If toys really were sentient, and one decided to direct a movie to express all the pent-up rage and frustration it felt about humans for their cruel, callous behavior, it might look like Toy Story 4I’ve never met Josh Cooley, the credited director of this motion picture. I presume he’s a real person. But if you told me a discarded Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robot was using “Josh Cooley” as his pseudonym I would 100 percent believe you.

All the Toy Story films have been told from the toys’ perspective, but something feels a little different this time. The adorable characters and bouncy Randy Newman music do a less effective job than usual of masking the melancholy at the core of these movies. Or maybe the darkness that was always there has been pushed a little closer to the foreground with Toy Story 4, which twists the series’ standard adventure and rescue plot into an existential quest for identity. This movie starts — it starts! — with a suicidal toy and only gets stranger from there.

The despondent toy is Forky (Tony Hale). He’s made at kindergarten orientation by Bonnie, the girl who inherited all of the Toy Story toys at the end of Toy Story 3. She takes a spork, some pipe cleaners, a broken popsicle stick, a couple googly eyes, and voilà: Forky is born. Although she does not realize it, Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw) possess the power of a god. (The exact mechanics of how sentience is bestowed on inanimate objects in the Toy Story universe is not made clear, but it is at least joked about.)


Like many deities, Bonnie is instantly smitten with her new creation. Forky though, does not understand his existence; he was borne of trash and to trash he wishes to return. Any chance he gets, he races for the warm, enveloping embrace of oblivion at the bottom of a garbage can. On a family road trip, Forky seizes an opportunity and flings himself from a speeding RV. The poor spork has a death wish.

He is nurtured back to mental health by Woody (Tom Hanks), the self-appointed leader of Bonnie’s toys. Woody sees how much Bonnie adores her new toy, and takes it upon himself to rescue Forky and convince him to embrace his new life as Bonnie’s plaything. The Forky plot is a clever inversion of the original Toy Story premise, where delusional space cop Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) refused to acknowledge his existence as a toy. In Forky’s case, he doesn’t even understand the concept of being a toy. He just wants to be trash.

Woody’s journey with Forky takes them to an antiques shop lorded over by an old, neglected doll named Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) whose army of obedient, Frankenstein-like ventriloquist dummies lend a film already tinged with metaphysical horror more tangible scares. With Woody and Forky missing, Buzz mounts a recovery operation in the hopes of finding and returning them both to Bonnie before her family’s RV leaves them behind forever.

All of these locales and toys are rendered in astounding animation that I fear is in danger of being overlooked because most of the characters are 20 years old, the setting is relatively mundane, and the key cast addition is literally a plastic utensil. But the character animation in Toy Story 4 — the body language, the movement, the expressions, the “acting” — is astounding. Bonnie is only about a year older than my own daughter, and I was astonished how perfectly Pixar’s animators captured the essence of a preschooler; the way they hide and play with their mom’s pants when they’re feeling shy, or the intensity of their hugs when reunited with a beloved toy they’ve missed. The nuances in the visuals are breathtaking, like the little, uneven bounces of Forky’s plastic body as he’s dragged along a bumpy stretch of asphalt, or the extra squeeze a toy gives a friend after they embrace because it’s such an important moment. That kind of attention to detail is one of the things that makes Pixar Pixar.


Another key element of the Pixar formula is their willingness to explore mature topics and ideas in movies that are allegedly designed for children. In my mind, there’s no question Toy Story 4 is the weakest movie in the series. But it’s also the riskiest and the most pleasantly unpredictable. It also asks more questions — sincere, tough questions — about the nature and meaning of life than almost any “adult movie” I’ve seen this year. Cooley and screenwriters Andrew Stanton and Stephany Folsom take huge changes and wade into some majorly thorny topics. Toy Story 4 is frequently bizarre, and sometimes it’s way scarier than is maybe advisable, at least from a financial perspective. That said, it is never for one single second boring.

None of the Toy Story sequels have shied away from the sad fact that being a living toy sucks. Toy Story 4 leans into that truth harder than ever before. A real toy’s story only ends in one of four ways: They’re forgotten, they’re lost, they’re destroyed, or they’re thrown away. Come to think of it, that’s how every human’s story ends too. That’s why this series remains so heartbreakingly poignant.

Additional Thoughts:

-I didn’t have room to fit in Keanu Reeves’ character, an Evel Knievel inspired motorcycle daredevil named Duke Caboom, but he is utterly delightful. And, yes, he says one or two Keanu-isms along the way.

-The best voice performance might be Tony Hale as Forky. There were a lot of questions and anxiety about Forky when the early trailers for the film focused on him so heavily. But Hale does a terrific job bringing different shades to Forky as he grows from piece of trash into a treasured toy.

-The antiques shop where a large part of the second act is set is a gold mine for Pixar Easter eggs. My favorite involves an old 8mm film projector. Check out the film reels that are lying next to it.

-Although the movie is thoroughly entertaining (and borderline disturbing!) throughout, it does feel at times like an extremely well-executed patch job that combined a bunch of different sequel ideas into a single screenplay. (The writing is credited to eight different men and women, including Rashida Jones, Will McCormack, and former Pixar chief John Lasseter.) The very first scene involves another rescue mission, of a character who is saved then never seen again for the rest of the movie. Two characters who’ve been established having one motivation make a choice in the climax that seems to fly directly in the face of that. Again, the movie works as a whole. But it’s a whole that doesn’t feel as precisely focused as any of the previous Toy Storys.


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