‘Toy Story 4’ review: A treatise on purpose, from a film that didn’t need to exist

“One should not search for an abstract meaning of life. Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life to carry out a concrete assignment which demands fulfillment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated. Thus, everyone’s task is as unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it.” — Viktor Frankl, “Man’s Search for Meaning”

We do not choose to exist in this world. None of us has really had a say in our own creation. We’re birthed, and then we grow, and then we try to figure out what it is we do best, and we search and spend our whole lives trying to figure out what life truly means. And when our notion of meaning changes or is taken away, it can be a jarring, excruciating shift.

That, in a nutshell, is what “Toy Story 4” is all about.

Those who thought Pixar’s saga about talking toys wrapped up neatly at the end of “Toy Story 3” would be sorely mistaken, because much like the Evil Dr. Pork Chop, Disney needs that sweet, sweet box office cash.

The third installment’s perfect ending, with the toys being passed on from Andy to new kid Bonnie, seemed to tie everything up with a neat bow. The series’ target audience grew along with the franchise, and “3” came out right as we were all headed off to college and figuring out how to grow into adulthood. All of this is to say that “Toy Story 4” didn’t need to exist, but in a clever little twist, the film ends up being a commentary on what it means to bring purpose to one’s life.

The fourth installment opens with a bit of ret-conning, which the franchise has avoided thus far. Nine years before “Toy Story 3,” Bo Peep (Annie Potts) and her sheep Billy, Goat and Gruff were given away to another family. Woody (Tom Hanks) watches as she willingly leaves, wondering why any toy would give up its kid so easily.

Fast-forward to the present day, where Bonnie is starting kindergarten. Woody is already starting to feel like he’s outlasted his usefulness; Bonnie has taken to making Jessie the sheriff during playtime, stripping Woody of his badge. But when Bonnie feels nervous on her way to kindergarten orientation, Woody stows away in her backpack to help her through the day.

So far, so “Toy Story.” But then things get weird.

During arts and crafts time, Woody inadvertently gives Bonnie the tools — a spork, two popsicle sticks, glue, a pipe cleaner and two googly eyes — to create a new toy named Forky (voiced with Buster Bluth abandon by Tony Hale), who becomes sentient when Bonnie writes her name on the underside of his popsicle feet, just like how Andy wrote his name on Woody’s boot decades ago.

Forky doesn’t know why he was created. Forky thinks he is literally trash. Forky spends a good amount of the first few minutes of his screentime desperately trying to jump back into the trash can, where he belongs. The whole thing is pretty funny, pipe cleaner arms flailing and popsicle legs stumbling like Buster Keaton.

Woody has to constantly remind Forky of his purpose: to be a toy for Bonnie, who for some reason has elevated Forky to Favorite Toy status and takes him on a summer road trip. Forky finally comes around to this notion, but only after repeated attempts to put himself in the trash.

Sentience and consciousness has always been something that’s been partly explored in these films — think of Woody’s discovery of his past as a TV star, or Buzz’s realization that he isn’t really an astronaut, or all of the toys’ acceptance of their own death in the furnace scene in “Toy Story 3.” But this is the first time these films have looked at what that means at the outset, which brings up a lot of questions that could be answered in future installments if Disney so chooses (it shouldn’t, but probably will). Did every toy have to be taught its purpose? What about toys who don’t want to be played with by kids? Are these toys immortal? Future P.h.D. dissertations will be written about Forky and his implications.

It’s an odd thing to watch in the theater as kids laugh at Forky’s repeated trash jumps and repeated exhortations of “I’mm traaaaaash” while the parents just sat there contemplative, perhaps examining their place in this world. Pixar’s streak of making something that looks so sweet and innocuous to children while simultaneously being a gut-punch to adults remains intact. Forky seemingly has no need to exist besides the one ascribed to him by his creator, just like this movie. It all seems like it’s not headed anywhere. But then the film’s focus becomes about Woody finding his purpose, and everything falls into place.

Over the course of the film, Woody reunites with Bo, who is now a kind of Furiosa of the wide open toy version of Fury Road, driving around in a sheep-piloted remote controlled car and exploring a world that doesn’t revolve around children. In one of the more visually stunning setpieces of the film, she introduces Woody to the greater world of carnival lights and sunsets. “Sometimes, change can be good,” she says when Woody asks her if she’s happy. That’s an important lesson for kids to learn, to be sure, but I can’t help but think that was also aimed at the parents and other adults in the audience, too.

Through Bo’s help, and Forky’s questioning of his own existence, Woody learns that it’s OK to leave Bonnie and create a new life for himself, that it’s OK to be more than one thing, and that change might even be necessary for him to lead a fulfilling life. Wouldn’t surprise me if director Josh Cooley read a lot of Frankl while making this.

If all of that seems like too heavy-handed for a kids’ movie, don’t worry. This thing has plenty of laughs in addition to the Forky comedy. New characters Ducky and Bunny (Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, respectively, playing carnival stuffed animals) have a recurring bit that is just as funny as anything from “Key & Peele.” Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves) is a Canadian stuntman who can’t complete a jump, and the sequence where he explains how he learned he was defective is a highlight of Reeves’ comedic talents. And the ending might just make you tear up a bit.

And all of the characters echo Woody’s transformation, as well. Each character finds new purpose within new roles. Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) becomes a more empathetic leader in Woody’s absence. Bo has adapted to become a leader of lost toys. Complex villain Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks, putting in a chilling vocal performance for a character that is basically a plot device for Woody) learns that serving others is a noble calling. Duke takes his skills at crashing and uses them to his own advantage. Ducky and Bunny become carnival toy emancipators. Everyone picks up a different skill and talent or learns a different way of looking at life. Each character finds another purpose for their life.

“Toy Story 4” didn’t need to exist, and it’s not my favorite of the franchise. It’s repetitive of earlier plots (right down to the toy separation that happens in every movie) and it doesn’t sell the villain story arc or Woody’s and Bo’s relationship in the ways it thinks it does. But if it has to exist for any other reason than to pad Disney’s checkbook, offering kids an opportunity to mull over the meaning of life ain’t a bad reason for existence.

My rating: 3 Duke Caboom jumps out of 5.

My “Toy Story” rankings:

  • 2
  • 1
  • 3
  • 4


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