SDG Reviews ‘Toy Story 4’

Philosophical and existential mysteries weigh against moral problems in this unnecessary, inventive, fraught coda to Pixar’s great trilogy.

(photo: Pixar/Disney)

In the beginning there was Toy Story, and it was perfect and complete.

Then came Toy Story 2, which might have been superfluous, except it wasn’t, and it deepened and expanded the themes of the first film while extending its trajectory. It seemed a definitive resolution, until Toy Story 3 found that the drama of Woody and Andy — it was always about Woody and Andy — had at least a denouement left to tell.

That story ended when college-aged Andy passed on his beloved playthings and their stories to little Bonnie. There is a completed trilogy, with a single dramatic through line.

And now there is Toy Story 4, which does not continue the story of the first three films, but casts about for new things to do in this world with the sprawling cast of characters in Bonnie’s orbit, most of whom once revolved around the now-absent figure of Andy.

Well, there’s nothing wrong with that. Toy Story 2 cemented perhaps the trilogy’s central metaphor by investing the toys with parental anxieties, particularly fear of the empty nest and being left on a shelf by absent children. One of the ideas of Toy Story 4 — or perhaps one of the points of view — is that life goes on, and that, as rewarding and noble as it is to love and be loved by a child, life after children can be just as amazing, or even more so.

Much of the territory is familiar by now. Woody (Tom Hanks) worries about his kid’s favorite toy being there when needed. Toys are outgrown and given away, like Jessie in Toy Story 2, or lost and far from home, like Woody and Buzz (Tim Allen) in the original. There’s an establishment where toys are displayed but not played with, like the unseen museum in Japan, but it’s also the perilous personal fiefdom of a sinister boss toy with a dangerous goon squad, like Sunnydale Day Care.

Where Toy Story 4 pushes into new thematic territory is in the character arcs of at least three of its four central characters, two old and two new.

Woody and Bo Peep (returning Annie Potts, absent from Toy Story 3) bring very different perspectives to the world of toys who aren’t needed by anyone any more. A makeshift toy that Bonnie dubs “Forky” (Tony Hale) struggles with an identity crisis. And a vintage pull-string doll named Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), the most problematic character, harbors deep wounds over her unhappy past.

In a way, Toy Story 4’s thematic newness is an extension of an outstanding sequence from Toy Story 3: the dreadful incinerator scene. There, for the first time, Woody, Buzz, Jessie and their friends were faced with an existential crisis that was not rooted in separation from or rejection by Andy, but in their own mortality — and, for the first time, they found their deepest response to crisis, not in their loyalty to Andy, but in their solidarity with one another.

Toy Story 4 finds its initial inspiration at the opposite existential conundrum. Okay, that’s a dense string of polysyllabic abstractions for the premise that a plastic spork, augmented by Bonnie with pipe-cleaner arms and other accoutrements, finds itself endowed with the same kind of life as Woody, Buzz and their friends. The catch is that Forky can only conceive of himself as trash and has a monomaniacal desire to throw himself out.

So, yeah, kids will think Forky is a scream, among many other things, and you don’t have to think about it any deeper than that.

But there’s no getting around the fact that the premise of the Toy Story films has always been rooted in teleology — in the philosophy of design and purpose, the basis for natural-law theory — and what makes Forky different is that he is teleologically complex, not simple.

To the question “What if toys were alive?” Toy Story proposed that toys would naturally find their ultimate meaning and purpose in doing what they were created and designed for — in realizing their telos or ultimate end.

The telos of a plastic spork is to be used once and then thrown away — but then a spork, being a purely utilitarian object, is not invested with personality and has no awareness of its purpose and its fulfillment or nonfulfillment.

Here is where Toy Story — possibly influenced by that metaphysical masterpiece The Velveteen Rabbit — goes beyond teleology into a kind of existential personalism: We find our deepest and truest selves in loving and in being loved. In fact, we come to know ourselves as selves through love. Love makes us Real, the Skin Horse teaches the Velveteen Rabbit; a child’s love is what brings toys to life.

In The Velveteen Rabbit it seems there’s a multistage process whereby toys are first conscious but, like Pinocchio, not yet Real or fully alive, and then love makes them Real (and there may be stages even beyond that). The process is streamlined here, but it’s the same root idea.

Why is Forky alive? Forky himself, at the very end, tells us that he doesn’t know. But we do: It’s because Bonnie, overwhelmed by kindergarten orientation and needing a friend, invested a spork with personality, loving him into existence and giving him a new telos.

Toy Story 2 played with the idea of toys living through the love and imagination of their owners. To be played with by a child, Jessie says, makes a toy feel alive, even though it’s not moving, because that’s how the child sees it.

Toy Story 4 goes a step further. Descartes’ Cogito ergo sum may have its place in philosophical cogitation, but we don’t first come to know ourselves through knowing, but through love. A baby knows his or her mother’s love and even his or her own love for the mother before being aware of him or herself as a loving and beloved subject distinct from the mother.

Forky, though, identifies as trash, and for a long time lacks the emotional vocabulary to understand himself in any other light.

This leaves Woody — who first salvaged Forky’s raw materials from a kindergarten wastebasket and threw them on a table for Bonnie to find, inspiring her to create the comforting friend he couldn’t be for her himself — spending something like a third of the movie either pulling Forky himself out of the various trash receptacles into which he gleefully hurls himself or else intercepting him in the act of discarding himself.

If this comic conceit is overextended, the way that Forky begins to move past it is a breakthrough: Woody helps Forky make an empathic connection between his own longing to be surrounded by refuse and Bonnie’s longing for him. I’m reminded of the premise of St. Edith Stein (Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, whose doctoral dissertation was on the philosophy of empathy) that empathy is essential not only for the knowledge of others but even to fully know oneself.

I would love to keep talking about Forky and philosophy, but there are three other major characters whose arcs bear on the film’s thematic landscape — and here we run into problems. (If avoiding spoilers is important to you, stop reading now.)

The return of Bo Peep — or her reinvention as an unrecognizably transformed character — is perhaps the film’s most startling move.

Even before the departure of disgraced honcho John Lasseter, Pixar was justly criticized for being a boy’s club, cranking out one male-directed film after another with only male protagonists and mostly male ensembles, until Brave (which was taken from its female originator, Brenda Chapman, and completed by Mark Andrews), followed by Inside Out and Finding Dory (both directed by men).

In the first two Toy Story films, Bo was mostly demure and supportive. Here, in a stab at rewriting the past, a flashback prologue invests Bo with new leadership qualities even before Woody loses and then catches up with her after years of separation. To his shock, she’s become a rough-and-tumble survivalist-scavenger, a free-spirited soul sister to the Wreck-It Ralph films’ tough-as-nails action heroines, Calhoun and Shank, with more than a hint of Rey from The Force Awakens.

An unofficial leader to a loose community of lost toys, Bo has found meaning in life beyond a child’s love. For Bo, telos is not the be-all and end-all — or else, having been loved into full personhood, she now has a new telos no longer defined by the sum of her parts.

Woody can’t fathom this, although in a way he’s subtly moved on himself. One of the strengths of Toy Story 3 was that Woody grew beyond his earlier insecurities and became the hero Andy (and the other toys) needed. Here, some early graceless notes notwithstanding, Woody no longer needs to be the center of Bonnie’s world; it’s enough for him to see that role fulfilled by someone else.

Yet, in the push and pull between Woody and Bo, something strange happens: Woody is cross-examined and Bo isn’t.

Woody and Bo each think the other “lost.” Woody thinks Bo has lost touch with what really matters in life; Bo thinks Woody is trapped in an essentially self-centered need to find purpose in making a child happy.

Perhaps to its credit, the film neither definitively judges nor absolves Woody. On the one hand, Woody admits that making Bonnie happy is “all I’ve got.” On the other hand, even Bo is eventually won over by Woody’s steadfast devotion and supports him despite herself.

Yet why is there no similar ambiguity to Bo’s situation? One of Pixar’s historic strengths is its frankly flawed leading characters, from jealous Woody knocking Buzz out the window to troubled Riley running away from home.

I’m not sure I can think of a single major Pixar character as unconflicted — free of self-doubt, personal needs or admitted flaws — as Action Bo. Even Elastigirl had moments of insecurity and helplessness and needed Edna Mode to slap some sense into her. Even Cars 2, with its condescending climactic celebration of Mater, did so only after thoroughly humiliating him through his blundering ways.

Why isn’t Bo allowed to struggle, like Woody, with whether her lifestyle is really as wholly fulfilling or complete as she says? Is it because it’s okay for a male hero to be incomplete or imperfect and to find fulfillment in loving a woman, but a heroine must be complete and self-sufficient?

As nagging as Bo’s conflict-free arc may be, by far the biggest problem centers on Gabby Gabby, an eerily soft-spoken and polite pull-string doll who rules Second Chance Antiques with an iron fist, backed up by a quartet of terrifying identical ventriloquist dummies all named Vincent.

Gabby wants something from Woody, and she’s willing to do anything to get it. I said spoilers were fair game, so I’m going to come out and say it: Gabby wants to replace her defective voice box with Woody’s functional one, and she won’t let Forky go unless she gets it.

Rather than downplaying the obvious metaphor, the film emphasizes that Gabby wants to forcibly steal an organ from Woody and that kidnapping and hostage-taking are acceptable means to that end.

So far that’s merely dreadful behavior from a villain. But then the movie seamlessly transitions into quasi-redemption for poor Gabby, who has never been loved by a child and blames her defective voice box. And Woody, moved to pity despite himself, but still under duress, surrenders his voice box to get Forky back.

While Gabby’s plans don’t go as she hoped, and she suffers a devastating rejection, her story ends happily — all with no sign of real contrition or making amends to Forky or Woody.

This is frankly horrifying. The only way Gabby’s redemption could possibly have worked would be if she had a change of heart before taking Woody’s voice box, unconditionally liberated Forky, and perhaps made some effort to help reunite them with Bonnie, leaving Woody free to voluntarily donate his voice box without duress.

The idea that we’re meant to root for Gabby’s happiness with a child after her unconscionable actions, with no actual redemption on her part, is just bizarre, especially given Pixar’s stellar track record on flawed characters taking responsibility for their actions.

To be fair, the narrative wheels roll smoothly enough that kids and even adults may go along with Gabby’s quasi-redemption, at least on the first viewing or two. I have to think, though, that, with multiple viewings on home video, the moral problem here will become an obstacle for thoughtful viewers.

It’s tough for me to overlook this. Yet the film’s strengths are winsome enough to make me want to.

While Toy Story 4 isn’t up to the level of any of the first three films, it’s worth catching just for Forky’s crisis and its implications. For the rest, as with Incredibles 2 and Finding Dory, it’s slick and inventive enough to make time spent with old friends pass quickly and warmly, with plenty of laughs as well as a few tears.

Deacon Steven D. Greydanus is the Register’s film critic and creator of Decent Films.
He is a permanent deacon in the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey.

Caveat Spectator: Considerable menace and scary/tense scenes; disturbing themes. Might be too much for sensitive kids.

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