Within an hour of my having seen Toy Story 4, I met with the obvious question—how was it?—from my editor, then my dear friend, and finally my mother. I wrestled with this question over the span of that hour, which saw me part ways with a collective of colleagues whose professional and personal esteem I tirelessly crave, walk to my subway stop with a close pal and fixture of my contemporary social life, and cross paths on the train platform with a childhood friend and a former roommate whom I no longer see as often as I’d like. I’ll deny myself further indulgence of this line of thought for your sake, though in my defense, indulgence of such existential pangs and pleasures is entirely apropos in the wake of Toy Story 4.
The film comes nine years and endless fits of consternation after Toy Story 3, a movie that even my habitually precious cohort is uniquely precious about. Those nine years ago, Toy Story 3 not only concluded (or so we then thought) the story of Woody and his kid Andy with touching tenderness, it retroactively validated its trilogy on the whole as something of an analog for the life story of the generation that grew up with it (and, in a big way, their parents). On one hand, Toy Story 4 makes good on this idea, checking in on its aging audience with questions it may not be prepared to answer. On the other, it seems empowered to tell us that it may be time to move on.
Sprouting from the muck and brush of this thematic paradox is Forky (Tony Hale), the impetus for Woody’s latest adventure, and an emblem for much of why I find Toy Story 4 to be such a vexing wonder. Bonnie, the young girl who inherited Andy’s toys at the end of Toy Story 3, breathes life into an ad-hoc art project, rendering the most demented character to spring forth from the series to date (I’m including Sid, Lots-o’-Huggin’ Bear, and even the legitimately horrifying ventriloquist dummies that we meet this time around). Emulating his piecemeal physique, one half of Forky is a wacky countenance and an inclination toward babbling, and the other, far darker half is desperation to end his life.
You will not believe how much of this movie is devoted to Woody trying to keep Forky from throwing himself into oblivion. Said mission finds the sheriff adventuring through a carnival and an adjacent antique shop (the setting for Toy Story 4‘s particularly twisted array of sight gags), where he, by chance, reconnects with an old flame, Bo Peep. And while Forky’s crisis of being may be the central conceit in the film’s marketing, however bizarre that is, it’s Woody’s that serves as the backbone for the film itself, likewise for the Toy Story series’ latest attempt to hold a mirror up to its longest-standing tier of fandom. When Bo asks Woody how he’s been spending these past nine years, it feels like Toy Story 4 is asking “us” the very same.
At the end of Toy Story 3, Andy left for college, Woody adopted a new kid (and vice versa), and the rest of us began whatever next chapters lay before us. That the interim decade has seen something of an existential maelstrom sweep America at large is hard not to think about when considering Woody’s self-examination. That the millennial identity has been, fairly or otherwise, connoted with arrested development and chronic nostalgia are tough to ignore as well. Granted, that the given millennial is hard-pressed to emancipate themself from the grander defining narrative of their time and place is also something that Toy Story 4 has a lot to say about.
But on the opposite side of the same coin, Toy Story 4 asks us to let it go. A gag early on in the film utilizes the voice talents of showbiz legends Mel Brooks, Betty White, Carol Burnett, and Carl Reiner to assure Woody that his time in the spotlight is over. The tides of time has a more pronounced (and meta-textual) effect on Woody’s old pals; Buzz Lightyear is demoted to a secondary character (and has been effectively lobotomized) in Toy Story 4, while the likes of Jessie, Rex, Hamm, Mr. Potato Head, and my beloved Slinky Dog are barely seen whatsoever.
It’s not so subtle a metaphor that Toy Story 4 clears the path to make room for a new legion of heroes: the Polly Pocket-esque Giggle McDimples (Ally Maki), a pair of stuffed animals Ducky and Bunny (Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele), and stuntman action figure Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves, who invariably steals the show). Long gone are the days of Don Rickles amusing parents with a literal interpretation of his hockey puck catchphrase; now we have Kristen Schaal earning a chuckle with 2010s slang (“I have all the questions!”). But despite the pleas of one trauma-stricken utensil, we—the new old guard, as it were—can’t just stop existing. So Toy Story 4 gives us a story about life after whatever it was we thought life was supposed to be.
Life may be less magical than we expected; Toy Story 4 is the first in the series not to open in the midst of a fantastical playtime sequence. Instead, our first sight is a subtext-rich title card: “Nine years earlier,” which precedes a rescue mission of a fallen RC Car (whom, if I’m not mistaken, we haven’t seen since Toy Story ’95, nor do we ever see again following this flashback. To that end, life may also entail goodbyes we weren’t ready to wage.) Going forward, Toy Story 4 trades the sci-fi-themed arcade and sprawling toy store settings of yore for a relatively cramped antique shop and its adjoining parking lot. Is it fair to usher in new young viewers by way of this smaller, darker, and more emotionally challenging chapter? That question is part of why I can’t figure out how to review the damn thing.
So estranged am I from my own younger self by now that I truly can’t imagine how a given child will react to Forky, Giggle, Ducky, Bunny, Duke, or the more somber Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks). All I can do is stew on the questions that Toy Story 4 opts to unload on me, my generation, and our old friend Woody from moment one. In the nine years that have passed since Toy Story 3, I’ve moved to the city, gotten a job (and another, and another…), roomed and subsequently parted ways with the aforementioned childhood friend, welcomed new people into my life, said goodbye to others, put my dog to sleep, come out as trans, bounded between the highs of mania and the lows of depression, given up on lifelong dreams, put just-as-long regrets to rest, discovered new passions, new hobbies, new things that make me happy, and, most recently, started eating yogurt.
I don’t know how I feel about Toy Story 4 making me the audience to this question and the natural follow-up—Where will you go from here?—when it’s got a new generation I might rather see it inspire. Though if I’m being honest, maybe the real problem is that I’m not prepared to answer that question. Frankly, I have no idea where I’ll go from here.
Though I suppose I’m glad you asked.