Like many people I was a bit anxious when I heard the announcement of Toy Story 4. How could Pixar bring another entry into their treasured franchise after Toy Story 3 ended in such a satisfying way? It seemed like an impossible task but the Pixar folks have always said they only do sequels if they have a story, so I trusted them to get it right! Today I am happy to tell you my trust was not in vain. Toy Story 4 is another wonderful addition to our team of toys and a fitting conclusion to our best friend Woody’s story.
It’s impossible to talk about Toy Story 4 without discussing the trajectory of the previous 3 films. In Toy Story we have a confident Woody who learns to be a friend to the new and different Buzz. He begins the story as a good leader but as many leaders are, he’s also self-interested and prone to jealousy and deep insecurities. It is only through becoming friends with Buzz that Woody learns to let go of his pride and serve others.
Then we get to Toy Story 2 where Woody learns to think of Andy, and his commitment to letting Andy play with him as long as he wants. It’s his mission and calling and it is more important than being worshiped in a Tokyo museum. In Toy Story 3 the team has struggled and become a family and that deep and abiding bond gets them through the prison that is the daycare center.
So what about Toy Story 4? What is left to learn? Well, to answer that question we have to think about the nature of toys in this universe. As far as I can tell their sentience is eternal. They have no bodily fluids so arms can be removed, they can be reassembled into new toys without any reduction to their sentience. This leads us to the question of how can Pixar retire the toys if they can’t be killed?
We could leave Woody to be played with by Bonnie but doesn’t that lead to the same cycle over and over again? Is that a happy ending for our friends? There has to be a way for them to progress or what once gave them joy (playing with a child) will become miserable. I think the people at Pixar realized this and that Toy Story 3 could not be the actual ending for these characters because as happy as it was for Bonnie it wasn’t really a happy ending for Woody.
So, that’s where we get to Toy Story 4. As an old cowboy doll Woody is not a favorite toy of Bonnie. She is kind to her toys but prefers other toys like playing with Jessie. One day she goes to kindergarten and makes a toy out of trash she calls Forky. Creating her own toy seems to give her comfort during the scary time of a new school and she loves Forky dearly. Woody sees this and decides to watch over Forky and make sure it learns how to be a toy for Bonnie (a thing it rejects as it isn’t used to being sentient). Basically Woody becomes Forky’s father, and like a baby rejects things that are good for it, so does Forky.
Woody decides that taking care of Forky is his new role in the bedroom. He even says at one point that ‘it’s all I have left’. He knows his playing days are minimal and this is the most important thing he can do to help Bonnie. He even jumps out of a moving car window in order to help save Forky. (This is quite different than his response in Toy Story. He would have been happy to see Buzz in the trash back then).
Eventually Forky and Woody end up in an antique store in a small town where to their surprise they run into an old friend Bo Peep. She had been given away by Molly (Andy’s sister) years before and to Woody’s surprise she has figured out a whole new way to live. She’s strong, confident and happy with an almost pirate-like existence. She still gets to be played with at the park but as she says ‘I am not lost’. Every day she determines her destiny and how she is going to contribute to the world.
At first Woody is shocked by this and has difficulty understanding her way of living. But as the mechanics of the plot go forward he starts to see how independent Bo is which is very attractive and eye-opening. Most of the shenanigans with Gabby Gabby and Duke Caboom are fun in their own right but more importantly they are opportunities for Woody’s room-based view of the world to expand.
That’s not to say these events aren’t amusing because they are absolutely hilarious. Duck and Bunny in particular create some of the funniest sequences in the history of the Toy Story franchise. There are also some decent scares from the ventriloquist dummies named Benson and a lot of beautifully animated action while saving Forky. I also appreciated that Gabbby Gabby wasn’t a surprise villain like we’ve gotten so often from Disney lately. Her story was more of a surprise hero, which was really sweet in the end.
But all that fun isn’t going to be enough if Woody is back in the closet at Bonnie’s rarely being played with. That’s no way to end our hero’s story! Just as the toys became a family in Toy Story 3, they, led by Buzz, understand that part of being a family is letting our loved ones follow their dreams. We send our children off to college or on a mission knowing our world’s are never going to be the same but we know it is what is best for them. We send them on their way with a hope and a prayer that they will be ok but we also let them know that everything at home will ‘be ok’. Such is the case with Woody and Buzz.
‘Bonnie will be ok’ Buzz tells Woody. In other words ‘go and have your adventure. Everything at home will be ok. We love you’. So off Woody goes and Buzz and friends stay behind to make sure they keep their promise to Woody. It’s no surprise the toys learn to listen to their inner voice throughout the story because goodbyes are hard (I just had one with my Grandma’s funeral this weekend) and it is only through a lot of practice do we have the spiritual strength to help our loved ones go down their path no matter how badly we will miss them.
A perfect ending to a story that started with our friend only thinking of himself. Well done Pixar. Well done.