‘Toy Story 4’ Reviewed: Embracing a Toy’s Impermanence

When “Toy Story 4” (Pixar/Disney) was first announced back in November of 2014, the response from fans could best be described as cautious curiosity, rather than full-blown anticipation. 


And for good reason. 


After all, the creative team at Pixar had already closed the book on their most beloved film franchise, with the heartrending climax of “Toy Story 3” (2010) bringing every man, woman and child in the world to tears. Did there really need to be a fourth installment in the saga? In other words, should “Toy Story 4” even exist?


The answer to that question is, quite simply, no. But therein lies the genius behind “Toy Story 4.”


This is a movie that defies the very right to exist, challenging the notion of ending a story at “The End.” This is a movie that dares to continue the story, to show what happens to our favorite characters after their “happily ever after,” no matter how ugly, messy and human it might be.


To help explain, let’s dive into what exactly happens in “Toy Story 4” (minor spoilers ahead).


The film takes place about two years after Andy gives Woody, Buzz and the gang away to a young girl named Bonnie at the end of the third movie. Although the toys are now mostly appreciated and living happy, play-filled lives, something’s missing.


Woody (voiced, once again, to perfection by Tom Hanks) knows this, especially as he’s collecting dust in Bonnie’s closet. You see, Bonnie is beginning to neglect Woody, causing the old cowboy to question his purpose — his very reason to exist.


This existential dilemma comes to the fore as Woody steals away in Bonnie’s backpack during kindergarten orientation to look after her. When a classmate cruelly discards Bonnie’s arts and crafts supplies, Woody retrieves them from the trash — along with a spork. To Woody’s surprise, Bonnie then uses the spork and other rejected supplies to fashion together a handmade plaything — a toy, if you will. 


Enter: Forky. Sporting popsicle stick feet, pipe cleaner arms and mismatched googly eyes, Forky brings immediate joy and comfort to Bonnie. Soon after, Forky (voiced by a wonderfully fretful Tony Hale) magically comes to life.


Right away, Woody can tell something is different about Forky. For one thing, he wants none of Bonnie’s affection, even though he has been chosen as her new favorite toy — a much-coveted position in the toy world. All he wants is to return to the trash. 


Woody, knowing how much Forky means to Bonnie, tries to change Forky’s mind by explaining a toy’s ultimate role: to bring joy to a child. But Forky only repeats his assertion that he is “trash” — something to be used once and then thrown out forever. This open acceptance of one’s own mortality evidently strikes a chord with Woody, who is unable to voice his own impermanence with as much ease as Forky.


And so, perhaps out of concern for Bonnie’s emotional well-being and perhaps as a last-ditch attempt at self-preservation, Woody takes on the duty of protecting the neurotic spork, stopping him from throwing himself into every nearby trash bin, receptacle and dumpster.


Naturally, a road trip brings additional confusion and mayhem, as Woody is separated from Buzz and the rest of his friends after jumping out of the family RV to chase after Forky. Woody then finds himself on one last odyssey of self-discovery, as Buzz (voiced with excellent buffoonery by Tim Allen) plots a rescue mission for his best friend.


What follows is an exceptionally paced adventure plot filled with dazzling set pieces, memorable new characters and a thoroughly satisfying return of an old toy (yes, we’re referring to Annie Potts’ Bo Peep, and, yes, she’s just as badass as everyone says she is).


Woody (Tom Hanks) and Bo Peep (Annie Potts) in “Toy Story 4.”


But through it all, the focus of “Toy Story 4” remains squarely fixed on Woody. The film explores the diminutive sheriff with a great deal of interior complexity, exploring his fears, insecurities and aspirations with more nuance than most human characters ever receive in the movies.


As a result, Woody feels more relatable and imperfect than ever. To put it simply, Woody seems human. He makes mistakes. He appears selfish at times. His earnest search for love and affection leads to decisions that blur the line between heroism and self-destruction. 


And yet, while Woody’s choices oftentimes prove frustrating, we, as the audience, can always empathize with him — even as he makes one, final choice that feels both unexpected and, in many ways, predestined all at once.


In a similar way, much of “Toy Story 4” can feel frustrating, from the overarching lack of established characters to a jarring shift towards action that leaves little room for reminiscence. But again, that’s the beauty of this unexpected — and, frankly, unwanted — “fourthquel.” After such a perfectly resolved final chapter in “Toy Story 3,” director Josh Cooley and company should be commended for daring to try something new, for moving past “The End.” 


While the Pixar team’s penchant for beautiful animation, expertly paced storytelling and poignant voice acting is on full display, so, too, are a new array of heady themes — namely, the questioning of one’s own purpose in life. To Woody, a toy’s most noble purpose is bringing joy to a child. If he can no longer do what he once did for Andy, what is left for him to do? The answer, it seems, is to simply exist, to accept that very uncertainty. 


And that’s why “Toy Story 4” justifies its own existence — because it doesn’t try to. Instead of providing fan service, repeating old adventures or relying on nostalgia, this film does the opposite. It continues the story — specifically, Woody’s story — by allowing “The End” to fade away, embracing the impermanence of life as the beautiful mystery it truly is.


— Clinton Olsasky