I’ve said it before, but big name sequels are tiring…unless you’re talking Toy Story, which is no longer battling for greatest animated film franchise, but instead for best film franchise ever. Spread out over 24 years, the fourth film in the series arrives in the midst of a live action time period where childhood classics such as The Jungle Book and Aladdin are being recreated with CGI and human actors for glorious and bountiful box office returns. The geniuses behind the Toy Story franchise, however, do not care. They are not interested in following the demands of pop culture nor are they interested in repeating the same story with fresh faces. No, Toy Story 4 continues to push the boundaries of what an animated film about children’s toys can say about the human condition.
In the span of 100 minutes, Toy Story 4 lays it on heavy at the beginning with the addition of a new character named Forky, voiced by Tony Hale of Veep fame. Forky is made up of a spork, popsicle stick feet, and other arts and crafts items Woody rescued from a kindergarten garbage in order to make his new kid Bonnie feel more comfortable on her first day of school. Bonnie is elated for having made her own friend. She’s happy, but not everyone is.
Forky is far from your average toy. They are not factory-made nor mass produced. They are a collection of items that were scrounge together from a children’s trash heap. Basically, they are the 2019 version of Frankenstein’s monster, but without the ability to scare anyone really, except the other toys. Born out of a trash can, Forky does not feel like a toy. In fact, Forky just wants to live in the “warmth” of the trash and other emotive descriptors that no one apart from a bear looking for leftover food would think about a trash can. A hilarious montage is introduced of Forky continually trying to dive into different garbage receptacles with Woody doing everything within his means to ensure that Forky does not hurt themselves.
This scene, though lighthearted and crowd pleasing, made me incredibly depressed despite the large smile across my face. The relatable Imposter Syndrome Forky was feeling about being a toy is something I struggle with in many aspects of my personal life. To see a character give everything they have to simply end their story arc and back out of what is expected of them is something that I can relate to. The very essence of the character, like the monster in Frankenstein, is sad and confused. The purpose of both these creations was born out of their creators’ fear and need for a coping-mechanisms. As an adult with depression, it is hard not to imagine Forky as attempting to commit suicide. From jumping into garbage cans or out of moving car windows, Forky is frequently running away from their sole purpose, which is to be a toy, or a friend, for Bonnie. I can already see countless mental health memes, positive or dark, mimicking Forky’s repeated attempts to return to the trash.
As someone who has struggled with suicidal ideation and has friends who deal with pressing mental health issues, it was comforting to see a relatable character so completely out of their element, willing to effectively commit suicide in order to end what they deemed to be a miserable existence. Thankfully, this is a child’s movie and there is no death to be found here. As such, luckily for the audience, Forky is eventually convinced to change their mindset and give life a new meaning. But throughout this process, it is revealed that even the most seemingly self-assured Toy Story veterans are struggling with, or ignoring, their own sense of self.
Buzz Lightyear and Woody later have a quick, but crucial conversation about Forky in which Woody reveals that many of his actions are driven by his conscience, something the space cadet cannot seemingly understand. In a hilarious manner, Buzz begins to self-regulate and make decisions on his personal quest based on this inner voice that actually him simply pushing the buttons on his chest that follow a standard programming code. Whether fate or dumb luck, Buzz’s trust in his chest sounds allow him to become a crucial member of the ‘save the day ‘cast that makes the plot as beautiful as it is funny. Buzz may be incapable of conscience thought on his own, but he is aware of his existence despite that. Many of us are just sort of stumbling through life and Buzz is our poster boy.
This is in some form, “I think therefore I am,” even if Buzz’s thoughts are as shallow and silly as they can possibly be. It’s important to note that Buzz does follow the voice he keeps hearing for better or worse. Even when he has doubts, pushing the button multiple times in attempt to hear something else, his confidence that the universe will pan out as it should is both rewarding and incredibly childlike. Perhaps that’s why he is so grateful by the end of the film, willing to let his best friend Woody go be happy, setting him free of the burden of taking care of Bonnie. When he tells Woody, “Bonnie will be fine,” he gives Woody permission to change his purpose as well.
Throughout the film, Woody is struggling with becoming a lost toy that collects dust bunnies in a closet. Frequently throughout the film, the courageous and often naive Woody continually makes poor decisions that put every toy around him at risk. Despite repeating that everything is for Bonnie, it becomes clear that Woody is pushing the limits of himself and the toys around him for personal gain. As the old saying goes, you either die a hero (Bo Peep) or live long enough to see yourself become the villain (Woody).
While I do wish Woody had a Walter White clean moment of confession, Woody eventually relents his fears of being a lost toy without a purpose. His obsession with making sure Forky takes care of Bonnie, despite the harm it brings to everyone around him, is because Woody himself believes he must always be working to protect his child. In the end, as a child-less toy set free of emotional burdens, Woody is now able to find the purpose that he chooses for himself. He may have lost his settled home and gang of friends, but he gains the freedom of choice to do so.
Throughout life we often feel compelled to remain in situations that may not be the best for our mental health. We believe loyalty and follow-through are imperative to our character. Toy Story 4 invites the audience to be more mindful of what their conscience is trying to express, how one’s life purpose can be a fluid, ever-changing process, and how oftentimes we should take care of ourselves before the needs of others. While I did not cry as much as I did during the absolute tear jerker Toy Story 3, the fourth addition to the Toy Story franchise left me with but a few tears and the actualization that life can and will be okay if you give it a chance to be. We can spend our lives searching for a purpose, or we can live in the moment and understand that purpose is playing out in real time by simply existing. There is rebellion and beauty to be found in going against what society deems your purpose. As we grow old trying to figure out what’s the goddamn point, Toy Story 4 is a reminder that the changes and discomfort we feel in life are temporary, for better or worse, and the hopeful purpose we are looking for is never too far away, especially if you’ve got a friend or two.