I walked into the fourth installment of “Toy Story” wondering why the creators couldn’t leave well enough alone. The franchise stood so perfectly as it was, and with every sequel, there is a possibility its legacy could be tarnished, but once again, the team at Pixar managed to pull through and create a delightful, touching, profound and utterly hilarious film for the whole family.
In this installment, we follow up with Woody and the gang, who have left the now adult Andy behind and been given to a new kid, Bonnie. Woody finds himself the favorite toy no longer but tries to keep his chin up - until Bonnie “makes” a new friend at school, and by that, I mean literally makes a friend. On her first day of kindergarten, Bonnie makes her own toy, dubbed “Forkie,” out of a spork and some pipe cleaners from the garbage. Forkie, however, has little interest in being a toy and longs to return to the trash from which he came, and Woody finds himself caught up in an adventure. He is on a mission to reunite Forkie with Bonnie after Forkie gets lost. Along the way, he meets up with Bo Peep, an old toy he lost touch with years ago when she was donated.
While it is a family film, I would note that, like its other Pixar predecessors, “Toy Story 4” sometimes feels like a movie designed for adults, hiding under the veneer of a children’s film, not because it sneaks in crass “adult” jokes as Dreamworks films often do (“Shrek” comes to mind) but because it teaches life lessons, ones that can be learned only after we have left childhood behind.
In this case, through Woody’s eyes, we are asked to reflect on what there is after a “career,” after we have served the purpose society has set out for us. Are we useless? Is there nothing left to enjoy in life? Or are there other ways we can find meaning and move beyond perhaps painful memories of when we were young and “of use” to those who meant something to us? And do we necessarily have to do what we are “supposed to do” in our lives? For the toys, this means finding a kid and being that kid’s toy; for us, it might mean getting a respectable job or a respectable family. But is that the only option out there? Or are there alternative ways to live life? Bo Peep has found her way in the world without a “set” kid, and seems happy to live an independent life as her own toy, but Woody initially struggles to see her as a fulfilled toy and instead labels her as “lost.”
It’s not all painful existential questions, though. This might have been the funniest film of the series, with all new character editions bringing on the laughs. The creators certainly know how to keep up with the now adults who would have watched the original “Toy Story” as children; this is evidenced by Forkie’s rather millennial, nihilistic humor (“Why am I even alive? I want the trash” says Forkie, before jumping out of a moving vehicle). Key and Peele make an appearance as Bunny and Ducky, two hilarious stuffed animals on a mission to find a kid of their own. Of course, it was Key and Peele’s characters who finally challenged the status quo and asked why on earth the toys have to pretend to be inanimate, and leave minimal physical impact on the human world. This unspoken rule is broken by all the toys and stretched to its limit with some hilarious results (largely involving a rogue RV in a theme park). Keanu Reeves plays the rather non Keanu-Reevesy Kaboom, a Canadian daredevil (no, that’s not an oxymoron) toy with a rather fragile ego who helps Bo and Woody in their mission.
This film is definitely worth a watch for the adults who grew up with the story, as well as their children and younger siblings (although, if creepy Annabelle-style dolls freak your children out, maybe proceed with caution - there are some seriously scary dolls!)
We are finally left with a product that feels like a true ending - though, you never know when Pixar sequels will arise - where Woody has found a purpose and the toys are in their proper places; perhaps now Pixar can leave well enough alone.