The struggle with the Toy Story franchise has never really been that it’ll run out of things to say. It’s surprising how much you can get out of “toys are actually alive” from movie to movie. It’s more that the rules the films have outlined have an inevitable expiration date. The Toy Story universe portends that toys are inextricably linked to “their” child. Once a toy is associated to a child, their only purpose is to bring them joy. Though the toys have a conscience and (presumably) a rich inner life, their only real concern is to be played with; being forgotten is the worst thing that can befall a toy.
Children, however, do not remain children forever, and the very nature of a toy does not remain timeless. The first three Toy Story movies pretty much took that story as far as it would go and the fourth installment now finds itself faced with a whole new problem. The Toy Story series has always had a mercantile streak to it despite its strong emotional core. After all, what better way to sell toys than to make a beloved series of films that explicitly lays out how important toys are to a child? And while Toy Story 4 strikes me as the most superfluous and chaotic of the films in the series, it also begins to explore the existential horror of the world it has built for these toys in a rather interesting way.
With Andy off to college, the toys have been in the possession of a toddler named Bonnie for a few years. Woody (Tom Hanks) — once Andy’s favourite — has been more or less relegated to the closet since then, Bonnie having preferred Jessie (Joan Cusack) as sheriff. Woody is nevertheless dedicated to keeping Bonnie happy at a distance, which proves to be an extremely difficult task when her affections turn to Forky (Tony Hale), a suicidal arts-and-crafts project who is convinced that, because he was constructed from trash, trash is where he belongs. Woody sees Forky as an essential component of Bonnie’s happiness and he’s dedicated to keeping him around (and out of the trash). When Bonnie and her parents pile into the RV for a road trip, however, the single-minded Forky jumps out of the back window, taking Woody out into the wild world and back in contact with an old flame: Bo Peep (Annie Potts) herself.
Toy Story 3 was fairly dark to begin with; it’s one of the few post-2000 children’s movies that I can think of that makes its characters face their mortality head-on, even if we know full well that Pixar is not about to send half-a-dozen beloved characters to their fiery death. Toy Story 4 is both sillier and darker than its predecessors, the first film in the series to feel like it resorts to out-of-character child-pleasing hijinx reminiscent of a Dreamworks feature but also the first one that grapples with how messed up it has laid out the groundwork for its characters. Toys don’t die unless they’re destroyed beyond repair; this film lays out their life almost like a curse, an endless quest to find relevance and love amongst people who will always discard them.
About its midway mark, the film’s ostensible antagonist is introduced: Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) is a late 1950s “talking doll” who, due to a mechanical defect, has never been able to speak properly. This makes her both a pristine antique and a useless toy, unworthy of a child’s love unless she can RIP OUT THE VOICE BOX FROM WOODY AND REPLACE HER FAULTY ONE, which is some low-key Cronenbergian body horror nightmare fuel. (Gabby Gabby is also accompanied by silent, slack-jawed ventriloquist dummies, for a layer of additional creepiness.) Toy Story 4 directly deals with the creepiness and ultimate sadness of being a sentient toy, making it a surprisingly messed-up entry in the series.
But then again, the entire second act of Toy Story 4 consists of repetitive shenanigans in which the characters must retrieve a MacGuffin of some kind and bring it somewhere, after which they are inevitably told that they need to do something else before it works. Bizarrely, what Toy Story 4 reminds me of the most is a role-playing game in the Final Fantasy vein, in which disparate characters join the player character’s party and work together towards a goal that keeps being pushed back. New additions are hit-and-miss; while I love Key & Peele in general, their inclusion as a stuffed duck and bunny sounds more or less exactly like Key & Peele dropping some jokes in a kids’ movie. While the film is definitely weirder on the whole than you would expect from an installment this late in the game, it’s also more confused and chaotic in the middle.
I was a child when the first Toy Story movie came out nearly 25 years ago. While I don’t think that my relationship to the series necessarily deals with the same type of nostalgia that it trades in, I’ll fully admit to being biased in my love for the franchise. (Case in point: I don’t even usually bother seeing animated films at all.) In many respects, Toy Story 4 is a pleasant surprise; it has more to offer than its frankly anemic narrative concept might suggest. But it also makes it clear that, unless the series is to take a sharp turn into the macabre, the characters will be doomed to repeat their lives forever. Toy Story 4 is, in a way, about the avoidance of that and the importance of the finality of stories. The only way to end a franchise (which is what Toy Story 4 is if we’re to believe Pixar) is to grapple directly with how messed up it would be for this to go on forever. That’s a fascinating thing for a movie of this magnitude to do — even if the majority of it is pratfalls and silly whimsy. ■
Toy Story 4 opens in theatres on Thursday, June 20. Watch the trailer here: