Scalding Hot Takes: Toy Story 4
I’m in Chicago now visiting my father and my family for the Fourth of July weekend. Last night we were looking for a family activity and my older sister proposed a trek to the movie theaters to see Toy Story 4. I was a little ambivalent about the idea. I adore the Toy Story movies but worried that this latest entry would be too emotional and too sad for my fragile mind to handle.
Oh sure, Toy Story 4 might be appropriate for my four year old son Declan but I worried that the blockbuster Pixar sequel would break my heart and remind me of the fragile, delicate beauty of existence in a manner that might prove overwhelming.
My fears were not completely unfounded. Like Inside Out, another Pixar cartoon for children, I identified with Toy Story 4 on an intense, almost unhealthy level. Like the American masterpieces that preceded it, Toy Story 4 is a kid’s film that grapples with some of the weightiest and most profound issues known to man.
Is free will and sentience a blessing, a curse, or some combination of the two? How do you find meaning and purpose in a world that often seems unfathomably complicated and cruel? Does our bottomless need for validation and approval bring out the best in us or make us weak and emotionally needy? In a world where aging, death and obsolescence are only the certainties, how do we find the courage to face the world anew each morning?
I particularly related to Toy Story 4’s breakout character Forky, a figure of profound existential despair who, like all of us, did not ask to be brought into this sick, sad, beautiful world and struggles mightily with an existence that often seems like a cruel joke. Forky was born of garbage and longs to return to the warm, comforting womb of the trash that spawned him.
That aspect of Forky’s personality struck close to home because it eerily echoes my personal aesthetic and my career. I also find garbage oddly soothing. I feel most at home when surrounded by garbage, trash, entertainment with no cultural and creative value whatsoever, movies and books and TV shows that have been tossed haphazardly into the rubbish bin of history along with all the other losers, no-hopers and failures. That’s the essence of My World of Flops. Curiously enough, that’s also why I’m reluctant to write about quality motion pictures like Toy Story 4.
But I also identified with the toys’ overpowering desire for an emotional connection with a child in order to feel like their lives have meaning. My tenuous happiness is similarly way too dependent on external validation. Toy Story 4 poignantly captures how feeling needed and wanted and valued makes you feel whole, like the world is a kind place in spite of everything. It makes the air sweeter, the sunshine brighter, existence more bearable. Our need to be loved makes us vulnerable but it’s also what makes us human.
The toys need children to make them feel wanted. A writer like myself needs readers like you to feel like my professional life has meaning and value, that I’m not just screaming into the void but connecting with other human beings on an emotional level.
When you take me off the shelf and play with me, in the sense of coming to this site and engaging with the weird world that I’ve created with it I feel at peace with the universe, like I’m doing what I was put on earth to do, that I’m fulfilling a trashily noble destiny. That connection means everything. There would be no Happy Place without you, the reader; this would just be another website. I need to feel valued, appreciated, understood, like my words have meaning and aren’t just more white noise on the internet.
I am Forky. You are Forky. We are all Forky. To acknowledge the Forky within is to accept and embrace our own humanity in all of its poignant messiness.
Forky is a child of God cobbled together out of bits and pieces of pipe cleaners, putty and a spork but he is more specifically a creation of a little girl named Bonnie, with a little help from old-fashioned cowboy Woody, poignantly played by Tom Hanks at his Tom Hanksiest.
Woody does not expect the adorably ugly monstrosity Bonnie created to attain sentience yet in the strange world of the Toy Story movies God has the power to create life but so do Hasbro and Mattel and all of the other corporations that make the toys and dolls and action figures that fill out the film’s supporting cast. But Bonnie also possesses God-like powers, or at least a Dr. Frankenstein-level ability to breathe life into a misbegotten behemoth.
Forky, voiced with just the right note of debilitating anxiety by a perfectly typecast Tony Hale, is never more relatable than when he is screaming in abject terror upon realizing that, through some terrible trick of fate, he is now wonderfully, horribly alive and attempts to fling himself into a garbage receptacle at every opportunity. Part of what makes Forky’s hurling himself into the trash so poignant and sad as well as hilarious is the vague implication that he’s sort of continually attempting suicide for sport, like some manner of utensil-based Harold of Harold & Maude fame.
Ah, but Forky cannot retreat into the trash from which he emerged and longs with his whole plastic soul to rejoin because he has somehow emerged as Bonnie’s favorite toy despite the unbearable pain and uncertainty that characterizes his every moment.
So when Bonnie’s family goes on a vacation in their RV and Forky ends up in an antique store it falls upon Woody, new love interest/soulmate Little Bo Peep (Annie Potts), Buzz Lightyear and some new recruits to save him from Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), a Chatty Cathy-like doll who has never been able to connect with a child because she was created with a broken voice box that renders her an outcast, a loner, an exile from the land of misfit toys.
This fascinatingly ambivalent figure, at once villainous, sympathetic and achingly relatable in her yearning to be made whole through a deep, emotional bond with a child who will love her is assisted in her complicated, contradictory doings by a group of ventriloquist dummies with broken-neck gaits and ghoulish visages that are pure nightmare fuel, the scariest, most traumatizing creatures in a G-rated kid’s film since Mickey Rooney unforgettably played the world’s scariest, saddest clown in Babe: Pig in the City.
In a cartoon with a less nuanced and sophisticated understanding of the complexities of the human psyche, Gabby Gabby would be a one-dimensional villain but this unusually empathetic film understands rather than judges her. She’s motivated by the same all-consuming longing to feel needed and valued and loved as the rest of us. She just goes about it in the wrong way.
Toy Story 4 splits up the gang for extended periods of time, leaving the comfort and safety and familiarity of home for the exhilarating, sometimes scary excitement of the road. Buzz Lightyear spends much of the film on a side mission of his own after Woody implores him to listen to his “inner voice”, a suggestion he takes all too literally. Buzz Lightyear has less to do this go-round but he’s still a delight.
When smartly cast as a William Shatner-like goofball, Tim Allen has a flawless record. With Galaxy Quest and the four Toy Story movies, he’s made five great films. When not playing a William Shatner-like goofball, Tim Allen is fucking insufferable, the worst. Playing a Tim Allen-like reactionary Neanderthal, Tim Allen fucking sucks but he’s predictably at his best here, even if the character feels like it’s five percent Tim Allen, ninety-five percent Pixar.
Woody, in sharp contrast, is a sublime and enduring creation that’s half Pixar, half Tom Hanks. He’s a figure of sneaky depth and emotional power, one of the greatest creations in the history of American animation, an idealized everyman that has gotten more complex and deeper with each outing. Hanks won an Academy Award for playing a reductive cartoon named Forrest Gump but Woody represents a much greater achievement in that he took a cartoon and made him a heartbreakingly relatable three-dimensional human being.
At the risk of being controversial, Tom Hanks is a tremendous actor and extremely likable as well! It’s weird that people more people don’t know about him. Hopefully Toy Story 4 will be the big break he’s been looking for his entire career.
Forky isn’t the only newcomer making a big impression. Speaking of wonderful human beings who are also extremely likable, Keanu Reeves is adorable and hilarious as Duke LaBoom, a French-Canadian stunt rider in the Evel Kneievel mode who must overcome formative trauma in order to realize his heroic destiny. And Key and Peele are terrific as cuddly carnival stuffed animals with violence, murder and mayhem in their furry little souls.
The Toy Story series pre-dates my career and I have been doing this shit for twenty-two years. We’ve been on a motherfucking emotional journey with these characters over the course of nearly a quarter century. When the first film opened I was a teenager. Now I’m a father of two boys who are absolutely obsessed with toys, including the Toy Story Happy Meal toys from McDonald’s.
The Toy Story films derive much of their shattering emotional power from the passage of time, from their acknowledgment that children get older, and outgrow the things that gave them innocent pleasure as children as they begin the painful but inevitable process of becoming adults.
Toy Story 4 is a profoundly human, deeply moving, very funny and gorgeously animated movie about aging and letting go and selflessness.
I thought Toy Story 3 was the perfect way to end one of the greatest franchises in the history of American film, animated or otherwise, but Toy Story 4 is equally ideal.
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