All your toys are trash. If they’re not in the garbage yet, they will be soon. Yes, even your most precious early aughts era McFarlane Toys Jason X Movie Maniac figure. I’m impressed that you’ve kept a hold of it for this long, but sooner or later you’re going to turn your back, and your mom, dad, brother, sister, wife, husband, father-time, peer-pressure, whatever will chuck it in the dustbin. Society tells us that we have to grow up, and even the Toy Story trilogy finished with the ultimate joy-killer of adulthood ruining Andy’s imagination by steering his plastic friends into the arms of the still-willfully creative child Bonnie. She’ll love them for now, but she’ll grow out of it, too.
Welcome to Toy Story 4, a film that manages to find yet another wistful conclusion to the toy chest of characters that kickstarted the Pixar empire. Having faced the existential crisis of inevitable extinction in the maw of the furnace, Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), and the rest came to grips with Andy’s departure and the opportunities to maintain love in the heart of young Bonnie. Now, they are forced to find happiness amongst a new bedroom roster, where Woody can be demoted from sheriff to closet castaway by the whim of a child. They escaped the great melting, but what’s to prevent them from the callous dismissal of their current caregiver? There are only three options: the incineration, the trash, or to walk the Earth as a lost toy forever.
The retail sale of toys is on the decline. Toys R Us is dead; Geoffrey the Giraffe rots in his grave. G.I. Joes and Barbies are forced to battle for attention against video games and YouTube, and they are losing. Companies like Hasbro and NECA find themselves chasing the wallets of stunted 30- and 40-year-olds like myself, but we’re chasing the crypt as well. Everyone’s end is inevitable. Trash is the destiny of life. Make your peace with it.
↓Spoilers for Toy Story 4↓
In Toy Story 4, Woody struggles in his new life with Bonnie. He has her name on his foot, but not her heart. The situation becomes grimly clear when he stows away in her backpack to help her through the first day of kindergarten only to discover that a jumbled collection of trash she’s glued together from the wastebin captures her attention better than he ever could. Woody is without purpose, and his spirit is waning.
The birth of Forky (Tony Hale) is a nightmarish experience for everyone, including Forky. He should not be. He came from trash, and he desperately wants to return to trash. The outside world is cold and indiscernible. The womb of the dumpster is warm and inviting. Over and over, the living spork flings himself back into the garbage screaming, “I’m trash! I’m trash!” What should be a wondrous example of the power and importance of imagination causes terror and dread amongst our friends. How can Andy’s gang compete against Bonnie’s god-like power of creation? They can’t.
Gathered to soothe Bonnie during a road trip vacation, the toys leave the bedroom to witness the greater view of the world outside. Woody makes it his mission to keep Forky at bay. The cowboy sees the joy the spork sparks in Bonnie’s eyes, and he will not let that life die out no matter how suicidal this creature may be. When Forky flings himself out the window of the RV, Woody hops into pursuit. He nabs the spork, but getting him back to the RV park proves a lot more complicated than a long walk.
As they near their destination and pass through town, Woody spots the light of Bo Peep’s (Annie Potts) lamp in an antique shop. Nine years earlier, Bo was cast aside and sold off by her kid. She’s been living the Furiosa-life of a lost toy ever since, fending for herself and growing resentment for the children who grow out of love. Woody attempts to reconnect with the girl who got away, but he also comes under the dark gaze of Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), a talking baby doll with a deteriorated voice box. She wants the functioning box inside Woody, and she kidnaps Forky as a bargaining chip.
Bo Peep and her gang of lost toys help Woody trevail the treacherous realm of the antique shop where a cat prowls for plush stuffing and a gaggle of ventriloquist dummies march to Gabby Gabby’s orders. With the assistance of Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves), Woody reunites with Forky but discovers that the spork has fallen under the spell of the doll. Gabby Gabby is not a monster; she’s just another toy like Woody desperate for the affection of a child. As someone who knew the love of Andy and lost it, Woody understands her pain and willingly gives up his voicebox to Gabby Gabby. After a quick surgery, she regains her original voice and uses it to lure the granddaughter of the shop owner. Sadly, Gabby Gabby fails to ignite her imagination and is tossed aside once again.
Woody convinces Gabby Gabby to join their Bonnie troupe, but on the way back to the RV they spot a lost child at a fair. Gabby Gabby sees potential in the tears, and with the assistance of Woody, she gains the child’s attention. Lost toy and lost child come together, and a bond is formed. The time comes to say goodbye to Bo Peep, but Woody resists departure. Buzz gives him a little nudge, and Woody decides to leave Bonnie’s room for Bo Peep’s world. He’s served his purpose as a toy. The time has come for him to make his place beside Bo Peep.
During the post-credits sequences, we catch a glimpse of Woody’s adventures alongside new friends Giggle McDimples (Ally Maki), Ducky (Keegan-Michael Key), and Bunny (Jordan Peele). Their new mission is to liberate as many fair-game plushies as possible, finding homes for each one by rigging the system. Back in Bonnie’s room, Jesse returns from first grade with another trash-born friend: Knifey! It’s love at first sight between her and Forky. Feeling confident from all the lessons bestowed upon him by Woody, Forky tells her, “I can explain everything.” Knifey manages to utter, “How am I alive?” We get a blank stare from Forky. “I don’t know,” he says. The existential crisis continues. To be continued in Toy Story V: The Final Frontier.
At the very end of the credits, we get a dedication to Don Rickles, “Thank you for bringing your voice, humor, and spirit to Toy Story. We are eternally grateful” followed by a second one for Adam Burke, “A gifted animator and friend to all. We love you to infinity and beyond.” Finally, the Pixar logo arises, but instead of the usual Luxor Jr. bouncing lamp to replace the letter I, Duke Caboom races into position. He hits the I and strikes a series of poses. From the right of screen enters snow patrol Combat Carl (Carl Weathers) who was previously denied high-fives from his fellow soldiers but receives an epic slap from Duke Caboom. Validation through friendship achieved. Toy Story 4 offers a final bittersweet smile at the last instant.
The end. For now. Toy Story 3 seemingly offered a kind of closure for Woody and Buzz, but Pixar found yet another stage for the toys to face in Toy Story 4. Where can the characters go from here? What more is there to face after you’ve come to terms with your purpose as well as your death? I would call it impossible if not for the miracle of this satisfying, somber, and sweet film. Again, let’s attack the great barrier and consider what God needs with a starship…or, uh, a toy chest.
Everything we know is born from nothing and will return to nothing. Or not, let’s get spiritual. What’s important is that we recognize and cherish love when it comes into our lives. You can’t force it. You can’t design it or generate it where it does not exist, but take a look around. There may be more love in your life than you already know. Hold onto it.