By Talya Stehley, Contributing Writer
The original Toy Story didn’t have to be good. Pixar could have released a two-hour tech demo and still made cinematic history. But that’s not what they did. Toy Story was heartfelt and well written, and it captured the collective imagination. Toy Story 2 and 3 are notable as the rare sequels that outshine their predecessors, with Toy Story 3 in particular gaining notoriety for making adults cry. A big reason why I didn’t initially want to see Toy Story 4 was that I assumed it would try to outdo the emotional punch of Toy Story 3, and I’m pretty sure the only way you could do that is by finding and burning each individual viewer’s favorite toy, right there in the theater. That’s not my idea of a fun Saturday night, but the people I was with wanted to see it, so I saw it.
Toy Story 4’s central conflict revolves around Forky, a spork with googly eyes and a glitter glue mouth, and Woody’s struggle to get him back from Gabby Gabby, a vintage doll who lives in an antique shop. Forky is a piece of garbage that was repurposed into a toy, but he still knows somehow that he was truly made to be used and thrown away. Like all of us, he comes into the world terrified and confused. His lack of knowledge about the world he lives in allows the narrative to question the central assumption of the Toy Story universe – that toys want to by played with. If this were inherently true, why would Forky need to have it explained to him?
Bo Peep from the first two movies returns in this installment, and it turns out that in the intervening years, she’s been ownerless by choice and is happy in that life, calling the franchise’s central assumptions into question from a perspective of experience rather than naiveté. Her new self-reliance stands in sharp contrast with the movie’s villain, Gabby Gabby, who is obsessed with the idea of being loved by a child and is willing to go to great lengths to get what she wants. She’s jealous of Woody’s voice box because hers was defective from the start, and eventually, Woody is forced to give it to her in order to retrieve Forky. This plot point was one of my biggest issues with the movie.
When Gabby first expresses the desire for the voice box, it’s creepy. And while the toys are often indifferent to injuries that would incapacitate a living thing (earlier in the movie, Bo Peep’s arm falls off and she just laughs and tapes it back on), the scene immediately following Woody’s voice box removal is a blurry first-person shot from Woody’s perspective, evoking the experience of coming off anesthesia after a major surgery. And then it’s basically forgotten.
In the past, Woody would occasionally use his pull-string as a grappling hook or lasso, but this never seems to be necessary in the rest of the movie. His sacrifice is undercut by the fact that it never so much as inconveniences him and Gabby Gabby is forgiven by the end of the movie. This felt weak and undeserved.
Toy Story 4 questions the assumption that toys want to be played with, but that’s not the only way it prods at the franchise’s worldbuilding. Forky is an object in one moment and a toy the next, raising the question of what precisely defines a toy. Toys in the movie are shown exerting more agency and influence on the world around them than in the previous movies, even terrifyingly interfering with Bonnie’s father’s driving. On the flip side, though, the movie also raises questions that have no good in-universe answers. Why weren’t Bo Peep’s sheep sidekicks in the previous movies? Woody says he was manufactured in the 1950s, so why doesn’t he remember his owners before Andy? While not necessarily inconsistent with the previous movies, Toy Story 4 doesn’t always feel like an organic continuation of the previous movies.
While the writing is flawed, Toy Story 4’s visuals are a treat to behold. The environments, from crowded antique shops, lit up carnivals, and mundane stretches of road, are detailed and beautiful. The characters all look better than ever. The animators paid extra special attention to textures this time around. For the first time, you can really tell the difference between Bo Peep’s ceramic and Woody’s plastic. Key and Peele play carnival prizes, and you can tell how cheaply made their characters are. You can glance at any one of the toys in this movie and immediately know what it would feel like if you put them in your mouth, like a child might. Because, at the end of the day, that’s who this movie is made for. Toy Story 4 doesn’t even approach the series’ previous heights — that’s disappointing to me. I would even go as far to say that while it’s not bad, it doesn’t justify its own existence as a piece of art, but not without acknowledging that I’m not the target audience of this movie. And as far as ways to entertain the kids for an hour-and-a-half, go, you could certainly do a lot worse than Toy Story 4.