As a fictionally famous scientist once said, more as a warning than a promise, “Life finds a way.” The same or similar idea applies to Disney-Pixar and the relentless desire and/or drive to leave no piece of intellectual property, even one as beloved by multiple generations as the Toy Story series, unexploited, regardless of the risks involved. The potential billion-dollar upside was simply too much for any profit-oriented movie studio to pass up. At least that’s what the average cynic would say, especially given the toyetic nature of the Toy Story series and a third, presumably final chapter, Toy Story 3, that seemed to end the series on the highest of high notes. Luckily, any fears or concerns about a potentially disappointing fourth entry don’t apply to Toy Story 4, an unreserved, unqualified triumph of story, character, and animation. It’s an all-ages appeal with more than simple, surface-deep pleasures but a film that will join the Pixar pantheon as both a series and a studio best. 

Helmed by first-time director Chris Cooley (stepping in for the long-banished John Lasseter, justifiably ousted from his leadership position at Pixar after allegations of sexual misconduct surfaced), Toy Story 4 opens shortly after Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks), Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), and the toy menagerie they call a family have been adopted by Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw), an adorable, preschool tyke with an overactive imagination and the material comforts of a solidly middle class, idyllic suburbia (deliberately separated in time, tone, and place from Trump’s America). While Buzz generally participates in Bonnie’s activities, Woody continually finds himself on the outside looking in – or rather stuffed in a dusty closet with the other, disused toys. It’s a development that shakes Woody, a toy that’s always defined himself by a child’s unconditional love and affection, to his core (or stuffing). It’s roughly what parents or anyone in a long-term relationship might experience after their children have grown up (“empty nest syndrome”) or a relationship has ended permanently. Woody’s existential crisis – how and when to redefine himself and with home – isn’t exactly what moviegoers have come to expect from the series, but it’s a welcome development nonetheless, allowing Woody to grow and mature (and audiences with him).

Woody finds a self-redefining purpose, however temporary when he decides to become the chief protector, mentor, and later friend to Bonnie’s newest “toy,” a trashed spork she’s repurposed into “Forky” (Tony Hale) during kindergarten orientation. In an early, running gag with repeated payoffs (each one filled with humor and pathos), the newly sentient Forky wants nothing more than to throw himself into the trash, where he thinks he truly belongs. It takes Woody’s Herculean, patient efforts to convince Forky not to trash (i.e., suicide) himself, even as Woody comes to grips with the realization that he’ll never regain Most Favored Toy (MFT) status or anything even close to that with Bonnie. A family trip gives Woody the chance to take his protector act on the road, but almost immediately, Forky throws himself out of a window, forcing Woody to make the jump into the wild too, blue yonder to save Forky and return him to his rightful place at Bonnie’s side.

What might feel to some like a slow, even meandering start snaps into focus once Woody and the briefly reunited Forky’s take a turn into the strange and unusual world, an antique shop filled with pre-21st-century objects, including Gabby Gabby (Christine Hendricks), an ultra-neurotic doll with a broken voice box and a damaged heart. Echoing a similarly dispossessed, unloved toy from the previous entry, Gabby Gabby’s neurosis turns on being unloved, a purpose unfulfilled that leaves her obsessed with finding a child of her own. Unsurprising for a series that’s often skirted darker subject matter, including mortality in Toy Story 3, a squad of terrifyingly mobile ventriloquist dummies treat Gabby Gabby as their infallible mistress. To come full circle with the series and how it’s treated characters, even Gabby Gabby emerges less as a one-dimensional villain than a deeply misunderstood doll who just wants to be loved and appreciated unconditionally.

Toy Story 4’s real “star,” however, isn’t Woody, Forky, Buzz, or Gabby Gabby. It’s Bo Peep (Annie Potts), long thought lost and all or most, and her evolution from an immobile, porcelain statue into a Furiosa-inspired woman of action. She wows and amazes Woody, her long-ago crush when she makes her first entrance. In turn, she offers Woody, not just a potentially co-equal partner in life’s adventures, but an entirely different, independent path to self-actualization that doesn’t involve children and their unconditional love, in turn transforming the Toy Story series into a four-entry series (for now) about universal life events, from the arrival of a sibling (sibling rivalry) through retirement home (Toy Story 3) and in possibly both a step back and forward, toward a life where meaning derives from shared experiences and above all, companionship (you’ll believe toys, like people, can also share romantic ideas and feelings and act on them as well).

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