Because its subject is childhood and it transpires over 24 years, the Toy Story saga, more than any other series of modern stories—including even Harry Potter—has inevitably become about the children we have known over those years.
The films are about the two-year-old with whom you repeatedly watched the first in the series on a DVD that never made it back into its case, and who now is several years from having graduated from the University of Chicago. They are about the three-year-old who ran from the theater, tears streaking down her face, during the incinerator scene in the third film, and who now sits beside you, her every finger donned with skinny silver rings because that is how Billie Eilish wears them.
But this particular film, in which a cowboy toy from the 1950’s tries to find purpose in a world that has passed him by, is not really about them; it’s about you, about us—the middle-agers who helped raise them and are now wandering around pretending not to be terrified by what’s next.
Toy Story 4 animates our fears and frailties with precision, pathos and such a generosity of both spirit and humor (no doubt, this is the funniest film of the year) that to watch it feels like opening a wondrous gift at an age well after you thought it possible to receive a gift capable of instilling wonder. It’s about confronting depression and uncertainty, dust and rain—two things the filmmakers illustrate with breathtaking artistry—and not being afraid of what you discover on the other side.
The days of Woody (Tom Hanks) being the majordomo of the child’s bedroom in which he resides are well behind him. Button-accessorized Dolly (Bonnie Hunt) is now the leader of the toys, while his Round Up partner Jessie (Joan Cusack) is the favored plaything of five-year-old Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw).
Like a former star exec downshifting to the gig economy, Woody is now more of a freelance facilitator. He keeps the members of his gang calm during stints in the closet, picks dust bunnies off his sleeve when he’s passed over at playtime, and helps smooth over Bonnie’s transition to kindergarten, all the while going unnoticed in his efforts.
TOY STORY 4 ★★★★
It is in that last capacity that he has an unwitting hand in the creation of Forky, a spork transformed by Bonnie’s love and imagination into a toy. Voiced with an electric combination of neurosis and discovery by Veep‘s Tony Hale, the confused one-time piece of trash who longs for the cold comfort of the waste bin adds a layer of emotional complication and mystery to the story that is matched in the series only by the introduction of Jesse in Toy Story 2. While, for Forky, Woody serves almost as an AA sponsor, for Woody, the new character is his fears, hopes and latent depression made manifest.
Following Forky’s introduction, Bonnie’s family goes on a road trip and the story unfolds in three separate physical and psychological landscapes, each with their own set of characters struggling in unique ways to come to terms with what it means to be unclaimed.
First there is the antique store, where we meet Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), a doll whose voice box was damaged when she was still in packaging, and the silent ventriloquist dummies that serve as her muscle. At first, Gabby and the vents felt too reminiscent of Lots-o’-Huggin’ Bear and Big Baby from Toy Story 3 (in my outlier opinion, the weakest of the batch). But, eventually, they become more nuanced in deeply satisfying ways. (Notably, this is the first Toy Story film without a true villain.)
Inside a Tiki-themed pinball machine in the dust-filled shop, we also encounter Duke Caboom, the Canadian stunt toy with a rich and complicated backstory as an object of waning desire. He is not only voiced by Keanu Reeves, but also is imbued with the suddenly ubiquitous actor’s munificent soulfulness.
Across the street from the store, a traveling carnival has set up. There, two attached would-be game prizes, Ducky and Bunny (Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele), a team of fabulists always imagining complicated schemes, dream of nothing more than being won and having a kid want them. At the fair, a toy could ignominiously wind up a potential prize— a fate that befalls Tim Allen’s Buzz Lightyear—or they could be found by a lost child with whom they might form a lifelong bond.
Lastly and most powerfully, there is the play park. This is the land of the lost toys, a realm ruled—in a triumphant return to the series—by Bo Peep (voiced with unfussy directness by Annie Potts). Trading her frilly pink polka dots for a blue jumpsuit, she is a scavenger and survivalist who uses her staff with the same authority that Uma Thurman wields her katana in the Kill Bill movies.
As his great lost love and a fierce believer in independence, she introduces Woody to the idea that he has inherent value that exists whether or not he is played with by a child. And that, along with the powerful connections between the different characters, is what makes this film so singular. It bravely explores the essence of what it is that makes each of us matter beyond the functions we serve as workers or as members of a family.
As much as any pop culture product in recent memory, Toy Story 4 inches us closer to confronting and understanding the very question that has plagued artists, philosophers and more than a few kindergartners for time immemorial: what is the meaning of life? When that question is posited in a deeply moving post-credits scene, the answer is like the film you just watched: incredibly funny and devastatingly true.