Toy Story is a franchise that has grown up with its audience. While Toy Story 4 is still a children’s movie, it’s hard for me, a 20-something reviewer, to view it as such. My older brother and I wore out the VHS tape of the original and Andy went off to college when I did. It seemed like a fitting end to the franchise. But life goes on after college, and, apparently, so does Toy Story.
Toy Story 4 finds Woody living with his new kid, Bonnie, yet again becoming obsolete. He’s no longer the toys’ leader. He’s left in the closet rather than played with. Desperate to make himself useful, he takes it upon himself to protect Bonnie’s new favorite “toy,” an unnatural spork and pipe-cleaner creation named Forky who, upon gaining sentience, has one aim: to get into the trash where he rightfully belongs. As Woody chases Forky, trying to prevent his pseudo-suicidal desire to get into the trash, and reunites with the now-swashbuckling Bo Peep, he has to confront his lifelong belief that all toys belong with children.
Like it did when I watched Andy go to college, watching Woody go through an existential crisis feels timely. Through Forky, the film dips its toes into the existential nature of mental illness and meme culture; Forky’s cry of “I’m trash!” echoes internet slang, and his flippant attitude toward the toys’ concept of death– getting thrown away– is distinctly millenial and Gen Z. But perhaps the more interesting narrative lies in Woody finally realizing he’s no longer relevant. The cowboy is more antique than beloved plaything, and finds himself reckoning with his position in the world, which brings out the worst in him. Woody doesn’t listen to others, he’s selfish and self-centered, and has a streak of self-important exceptionalism that blinds him to the needs of his friends.
Is it a coincidence that the friends this most affects are women? Probably not. Early in the film, Woody struggles to let Dolly be the leader in Bonnie’s room, and interrupts Jessie and the other female toys. As the film progresses, it doesn’t question whether or not Woody is obsolete in his current role– he is! Instead, it questions whether or not he can step aside and let women take the lead. Can Woody, the older generation, learn to see things in a new way? Effectively, can men and baby boomers step aside to make room for a new, more diverse generation? This might not be the story we need, especially seeing as it’s still centered on Woody, but it does feel like an honest one. It’s a child’s film that’s thematically aimed at the parents and grandparents in the room.
Toy Story 4 feels more disjointed than its predecessors, and those looking for the ultra-tight, ultra-polished feel of the first two films will likely find this one a bit lacking. 4 is touching base on so many characters and ideas that at times it feels as floundering as its main character. But its heart is in the right place, and as with all Pixar films the strides made in animation are stunning, from the noir-lit aisles of the antique store to the brilliant texture of the rain. It’s worth seeing in a dark theatre with bright projection. And then there’s all of the details that make Toy Story what it is: the colorful cast of instantly-memorable side characters, incredible voice talents, and the rapid-fire jokes and references. This sequel is guaranteed to surprise you and provide some belly-laughs along the way.
My friends will confirm that I love all of the Toy Story films. Despite my sequel fatigue, I’m sad to let them go. But as fond as I am of these stories, it’s time to grow up– and that goes not just for me, but for the Woodys everywhere. Let’s make room for everyone in the sandbox.
About Merritt Mecham
Hello! My name is Merritt, and I’m a writer based in Salt Lake City, UT.
I have work experience in radio, film, and education. These days you can find me working in the Film & Media Arts Department at the University of Utah.
I’m also available for freelance writing. Read my work.
I’d love to work with you! Check out my resume.