which flies in the face of the arc built up over three entire films — specifically through the character of Bo Peep (Annie Potts). Ever since her relocation from Andy’s house nine years prior, Bo’s been living without a child as a self-dubbed “lost toy.” This intentional phrasing immediately brings to mind both a theological “lostness,” a wandering without purpose and away from God, and the Lost Boys of Peter Pan, who live in eternal adolescence, never growing up, free from the oppression of maturity. They lack a stable parental figure, as does Bo, and both parties feel they’re better off for it. This thematic thread veers dramatically from the heart of 1-3 — all of which eloquently exhort the sustenance found in community and service — and, in Toy Story 4’s final moments, it culminates in a sudden and violently unearned arc for Woody. Without sinking into spoilers, the ending of this film plays like a direct inverse to that of Toy Story 2. As critic Joel Mayward puts it in his review, “the film seems to praise strict autonomy and embracing one’s ‘lostness’ as a heroic vocation rather than a status to avoid. Where the original trilogy ended with a sense of continued hope and togetherness even as there was loss and sadness due to the end of an era, in this post-Andy apocalypse it’s every lost toy for themselves.”
To be sure, there are enough genuine pleasures here to make a worthy viewing. As I mentioned above, I wouldn’t hesitate in calling this Pixar’s visual magnum opus, and even though most of the original gang are sidelined in favor of some new faces (Tim Allen’s Buzz gets an arc, but it’s minimal and painfully simplistic, and Joan Cusack’s Jessie is relegated to only a few lines), it’s still nice just to be reunited. Keanu Reeves’ newcomer Duke Kaboom is a hilarious standout (yes, he says “Woah”), and there are some villainous henchmen here that make Toy Story 3’s Big Baby about as threatening as Winnie the Pooh (until Midsommar hits theaters in July, I’m calling this the scariest movie of the year so far by virtue of their scenes alone). In the end, though, these briefly gratifying elements can’t undo the thematic damage wrought in the screenplay. The last line of this film is a Toy Story classic: “To infinity, and beyond!” But in context it rings dispiritingly like Captain Marvel’s empty mantra of “Higher, further, faster” — where reach exceeds grasp, progress is for progress’ sake, and there is little thought for the beauty of what’s being left behind.