MPAA Rating: G
USCCB Rating: A-I
Reel Rating: 2 out of 5 reels
Toy Story 4 is the first Pixar movie that is not introduced with a charming animated short, and the absence is an ominous sign, not unlike a champagne bottle refusing to shatter against a newly christened ship. This is remarkably different from any other Pixar film—not necessarily bad, just…off. The plot is decent, some of the dialogue is witty (especially Forky’s, voiced by Tony Hale), but Toy Story 4 lacks the intangible quality that made Pixar memorable. Worse still, even modest attempts at thematic interpretation will reveal disturbing elements that upset one of the most treasured animated franchises of all time. Oh well—twenty great films is a pretty good run.
At the end of Toy Story 3, Woody (Tom Hanks) and his gang were given to a new owner, a five-year-old girl named Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw). Over the course of the next year, our beloved cowboy becomes a less and less frequent character in her play arsenal, leaving Woody spending most days in the closet playing Go Fish with the furniture. On her first day of school, shy Bonnie creates a new toy Forky (Tony Hale) out of a spork, googly eyes, pipe cleaners, and clay. When she imbues this former utensil with life (more on that later), he immediately attempts to dispose himself as trash. Thus, Woody finds new purpose in keeping Forky from fulfilling his self-imposed destiny.
Of course, Forky eventually slips through his fingers and runs away, and Woody must battle carnival rides, psychotic ventriloquist dolls, and antiquing old ladies to rescue him. This quest brings him in contact with Bo (Annie Potts), his former flame, who introduces the toy to a completely different philosophy of being. Previously, “lost toy” was an unutterable term of dread, but Bo has embraced it as a badge of honor. “We don’t need a kid,” she smiles. Nonetheless, she agrees to assist him, igniting old passions and leading to an unintentionally tragic ending.
Any fictional universe, however imaginative, must have internal consistency. The central myth of the Toy Story franchise plays on our childhood aspirations that toys are real and need us as much as we need them. I remember as a six-year old trying to fit all my stuffed animals in bed at once because I didn’t want any of them to feel “left out”. Yet universes of this caliber usually lead to odd questions and strange internet fans theories. Are all toys conscious? Can they die? Can they reproduce? Why do some toys remember their intellectual properties but others don’t? A good artist will ignore these distractions and focus on the story. But the filmmakers of Toy Story 4 make them the center of the narrative. Forky insists continually wonders how he was given life and what that means. The idea of toys being seen “alive” by humans was employed sparingly in the original series but now used constantly. This unfortunately opens the window for a host of ideas bent on redefining the series, including its most cherished theme and belief.
In the first five minutes of Toy Story, Woody explicitly states the philosophical credo that will become heart of the franchise: “it doesn’t matter how much we’re played with. What matters is that we’re here for Andy when he needs us. That’s what we’re made for.” Toy Story established one of the best theistic allegories in pop culture, and this core premise was constantly tested by a string of villains over the decades. In Toy Story 2, Stinky Pete—angered by never being bought by a child—tries to keep Woody from his master, even if that means dismemberment. Yet the ultimate trial comes not from a deranged toy but Andy himself. Andy eventually grows up, stops playing with Woody for years, and finally gives him away to Bonnie.
This is what makes Woody’s jealously in the fourth installment so frustrating. He already knows from years of experience that serving a child often means not being played with for long periods. Woody selflessly protects Forky for Bonnie, but in the last minutes leaves her to embrace the “freelance” life with Bo. The implication is devastating. It was never about Andy at all. Meaning comes from one’s own identity, not service to another. Again, we already had a villain that represented this philosophy in Toy Story 3, a villain who claimed toys don’t need kids because “we own ourselves.” It’s the exact same idea—except now it has become the mantra of the hero!
Not only is heroism upset, but villainy as well. The “traditional” villain of Toy Story 4 is Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), a doll who attempts to physically remove Woody’s pull string to fix her own voice box. Unbelievably, this violent impulse becomes much, much worse. When Woody discovers that Gabby’s murderous organ snatching comes from the intention of wanting a child’s love, he willing gives in and lets her do the procedure. That’s right: the villain wins. Her action apparently wasn’t immoral because it was inhumane and selfish, but because it was non-consensual. The message is clear: anything goes, if everyone’s ok with it.
While Toy Story 4 didn’t live up to the standards of any other Pixar movie, it does feel oddly familiar. This gut reaction was confirmed by two characters, Bunny and Ducky, who were based on the Dreamworks sidekick archetype. As the film continued, there was more evidence that the filmmakers were trying to lower themselves to their competitors: cheap jokes, convenient plot devices, and forced emotion.
How did this happen? Something, or someone, was missing. For their 25th anniversary, Pixar produced a documentary on Toy Story that included several interviews with John Lasseter, the primary writer/director of the film. He recalled that Disney (specifically Jeffrey Katzenberg, who would later found Dreamworks) kept pushing him to make the script “more edgy.” One example included Woody admitting that he had pushed Buzz out the window, saying it was a “toy eat toy world.” Lasseter resisted these temptations and instead created an animated juggernaut. As far as the quality of his art, only Hayao Muyazaki and Walt Disney himself have had more impact on the field of animation. Disney soon realized this and hired him as the chief animation director of the entire corporation, leading to a second renaissance that included such hits as Tangled, Frozen, and Big Hero 6. Sadly, he was accused of sexual misconduct in late 2017 and forced out. Whatever the facts of the allegations against him, Toy Story 4 proves that Lasseter’s absence has had a negative effect. The soul of Pixar may be gone forever.
When I grew up in the 90s, cartoons were the hallmark of children’s cinematic entertainment. I fondly remember organizing my colored VHS boxes of Disney classics and agonizing over the missing features of my collection. Yet in recent years a dark cloud has been gathering over the field of animation. There were rumors that progressive, anti-Christian ideology was creeping into the medium. At first, I dismissed these whispers as unduly alarmist, but now the evidence is undeniable. ParaNorman became the first mainstream animated film to contain an unambiguous gay character. Zootopia was clearly an allegory of identity politics. Now, Toy Story 4 portrays a same-sex romantic couple dropping off their child at daycare. It doesn’t affect the story, but is impossible to ignore.
I never thought I would have to say this, but here it is: you must always screen a family-oriented film before allowing your children to see it. You can no longer simply assume it is appropriate and wholesome. What a sad end to a beautiful franchise. So long, partner.
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