This contains spoilers for Toy Story 4.
That Toy Story 4 is a mess, narratively, is undeniable. It’s probably the worst of the franchise from a storytelling point of view, and the finality of its ending feels like a kindness – let these characters rest, or rather live forever in parks and toys but never again in a movie.
And yet there’s something impossibly charming about the film, and even though the story is a Frankenstein-ed together disaster of disparate setpieces and unserviced characters, there’s a lot of wisdom and beauty to be found within the film. As a critic I see Toy Story 4 as a big old wreck, albeit an often delightful one, but as somebody looking for something deeper in my entertainment I see Toy Story 4 as a wellspring of great ideas about healing, boundaries, change and acceptance.
The movie opens with Woody facing, yet again, his obsolescence. This time it feels more serious, though; the toys have been handed off to Bonnie, and she prefers playing with Jesse over Woody, who gathers dust bunnies in the closet. But Woody can’t let go of his status as the leader of the toys, and especially his role as the protector of his child – even as he keeps saying “Andy” when he means “Bonnie.” So when Bonnie is sent to her first day of kindergarten without a toy, he sneaks along to offer his support.
While at school Bonnie – with the aid of Woody – creates a little man out of a spork and craft supplies; because she plays with the spork and gives it a name, Forky, it comes to life and finds itself in an existential crisis. Since he was built with stuff that came from the trash, Forky thinks that he is trash himself, and he longs for the embrace of the garbage can. Woody has to convince Forky that he’s actually a toy now, and that he’s come to this position thanks to the love of Bonnie.
There’s a movie in that! That movie, however, is not Toy Story 4, which quickly blows through Forky’s arc and leaves him to hang out, offscreen, for most of the film. It’s one of the many bad and weird choices that the movie makes, narratively, that keep this from being the kind of Toy Story we expect from Pixar.
And yet… Forky’s story, elided as it is, sets the stage for a larger journey for Woody. Toy Story 4, for all its messy narrative mistakes, actually creates an intriguing picture of the ways that we depend on love… and the ways we can become dependent on it. The film examines Woody’s obsession with serving children through a questioning lens: is he actually a co-dependent? Can he not move on with his own life because his value is defined only through the love he gets from children?
Woody’s problems with this are contrasted with the adventures of Bo Peep; once the ceramic figure on a bedside lamp owned by Andy’s sister Bonnie, Bo Peep was given away years earlier. After that she ended up in an antique shop, where she sat untouched for years before escaping and becoming a ‘lost toy.’ But that life – which is the greatest nightmare for the main Toy Story cast – has actually been a rewarding one for Bo. She’s free to do as she pleases, serving no gods, masters or children, and she finds that love is there to be gotten from many sources.
One of those sources is Woody; Bo and Woody had a flirtation going on before she went away. As part of the film’s janky-ass story, Woody runs into her while trying to reunite a suicidal Forky with Bonnie, and he discovers that she’s become something of an action heroine. But more than that, he sees that she has exploded his ideas of what it means to be a ‘lost toy,’ a lesson that is especially relevant as Bonnie clearly has no interest in playing with the sheriff. He sees in her a new source of the love that animates toys.
There’s a lot going on in Toy Story 4 on a metaphysical level; Forky getting life is a surprise to not only Forky but all the rest of the toys as well. The idea that Bonnie created Forky – literally built him – and then bestowed life upon him with her love recasts the children of the Toy Story universe as God (or perhaps the Demiurge, but that’s too complicated for the scope of this paragraph); she is Forky’s creator and she has created him to serve her. In fact that is what stops Forky from continuously attempting suicide (he keeps trying to throw himself away) – he learns that he gives Bonnie comfort and safety. He exists to serve her needs.
Recasting the children of Toy Story 4 as God (or gods) creates a cosmology that is full of fickle godlings that don’t even identify with their vassal’s sentience or innate being-ness. This is a frightening, Herzogian view of the universe as a place of chaos and casual destruction – God may love you one day and throw you out the next, never even thinking twice about it. Molly gives away Bo Peep with cruel casualness, after all.
On a metaphysical level the story of Bo Peep and Woody becomes one of rejecting God, of fleeing His or Her domain (the Room being a stand-in for Eden) and finding something meaningful in secular relationships between people who have chosen to be together, not between toys who are thrown together by the vagaries of God.
This makes Toy Story 4 kind of an atheist manifesto, a story about how the true terror is living within God’s will and that paradise is a restricted space of capriciousness, and that beyond the walls of God’s prison for us lies true freedom. It’s an anarchist movie, one that explodes beyond the petty morality of a rules-based society (the lost toys live without a ruler or a structured society of any sort) and reveals the joys of living in an almost Satanic way – do as thou wilt shall be the whole of the law, these toys proclaim. This is especially true of the newest members of the cast, Bunny and Ducky, whose constant instinct is to break the ultimate law – toys must never be sentient in front of people! – and who are held back by Buzz Lightyear… who eventually comes over to their side and throws away toydom’s most sacred rule in order to help his friend.
But I don’t think that’s what the movie is actually about, it’s just the messiness of the narrative that turns into an atheist anarchist fable. I actually think the filmmakers believe they made a movie about getting older and letting go of the identities you built for yourself as a parent and a worker, about retiring and even remarrying in later life. But I think the movie is actually about heavier emotional things than that.
See, Woody is in a very unhealthy relationship with Bonnie. He’s still attached to Andy, and he’s trying to recreate what he had with Andy with Bonnie. But he can’t because, a) Bonnie isn’t Andy and b) Bonnie doesn’t love him like Andy did. So he’s in this space where he’s desperately grasping for love but on terms that don’t exist. He’s trapped in a cycle of suffering – he wants to recapture a thing that has passed, and to do so he will try to ingratiate himself with a new owner who does not give him the love that he wants because the love that he wants is something from the past…
Woody should probably hit up a couple of Co-Dependents Anonymous or Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous meetings. He’s got an unhealthy sense of himself, and he defines himself ONLY in terms of what he brings to other people. He’s willing to accept subpar treatment from Bonnie because he thinks that’s his role in the world. Woody has no good sense of self, and only sees himself as reflected in the love of a child.
He can’t find the next step of his life, and so he’s repeating patterns in relationships where he’s not getting what he needs. He’s not quite being abused, but he’s definitely giving more than he’s getting, and when the movie opens he’s taking it very far. His decision to hitch a ride to school works out, but it’s also kind of creepy and transgressive, and the other toys are more than a little horrified about it (the movie underplays a bunch of this stuff). He’s simply unable to transition to the next stage of life; he thought Bonnie would just be Andy II, and when that wasn’t the case he had no clue what to do next.
Eventually – very eventually – he begins to understand that he can’t place everybody before himself. He also learns that the reason he’s doing that – why he’s willing to give up his voicebox to get Forky back to Bonnie – is that he can’t see a life for himself beyond being owned by a child. Woody allows this dearth of imagination to constrain him, as we all do – we can’t picture a life outside of our current comfort zones, and so we trap ourselves within them. This is how we end up staying in unhealthy, or even abusive, situations.
But Bo Peep blows that up. She models for Woody a new way, free of the need to cling to a child. What’s more, she’s doing what Woody loves to do – she’s the leader of the Room, except now the Room is the whole fucking world. It’s not just the bedroom of some kid, it’s anywhere and everywhere, and Bo Peep has her run of it. Fairly literally – she’s built a skunk car that allows her and her lost toy buddies to just zoom around in daytime.
Bo Peep, by the way, rules. She’s the character of the summer, and while we’re in a ‘yaaas kween’ moment, she’s not a character in that mold. She’s just a badass on her own terms, and those terms don’t feel forced. She’s capable in action, and she’s a strong leader. She’s absolutely the female Woody, down to having a weird-ass paramilitary sidekick who helps her work through her emotions.
But there’s something deeper about Bo that I like. I like that she’s Bo, not Peep, for one thing. And she’s ceramic (or porcelain. Depending on how classy the lamp was, I guess), but that isn’t a liability. There are no scenes where her inherently breakable nature is even brought up. The filmmakers considered it – one of her arms is attached only by tape – but it’s just not a thing to worry about, it simply is the way she is. This is so relatable – where Woody and most of the other toys are stuffed or made of hard, unbreakable plastic, Bo is way more fragile, like all of us. Yet she doesn’t let it get in the way of her living her best life as a ‘lost toy.’
If Toy Story 4’s narrative is a mess, the movie at least makes the smart decision to focus largely on Woody. This is one of the great Tom Hanks roles, and more time with him is welcome, especially if the franchise is ending (as it should). It is weird that Buzz Lightyear gets almost nothing to do – he’s shoehorned into the third act and accomplishes absolutely nothing – but will anyone actually be mad about that? Buzz is a character who probably should have made his exit in the last film; he seems to have made peace with his absolute uselessness by the time this movie opens.
The Toy Story franchise ends with a whimper, not a bang, but even a less-great Toy Story is still a touching and beautifully made experience. This is the peculiar magic of Pixar; in the 24 years since the first Toy Story the studio has had a remarkable run, with only a handful of films that would actually cross the rubicon to being bad. Toy Story 4 is probably in the middle of the Pixar pack, although the warmth we have for these characters certainly boosts it.
Still, even with subpar writing, Toy Story 4 manages to be a wise and moving exploration of some of the more nuanced and complicated aspects of the concepts of ‘letting go’ and ‘moving on.’ It’s a movie that tackles unhealthy relationships with gentleness, and it’s a movie that, in the end, refuses to make anyone bad. Even the movie’s ostensible villain, Gabby Gabby, is in the end seen as yet another victim of the need for love.
There’s a maturity to the way the movie explores this concept. It doesn’t throw away the idea of finding meaning in service – it’s what changes Forky’s life. But it does look at the places where the service becomes denial of sense, where the giving becomes desperate. And the movie has the courage to examine these things in small ways; there’s not a huge crisis that rubs it all in Woody’s face. In fact, the whole Forky plot is a lot of wheel-spinning, and it’s possible that’s on purpose – the driving force behind Woody taking all these actions is a fucking spork that Bonnie is surely going to forget about in three weeks (God knows I will).
So we end with Woody in love, but maybe more crucially with Woody being loved for himself. One of the interesting things about these movies is that the ways the kids play with the toys don’t reflect the personalities of the toys as we have come to know them – Woody’s always being flown around and smashing into things. Andy and Bonnie interacted with Woody on their terms, and the love they gave him was a distant love for how they could use him. But Bo loves him for who he is, including the ways that he places others before himself. The movie doesn’t ask Woody to learn to be selfish or have some sort of self-empowerment thing (nothing drives me nuttier than a character having to learn to be selfish. Wrong lesson!), it asks him to figure out how to apply his natural kindness and selflessness judiciously. It’s not wrong that Woody wants to serve, it’s just that he was doing it in ways that were harmful.
Woody finds himself of use again, in ways he could never imagine, and loved again, in ways he could never have foreseen. This is what awaits us when we accept change and move forward through it; it’s what we get when we practice acceptance and take the world on its own terms rather than trying to cling to what once was. I’ll take a narratively clumsy movie that gorgeously extends this messaging over a clockwork plot that is essentially hollow.