Do the toys of the Pixar/Disney franchise Toy Story eat? Nope, nor do they use the bathroom or have a need to sleep, really. Maybe they rest on occasion, maybe they feign sleep for closeness and comfort with their kid, but really these potentially immortal beings, birthed by assembly line and manufacturing and willed alive through imagination have nothing but time on their hands and on their minds. Oh, what tedious and sad days they live, stuck in closets and bins, only to be played with for short periods of joy. Joy for the kid, and joy for them. Toy Story 4 doesn’t answer any of the obvious big questions, like how exactly do they have life (which is directly asked in one end credit scene), but it does seek to fulfill and satisfy at least one element: Meaning.
A little bit of time has passed since 3, when Andy gave up his toys for a run at college and a life beyond into adulthood. The new kid, Bonnie, is just beginning Kindergarten and is in for some major life adjustments as a result. Woody and the gang are here to help, even going so far as to pull items from the trash for Bonnie to craft together a new friend – the googly-eyed spork known as Forky. Once born, Forky immediately questions why he’s a toy and not trash, going to extremes like eschewing his new life for existence in the garbage. For the sweet release of being tossed away, basically. It’s a little disturbing to see and feel such a character wanting nothing more than to just go away (to put it nicely), but Toy Story 4 handles its heavy doses of philosophical queries with maturity, nuance, and tenderness, never once eyeballing the children in the audience, never once demanding not enough or too much.
It’s a heartbreaking and heartwarming affair to witness, but so has been the other films in the series. Toy Story effectively launched CG animated movies into orbit but, along with a new way of making cartoons, introduced us to new ways of rendering emotional gravitas. In the opening, set nine years in the past, Woody rescues an RV car from a rainy day at Andy’s. His female companion Bo Peep is taken and sold off, leading to quite a farewell, both sad and full of growth at once. The scene has such clarity of vision and composition, in its shadows and in its rain/tears, in its sheen and bittersweetness amid gloom, that to weep openly may be the only healthy way to get through it. Absolutely cinematic and absolutely bold and powerful, absolutely.
The adventure takes a road trip turn, leading to an antique store and a carnival, both which present two different paths: The past and the future or, rather, the road less taken. Woody’s goal is to keep Forky from leaving, but soon comes to some personal realizations himself by way of looking backward and forwards: At a “fork” in the road, so to speak. Toy Story 4 may have strong themes and subtext, but it’s also smartly written from a purely character driven standpoint, checking off the right boxes at the right moments with the right amount of levity.
And Bo Peep? She returns as a strong leader of the lost, busting into and through uncharted territories with gusto and heart. Before writing this review, I read an article on this movie and its meaning current and post #MeToo. The thoughts and ideas raised are very valid, but I didn’t really see Bo as a consolation prize or token piece. Instead, she has a genuine role, performance, and purpose for being here. Whatever problems the production faced in the lead up to release (and there were some bad ones) seem to not have really affected the effective story and sentimental core of the film. That it is as great as it is might be as close to a miracle as Hollywood movies can get to achieve. We thought the tale was wrapped up at 3. With 4, we are shown that old toys can learn new tricks.
Somehow, the meaning of Toy Story 4 is in itself as it stands now, at this moment. And that’s as a truly excellent bookend to an arc started over twenty years ago. Will we see a 5? Never say never, but maybe leave well enough perfected.
RATING: 5 / 5
Toy Story 4 is now playing at The Prytania, The Broad, and across the metro area.