By Karen Gordon
It’s been a while since I sat in a dark theatre with a bunch of (mostly) strangers crying over the adventures of animated toys. Nine years to be exact. That’s when Toy Story 3 wrapped up (or so I thought) the saga of a box of toys, led by a pull-string sheriff doll named Woody, all belonging to a kid named Andy.
At the end of Toy Story 3, Andy was grown up, ready for college and, with a heavy heart did what so many kids have to do: He passed on his childhood toys, and the metaphor of all that that means, to a little girl named Bonnie.
Give me a second while I wipe away more tears here.
The original Toy Story debuted in 1995, back when the late Steve Jobs was CEO of Pixar, and in his ambitious way it was a landmark: the first-ever fully computer-animated feature. An achievement for the books, for sure, but that landmark is not what makes them so special.
The series has been characterized by superb storytelling — warm, funny, nostalgic — plus great characters and multi-generational appeal.
But the reason it’s become so beloved is that the series is much deeper than just great stories about a child’s attachment to favourite toys.
Boiled down to its essence, Toy Story is not just about all that’s good and kind and sweet about childhood. It’s also about how we all must leave all of that behind, and how far life pushes us away from that sweetness. When I say I have to stop to wipe the tears away, I’m serious. The movies are a tender, loving hug in the middle of a life where those things often feel like they’ve been systematically removed. Even writing about it moves me to tears.
Toy Story 3 really did provide a satisfying ending to the trilogy. So what’s left to tell, you might ask?
Well, the focus is different here. Toy Story 4 is Woody’s story. Woody (Tom Hanks) has been the leader of the toys: solid, steady, fair. He’s also been absolutely and totally devoted to one thing above all else: the happiness of his child. In TS4, we’re reminded that Woody once almost had a girl, Bo Peep (Annie Potts) who was part of a lamp that was given away. He could have gone with her but made the conscious choice to stay. Woody has been selflessly motivated to keep his child happy, and that really is the gift of pure love.
So it’s a bit heartbreaking, then, to see that as Bonnie starts to play with her hand-me-down box of toys, Woody is rarely chosen. Such is Woody’s character that it doesn’t daunt him.
When Bonnie is tearfully taken to orientation day ahead of her first day of kindergarten, Woody sneaks into her backpack. And when her art supplies are taken by another kid, he digs through a garbage can to provide her with something to work with so she won’t feel so alone. Bonnie takes a discarded spork and turns it into a little doll that she names Forky (Tony Hale).
When Forky springs to life he thinks he’s trash, not a toy, and wants to jump back into the nearest trash can. Bonnie loves Forky, and so Woody has to convince him that he is indeed now a valued member of the toy box.
Forky’s draw to trash cans becomes a major issue when the Bonnie’s family hops in their trailer for a pre-school vacation, a road trip where the garbage cans are on every street corner, and keeping Forky out of them and on the bus is a big deal.
It’s on one of those reconnaissance missions that Woody thinks he sees Bo Peep’s lamp in an antique store. Sneaking in to see if she’s there gets Woody and Forky into big problems that involve something much darker than we’ve seen in the Toy Story series. That’s where they encounter Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) a pretty doll from the 1950s, her ventriloquist dummy henchman, Benson and his look-alike brothers in arms. Gabby Gabby looks perfect but she’s dangerous. She’ll stop at nothing to do whatever she has to make herself appealing to the granddaughter of the owner, and Woody has something she needs.
With Woody and Forky MIA, and the family getting ready to pull up stakes and move to the next stop on their vacation, the other toys, partly led by Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) mount a rescue mission to save Woody and Forky that involves a fun fair, new additions Ducky and Bunny (Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele), a motorized skunk toy turned into a vehicle, and a Canadian daredevil toy Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves… you read that right, Keanu Reeves!).
Toy Story 4 is really about Woody’s journey, as he has to face the fact that he’s less relevant to this new child. It’s a big life change for a toy built from the heart out. He’s no less the majordomo of the toy box, but it’s different for him now. And so will the change break that pure, loving heart? Or spur him on to see what else the world might have in store for him?
The focus on Woody means that Toy Story 4 is less of a metaphor about the things we leave behind as we leave childhood, which means emotionally it's the lightest of the series. That may mean fewer hankies for those of us sitting together in the dark falling in love all over again with a box of animated toys. But the sweetness persists.
And, oh yeah, your kids might like it too.
Toy Story 4. Directed by Josh Cooley. Starring Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Annie Potts, Keegan-Michael Key, Christina Hendricks, Jordan Peele and Keanu Reeves. Opens wide June 21.