415. That’s the number of movies I’ve logged in my Letterboxd account since writing my last movie review for Alien: Covenant, back in May 2017. There have been multiple instances where I’ve felt the twitch to write again — from Phantom Thread (very good) to X-Men: Dark Phoenix (very bad) — and I have threaded my thoughts sporadically on Twitter, but it wasn’t until the credits rolled on Toy Story 4 that I actually felt compelled to sit down and type up a proper review.
If Woody and the gang can come back after a 9 year absence, then I can come back after 2 years.
I think that’s something a lot of people don’t realize — it’s been almost a decade since Toy Story 3 hit theaters and wrapped up a near-perfect film trilogy. When Toy Story 4 was first announced, I was worried it would be a soulless cash-grab — Cars 2, anyone? — but I was still hopeful. Then, as development progressed behind the scenes, scandal and chaos plagued the production, resulting in writers leaving, scripts being reworked, and Pixar head-honcho John Lasseter (director of the first two Toy Story films) exiting the company.
All of these updates left me worried that we would get a bruised, if not broken film — but I’m happy to report that Toy Story 4 is an extremely strong chapter in this franchise, and serves as a beautiful coda to a trilogy of films that meant the world to me growing up (spoilers abound below).
Toy Story 4 is a movie about loss — specifically Woody’s loss of his owner, Andy, and his struggle to navigate the world without him. It’s arguably the most Woody-centric story of the quartet, and the whole film revolves around the black hole that is Andy’s absence.
From the very beginning of the film, we see that Woody has no meaningful place in Bonnie’s life, or even in her collection of toys. He no longer calls the shots as head toy, and he’s certainly no longer the favorite toy. He gets left in the closet more often than not, languishing away with other discarded toys (I’m now reminded of the top shelf toys covered in dust in TS2, RIP Wheezy). And even though Bonnie’s name is on the bottom of his boot, he constantly trips himself up and refers to Bonnie as “Andy.”
For better or worse, this is the exact same Woody we’ve come to know and love over the last 20+ years.
Above all else, Woody is deeply devoted to Andy, almost the the exclusion of anyone else. In TS1, he fights with Buzz because he’s afraid of being supplanted as Andy’s favorite. In TS2, he grapples with the magnitude of his unknown past and fights tooth and nail to get back to Andy. And in TS3, he is 100% prepared to live in abject isolation up in the attic, because it meant that he might still get to see Andy at some point in the future, and he fights once more to get back to Andy when the plan goes awry.
But the Woody in Toy Story 4 is aimless and purposeless because Bonnie can’t be Andy.
How do you tell a story of a cowboy doll that has only ever existed in the presence of his original owner, now that his original owner is no longer in the picture? This franchise has always grappled with the idea of existence and the crises that arise from being alive, but Woody is a singularly unique toy. He’s clearly existed since the 1950s — he says as much in TS4 to another toy, the broken and misunderstood Gabby Gabby (voiced by Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks) who was built around that same time — and we know he was a wildly popular toy back in the day, complete with a TV show and loads and loads of merch. He’s also a family toy, which means he’s been passed down through at least two generations.
But why doesn’t Woody remember any of that? Jessie, Bullseye, and Stinky Pete knew they were from Woody’s Roundup. All the other toys know who and what they are. Heck, Buzz Lightyear thought he was the actual Buzz Lightyear from Star Command! But Woody knew nothing about himself or where he came from. All he knew was that he’s Andy’s favorite toy.
So, what makes a toy a toy? What causes that spark of life?
Forky (voiced by Veep’s Tony Hale) is the most significant character in the entire franchise, because we see his creation in real time, built with discarded crafting materials in a preschool classroom early in the film. We watch him gasp his first breath, and we see the existential dread dawn on him that he is trash and belongs in the trash can. Over and over and over again, he tries to throw himself away in a hilarious montage that got a lot of laughs in the theater, but is also horrifying in its own way.
He only comes to terms with who and what he is when Woody puts Forky’s life into perspective — that the same feeling of warmth and comfort the trash can holds is the same feeling Bonnie feels when she is holding Forky.
Forky isn’t just a toy. He’s Bonnie’s toy. He’s Bonnie’s favorite toy. And Bonnie needs him, just like Andy needed Woody.
Forky is where Woody was 20 year prior — a toy so completely and utterly adored by a kid that he is loved to life to be a proper companion. I honestly believe, after watching this 4th film, that Woody did not exist as he is today outside of Andy. Andy is what gave him that spark of life. Before that, he was just a lifeless toy. It was Andy’s boundless love and wild imagination that created the Woody we know and love — and that’s why Woody has always been so terrified of losing Andy, and it’s why he still can’t let the idea of Andy go in Toy Story 4.
The Woody here is one that is just going through the motions, because he doesn’t know what else to do. He has to get Forky back to Bonnie (after Forky throws himself out of the window of a moving RV) because that’s what he’s always done: save other toys. Over and over and over again, we’ve watched Woody put his life on the line to save other toys. But who saves the savior?
That’s where Bo Peep comes in.
Toy Story 4 opens with a flashback of Woody and the gang at the height of their lives in Andy’s room. It’s a dark and stormy night, and they’ve all banded together to save R.C., who is stuck in a drainage ditch. They manage to save their fellow toy just in time, but Bo Peep, her sheep, and her lamp get rounded up with an assortment of Molly’s things to get donated. Naturally, Woody rushes to go and save her, but Bo says that she’s ready to move on, that owners eventually outgrow their toys — and that Woody can “get lost” with her if he wanted to. For a split second, Woody considers this, but then a young Andy rushes out into the rain, searching desperately for Woody.
As much as Woody cared for, or even loved Bo, he couldn’t bring himself to leave Andy, so he bids Bo farewell for what could have been forever. But, like the star-crossed lovers that they are, their paths intersect again years and years later, during Bonnie’s disastrous family vacation.
After Forky throws himself out of the RV window just a few miles before they reach the RV park, Woody jumps out after him and finds him on the side of the road. At first it’s a struggle to get Forky to follow him back, but then Woody helps Forky see that Bonnie needs him. After that, Forky practically runs to the park to get back to Bonnie. But when they make it to the transient town, Woody sees the last thing he could have possibly imagined: Bo Peep’s lamp in the window of an antique shop.
Overcome with shock and curiosity, he drags Forky into the shop to see if Bo is there (ironically, against Forky’s protestations that they need to get back to Bonnie). They don’t find Bo, but they do meet the aforementioned Gabby Gabby. After an initially pleasant exchange, in which she confirms that she knows Bo, she tries to steal Woody’s voice box because her own is broken, and no kid wants a broken doll.
Woody and Forky try to escape, but they get separated, and only Woody makes it out of the shop. But next to the shop is a playground, which is where Woody at last runs into Bo, who has become the leader of her own group of lost toys — come to think of it, she’s kind of like a Peter Pan figure, leading a protecting the lost toys, just as Woody used to do for her and the gang back at Andy’s.
But Bo Peep has been thriving with the other lost toys as an endless procession of kids come through the RV park to play with them on the playground. She describes her life as wonderful, and how she is so happy with where she is in life.
Of course, being happy as a lost toy makes no sense to Woody, and he actually feels awful that Bo is a lost toy. He starts sharing stories of the good old days to Bo’s best friend, Giggles McDimples (voiced by Wrecked’s Ally Maki) — stories that Bo never told anyone — and you can see that she still holds those memories in warm regard. But, unlike Woody, Bo is not trapped in the past. She might be a “lost toy” on the surface, but she didn’t fight against it like Woody did. She learned new skills, made new friends, got a new outfit, and found a new purpose in life — and now something even bigger is at play; a carnival is rolling through town, and it’s packing up to ship head out to another location, giving Bo Peep and her friends the perfect chance to see more of the world.
Woody once more has the opportunity to run away with Bo, but he can’t bring himself to leave Bonnie — especially with Forky now taken captive in the antique shop by Gabby Gabby and her ventriloquist doll henchmen “The Bensons” (sparsely voiced by Pixar’s own Steve Purcell). When he mentions that Forky is trapped in the antique shop, Bo says that it took her years to get out of there, and that Gabby Gabby has the whole shop under her control. It would take a careful and exact plan to get Forky out — just like the good old days.
I honestly can’t do the rescue mission any justice, because words can’t describe how much fun it was to see Woody, Bo, and Buzz team up to rescue Forky (yeah, Buzz has a nice little subplot about following his “inner voice” by clicking the button to activate his voice box, but it turned quickly into a tired joke and reduced the badass character he was in TS2 down to a seemingly unintelligent buffoon that is unable to have an original thought. Very disappointed in Pixar for that). New characters Ducky and Bunny (plush carnival prizes voiced by Key and Peele) and Duke Caboom (a retro Canadian action toy voiced by Keanu Reeves) also steal the spotlight in some truly hilarious moments.
But the rescue mission fails, with the group of toys barely managing to get out alive. Woody insists they go back, again hung up on his duty as a toy to save Forky and return him to Bonnie. But Bo has no obligation, and she tries to convince Woody that he doesn’t need to risk his life again. But Woody doesn’t listen, and goes back inside alone. It’s there he runs into Gabby Gabby once more, but he learns that Gabby Gabby is not a monster like Stinky Pete in TS2, or Lotso in TS3. More than anything in the world, she just wants to be adopted by the antique shop owner’s granddaughter, Harmony. She just wants to be loved.
In a truly selfless act, Woody gives Gabby his voice box in exchange for Forky, restoring her back to her former glory so she can be loved by a kid again. After all, Woody already had his time in the sun. But Harmony still rejects Gabby, leaving Gabby absolutely devastated and alone.
Watching this unfold, Woody sends Forky back to Bonnie alone, with a message for Buzz to meet up at the carnival’s carousel (resulting in wild hijinks with the RV). Woody then comforts Gabby, and asks her to come with him to be one of Bonnie’s toys. She agrees, and as they’re leaving they sync back up with Bo and her friends and make a mad dash to the carnival. Further antics ensue, but in process they encounter a lost little girl, whom Gabby is immediately drawn to. She then chooses to be that girl’s toy, and her restored voice box gives the girl enough courage to get help and find her parents. It’s an incredibly touching Pixar moment, and leaves you feeling all warm and fuzzy inside.
And then comes the real gut punch. Woody, Bo, Buzz, and the rest of the Toy Story gang all meetup at the carnival carousel (the non-essential toys hijacked the RV to get it next to the carousel). Woody and Bo share an emotional goodbye, but Buzz can see that Woody doesn’t want to leave. So Buzz sheds his doofus persona and has a real character-defining moment: he tells Woody that Bonnie will be okay without him. That they all will. So instead of saying goodbye to Bo, Woody says goodbye to all of the other toys that the audience has grown up with, and I’m almost crying just thinking about it.
In a perfect finishing move, Woody and Bo hitch their wagon to the carnival and help the carnival prize toys find new kids and new homes, finally giving Woody a new purpose in life outside of Andy. I don’t think anyone could have asked for a more pitch-perfect ending.
I was concerned that this movie would muddy the waters after Toy Story 3, but this movie really is the natural extension of the third film. It’s an absolutely beautiful closing chapter, one that shows us that you can still have a meaningful, joy-filled life after suffering a devastating loss or unexpected change. And while it’s easy to label it as a “kids movie,” I feel like Toy Story 4 was designed for the generation that grew up with it, and it was designed specifically to help us deal with our own existential dread and uncertainty.
Some of us are like Bo Peep. We rolled with the punches and thrived despite the loss and heartache, and now we can reach back and offer a helping hand to others who are still finding their way. Some of us are like Forky, too terrified to even deal with our new reality, so we need our friends to help center us. But I think a lot of us are like Woody. Kind of lost after losing the comfort and support of our guardians for one reason or another, and now we’re just going through the motions, not really knowing how to find our new place in the world.
But Woody found his new place in the world. Yeah, it took him a little while, and there was a lot of pain and grief in the process. But he managed to land on his feet. And if Woody can do that — if he can exist and thrive beyond the reach of Andy — then I feel like I can too.