Toy Story 4 is, like most films that cross my path lately, about a breakup. Set nine years before the events of the third film, we begin with a rescue mission. RC, Andy’s remote control car, is left outdoors during a torrential downpour with Woody (Tom Hanks) and the cadre of toys that inhabit Andy’s room hoping to make the save. They do, but not until they’re surprised by the realization that Andy’s sister Molly, meanwhile, is giving up her Bo Peep (Annie Potts) figurine. The toy’s placed in a cardboard box along with a potpourri of unneeded things and briefly left in the rain, as Woody breaks quota with another rescue attempt, only for Bo to accept her fate: Molly doesn’t need her anymore and she’s willing to move onto the next child. Not to be betrayed by Woody’s idealism, Bo’s capacity to move on, to embrace the unknown, and divorce herself from the vise grip of placidity and stagnation is something that Woody just can’t wrap his mind around. And it takes over a decade of disappointment and alienation for Woody to come to grips with his ever-fluid importance to both Andy and now, carrying on where we left off in Toy Story 3, Bonnie.
Toy Story 4 ends up becoming a film about the importance of a craft to one’s happiness, about the “existential agony” that comes with everything around you changing while you remain the same, and the messy mechanics of trying to force the past out of the present. As you’d imagine, it’ll mean a lot of things to different people, but most vitally, it just plain means something.
No longer a top-shelf main eventer, Woody is relegated to the backstage undercard, a closet ornament, with his sheriff badge detached and bestowed upon Jessie (Joan Cusack). His decline is a bitter pill to swallow, and despite all the other toys attempting to cajole some measure of hope in Woody, he expresses a prescient and all-too vivid sense of anomie. With the news that Bonnie will be attending Kindergarten orientation, Woody sees the moment as an opportunity to help her out. He stows away in her backpack and does what he can to help the young girl try to fit in during a terribly tough day. What she does is create: a repurposed spork is provided pipe-cleaner arms, a pair of misshapen googly-eyes, and a halved popsicle stick connect to form Forky (Tony Hale, sounding exceedingly like John Mulaney).
Given sentience, the spork ends up serving as something of a beacon of hope to Bonnie; a casual reminder of her own creativity when confronted with despair. Yet Forky’s nature is that of a spork – a one-time use, plastic object intended for immediate disposal. As such, it ends up hurling itself into waste bins, in what registers as a kind of comic suicide. When you’re hardwired to believe that the world operates in a specific way, how could any alternative possibly offer you the same sense of internal satisfaction? Woody finds agency through saving Forky, aware that Bonnie’s happiness is contingent on keeping the accidental toy alive. This prompts a series of existential quests for Woody, whose loyalties would seemingly serve to work against him.
The prevailing sense here is the idea of control. Woody’s placed in an impossible situation where he’s routinely put to the side. He’s no longer happy and like most of us, just tries to make the best out of a bad situation. Has he peaked? Probably. He holds onto the memory of Andy and hopes for the best with Bonnie. But no matter how much effort he puts into it, he can’t arrange fate. Impulse equates to sincerity and when every waking moment is given to plotting, to saving Forky and subsequently keeping Bonnie happy, it’s hard to look at living as anything other than tentative. Each relationship, with Bonnie or Andy, is True but just because they’re true doesn’t make them the same. Like Up, Toy Story 4 ends up becoming a Pixar film that weighs heavily and touches upon something very ephemeral inside me. Life can be an eternity of inactivity, surrounded by the familiar and habitual. Fixed, frozen, and often times flailing. But that doesn’t always have to be the case. Things can change and it’s strange. But trying to replicate the past isn’t enough. Some things need figuring out and for some finding yourself means getting lost.