Forky (voiced by Tony Hale) has no reason to exist. In Toy Story 4, this creature made of kindergarten classroom trash has achieved sentience, walking around and existing in a world that didn’t ask for him. The same could be said of Toy Story 4. Pixar’s first film series could’ve easily ended with the last installment and its tidy wrap-up, a happy ending for all involved. With Toy Story 3, these characters said goodbye to their beloved owner Andy, but with Toy Story 4, Woody (Tom Hanks) and friends find their own self-importance, their own reason to exist, and in doing so, create a sequel that is as essential as any other film in this series.
Since Andy handed his toys off to their new owner Bonnie, Woody has felt useless. He’s not the head of the bedroom since the move, and when Bonnie wants a sheriff during playtime, Jessie (Joan Cusack) is by far her favorite deputy. After a playtime that leaves Woody abandoned in the closet, the toy cowboy is searching for meaning in this difficult transition. When Bonnie is sent to kindergarten without a toy, Woody sneaks into Bonnie’s book bag, just in case she needs him. In class, Bonnie is lonely and sad, but after Woody provides some supplies for her, Bonnie creates Forky, an ungodly trash creature formed from a plastic spork, pipe cleaners, google eyes and a popsicle stick. On the way home, somehow, Forky comes to life and becomes Bonnie’s favorite toy.
Forky – knowing that his true purpose is to be trash – keeps trying to throw himself away. Woody takes it upon himself to constantly keep Forky from the trash and into Bonnie’s toy rotation. When Bonnie’s family decides to go on a road trip, Woody’s goal become more difficult as Forky throws himself out the family RV, and Woody attempts to bring Forky back to Bonnie. He somehow runs into his old love/Andy’s sister’s lamp Bo Peep (Annie Potts), and is shown the world of lost toys that don’t rely on the loyalty of an owner.
Toy Story 4 opens with the last moments that Woody and Bo spent together at Andy’s house. Directed by first-time feature director Josh Cooley, this opening will likely end up being considered alongside WALL-E and Up as one of Pixar’s greatest introductory sequences. In the first few minutes, Toy Story 4 presents that these characters have their own agency, their own loves and desires. While this has been seen in the past through villains like Stinky Pete in Toy Story 2 or Lotso in Toy Story 3, here we see Woody desiring something outside what is best for Andy or for other toys. For the first time, Woody shows desires centered around his own interest.
This is what makes Toy Story 4 so essential. The way Woody maneuvers this world, both in the opening and even more gloriously beautiful conclusion, shows a world-weary character, uncertain of his place in the world. Woody has always had a purpose: to make his owner happy. But now, Woody is in essence a lost toy, despite the fact that he has an owner in Bonnie. Toy Story 4 digs into how to do the most good with what one is given, and to find acceptance for one’s self without relying on someone else.
It makes sense then that Toy Story 4 is based on an original story by Rashida Jones and Will McCormack, as this does share tonally similar material with their first film together, Celeste and Jesse Forever. The screenplay by the reliable Pixar stalwart Andrew Stanton and newcomer Stephany Folsom combines heartbreakingly touching moments with some of the weirdest, laugh-out-loud humor in the entire franchise.
Toy Story 4’s new characters fit right in alongside characters that we’ve now known for a quarter of a century. Forky is a strange but welcome inclusion into this world, and his borderline suicidal tendency is a dark addition into this usually cheerful world. Also new are Canadian daredevil Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves), and two stuffed carnival creatures connected at the hand, Ducky and Bunny (Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, respectively). There’s also Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), a doll from the 50s who was created with a broken pull string.
Since Toy Story 4 separates Woody and Forky from the rest of the crew, Toy Story 4 oddly leaves the tried-and-true characters waiting on the sidelines. Once the road trip commences, most of Bonnie’s toys never even leave the RV, and Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) goes on a search led by his “inner voice” (basically following whatever his sound buttons tell him to do) that almost brings him back to the daft mindset that he had in the first film. Yet these characters not getting the spotlight isn’t as egregious as it might seem. Toy Story 4 is very much about Woody’s quest for understanding, and anything outside is a distraction.
Toy Story 4’s conclusion might actually be Pixar’s best ending, a close call with Toy Story 3. If Toy Story 3’s finale was to say goodbye to Andy, Toy Story 4 attempts to wrap up the story for some of these toys. The final moments of Toy Story 4 are both shocking and completely in step with what we’ve seen of these characters since the first Toy Story. Both Toy Story 3 and 4 are very different conclusions that find endings for characters in satisfying, perfect ways that will leave audience in tears.
But maybe most importantly, Toy Story 4 is the most fun film of 2019 so far, and the fact that it’s also able to imbue this story with a catharsis, stakes and emotional moments is just icing on the cake. For diehard fans of Pixar, Toy Story 4 is a treasure trove of hidden presents, from a followup on what happened to the Pizza Planet delivery driver, to near-constant references to almost every Pixar short.
At this point, Toy Story has become the Before trilogy for Pixar, every few years bringing another installment that only strengthens the overall story. But Toy Story films also tend to bring about a sea change for Pixar. The first film was a remarkable proof-of-concept. The second, with Jessie’s “When She Loved Me” backstory, proving that animated films could make an audience cry. The third film both presented an excellent conclusion and wrapped up Pixar’s unbelievably great run of their first ten films. Toy Story 4 feel like the beginning of Pixar taking bold chances again (their next two films are completely original, and they’ve stated that they have no sequels in development). Even after finding an ideal way to wrap up this series, Toy Story 4 adds a new chapter that is as necessary as what came before it, and continues Toy Story’s legacy as one of the greatest film franchises.