The Toy Story franchise has always had a latent streak of existential dread, but Toy Story 4 is the first one to fully embrace the nightmare and be ABOUT the existential horror of existence. These are stories predicated on the importance of friendship, and that is still present in Toy Story 4, but the driving force of the film is two questions: What is the purpose of life, and how do we define it? Toy Story 4 feels explicitly made for adults—kids will enjoy it, no doubt, but it feels targeted at the present-day adults who were children when Toy Story first debuted. It’s also maybe the funniest Toy Story? And the best? It’s definitely my favorite.
The film picks up with Woody and the gang living with Bonnie, their new kid. And you guys, Woody (Tom Hanks) is having a Hard Time. No longer the favorite toy, Woody clings to his devotion in a way that immediately seems imbalanced and unsustainable. It is clear that, post-Andy, Woody’s life is not working out as he pictured. So it’s a desperate attempt at control when Woody jumps into Bonnie’s backpack and goes with her to kindergarten orientation day. There, Woody sees Bonnie struggle to connect with her peers, and how she perks up once she creates “Forky” (Tony Hale), a craft-project toy made from a spork and other bits of actual trash Woody throws on her table. In Forky, Woody finds a purpose, to protect and train Bonnie’s new favorite toy in the ways of being a favorite toy. Forky, who believes he is trash, is not so enthused.
There has never been a character more designed for The Internet than Forky. Proudly proclaiming he is trash, he flings himself into garbage cans with abandon—Tumblr is going to LOVE Forky. But Woody does not see Forky as trash, he sees Forky as a toy, created and loved by Bonnie. I have a lot of questions about what Forky means for the world of Toy Story—is everything in this world alive? Forky knows himself as a spork, meant for a single use and then to be disposed of. Does that mean all flatware is sentient? Or did he only come alive because of Bonnie’s meddling? Does every child’s DIY toy come alive, or is Bonnie some kind of god? Toy Story 4 is not interested in these questions. Instead, Toy Story 4 sends Woody and Forky on a journey to discover their purpose.
One of Forky’s self-trashing attempts results in Forky and Woody being separated from Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) and the other toys, and on their way back to Bonnie, they get waylaid in an antique store after Woody spots a lamp that reminds him of Bo Peep (Annie Potts). A cold open recalls the night Bo Peep left the family—which features a legit HARROWING rescue scene as gripping as anything you’ll see in theaters this year—and now, it seems, Woody has a chance to reconnect with his old flame. But first he has to get through vintage doll Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks, baby-voiced perfection) and her troop of GODAWFUL TERRIFYING ventriloquist dummies.
The adventure portion of Toy Story 4 is great, with Woody hooking up with road warrior Bo Peep, now a “lost toy”; Ducky and Bunny, a pair of conjoined psychopath carnival toys voiced by Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, respectively; and Duke Caboom, a Canadian stunt-toy haunted by the memory of failing his child on Boxing Day and voiced to perfection by Keanu Reeves. Most of the film is Woody with his new pals, so the old gang doesn’t get much screen time, but there is a consistently funny gag with Buzz Lightyear misunderstanding what “inner voice” means.
Woven throughout all the jokes and adventure, though, is Woody’s haunting quest to find a new purpose, since he is no longer the favorite toy, and Forky’s quest to understand…anything. At one point Forky asks, “Why am I alive?”—a moment destined to launch a thousand gifs—which is an enormous question to ask in what is, ostensibly, a children’s cartoon. Toy Story 4 still orbits the “friendship is good” universe established by the first Toy Story, but it reaches for much deeper meaning by asking what it means to live purposefully. Woody and Forky are characters in crises, scrambling to find something to live for. Toy Story 4 posits that it is enough to live for each other, to find purpose in helping and meaning in giving. It’s a beautiful message that hits especially hard at a time when it feels like traditional markers of success are increasingly unreachable and thus, meaningless. Woody and the gang have somehow always known what we need to hear and when we need to hear it, and they have come now to tell us that it’s okay if we don’t know who we are or what we’re doing as long as we are trying, and the only thing we have to do is be good to one another, and that will be enough.
Attached - Tom Hanks at the Toy Story 4 photocall yesterday in Barcelona.