A few months ago, I watched a documentary on Netflix called “The Pixar Story” which charted the rise of the animation studio through its first several movies and told the story of its partnership with and ultimate acquisition by Disney. One of the things that stuck with me was how different the studio first thought Toy Story was going to be. Apparently, Woody was going to be much more sarcastic and even mean in response to his feelings of abandonment and dismissal upon the arrival of Buzz Lightyear. Luckily, wiser heads prevailed and the first masterpiece of the Pixar oeuvre was born.
The fourth Toy Story movie released on June 21st and is a fitting addition to the Pixar canon. I went in with pretty low expectations because I was thoroughly satisfied with the end of Toy Story 3 and never expected to see this configuration of characters again. More than satisfied, I was emotionally wrecked (in a good way?). Toy Story 3 had some incredibly resonant emotional moments: the trash furnace scene and the denouement of the toys’ story in which they are lovingly given to a young girl, Bonnie, by their original owner, Andy, as he makes his way to college. As college boy introduces his lifelong friends to preschool girl and plays with them one last time… cinematic perfection. It could have been the end of Toy Story and it would have been perfect.
But it wasn’t the end and I’m pleased to report that Toy Story 4 does not disappoint. While it doesn’t contain the same emotionally significant moments, it takes its characters, especially Woody, on an interesting arc that leads to actual change. It also introduces a new character whose existence enhances the “lore” or “magic” of the Toy Story universe.
I’ve always been this kind of narrative media consumer, so maybe other people didn’t do this, but I remember asking myself through the first three movies, “Why are these toys alive?” I wasn’t disappointed that the answer never came, but I always wondered. Western consumerism leads many of us to be surrounded by piles and piles of stuff. What causes these toys to rise above the rest of the stuff? Though I’ve settled on several semi-satisfying answers, I was overjoyed that Toy Story 4 gave me one definitive answer.
Early on in the movie, Bonnie, now a kindergartener and forbidden to bring toys to school, constructs a new toy out of a spork, a pipe cleaner and a popsicle stick. “Forky” is made from trash, but comes to life. Why? Forky himself wonders, even as his desire to return to the trash manifests itself in a lemming-like need to jump into the nearest waste bin. Woody knows why Forky is alive: he’s alive because Bonnie loves him. Her desire for companionship is what gives him meaning and purpose. The idea that a child’s love is what animates Forky is an obvious answer to the question and it makes sense that Woody is the one who gets it because that’s been his reality as Andy’s toy. As Bonnie’s toy, however, Woody isn’t loved in the same way and Toy Story 4 ends up being a story about Woody’s searching for a new purpose in his new reality.
In Andy’s room, Woody was… the sheriff… he ran the show. As Andy’s oldest and most-loved toy, he never questioned his role. Bonnie, however, leaves Woody in the closet and plays with other toys. He’s no longer able to run the room, so when Forky enters Bonnie’s life, Woody takes him under his wing to teach him about a toy’s purpose: being loved. While taking Forky on the journey, Woody reconnects with (a thankfully and gloriously recharacterized) Bo Peep, who lives on the open road, no longer connected to one child exclusively. Her new life has some appeal for Woody, disconnected as he is from his understanding of the purpose of toy-hood.
When Woody ultimately chooses Bo’s life, I have to confess that I didn’t get it and I was pretty underwhelmed by the decision. After the movie, I spoke with my much more intelligent wife who explained it to me. Woody gets Forky back to Bonnie. Having completed his mentor role, he chooses to stay with Bo, but not because he’s abandoning Bonnie! He’s claiming his mentor/connector role as his new purpose. Yes, he’s going to hang out with Bo and her un-coupled friends, but he’s also going to work to connect the toys who desire it to children who will love them. It’s the perfect ending for a toy who we have seen grow over four movies. After loving and being loved by a wonderful boy, Woody is finally in a position to teach other toys how to do the same.
In a series that explored themes of loss, purpose and love, Toy Story 4 reaches new heights and gives its characters compelling journeys (and endings?). With new characters, a compelling and sympathetic “villain,” and beautiful art, Toy Story 4 shows us that love and connection are what animate us.
Common Sense Media rates Toy Story 4 as a 5+ calling it “big-hearted, touching finale.”
Car Conversation on the way home:
- What did you learn from the movie? What was new to you? What surprised you?
- Who is your favorite character? Why? Who made you laugh?
- How do you feel when you lose something? How do you feel when you find something?
- Forky comes to life because Bonnie loved him. Who loves you the way Bonnie loves Forky? Who do you love like Bonnie loves Forky?
- What do the toys teach us is important in our relationships?