“Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
– Margery Williams Bianco
The Velveteen Rabbit
For a work of children’s literature to become “classic,” a number of stars have to align, one of them being said story’s ability to resonate with adults, who are thereby motivated to ensure that their kids are exposed to it. Generations of young readers have fallen in love with The Velveteen Rabbit, the most alert among them perhaps taking notice that the older person reading the book aloud always gets a little choked up during the Skin Horse’s soliloquy. That part, we learn later in life, isn’t truly aimed at children, but at those of us who are growing “loose in the joints and very shabby,” well into our quests to become Real.
Makers of movies for audiences aged in the single digits understand this concept well. In the wrong hands, it can go awry, with jokes intended to fly over kids’ heads and amuse their parents missing all targets altogether, or coming across so arch that only damaged middle-schoolers aspiring to sophistication will laugh. That sweet spot between sentimentality and cynicism is not as large as one might wish. The people at Pixar have proven adept at being able to find it pretty consistently, however, and the latest installment in the Toy Story franchise is a worthy illustration.
The appeal of the Toy Story movies to children is obvious and uncomplicated. Minds not yet closed off to the possible existence of magic can easily get immersed in an alternate reality in which make-believe is only a matter of perspective, and toys have their own points of view (not to mention priorities that can be in conflict with those of the humans in their environments). When you’re so young that the line between Self and Other has not fully solidified, empathy comes easily. Our playthings’ suffering is our own suffering, their triumphs our triumphs.
That the humans in these movies are secondary or tertiary characters does not make the narratives any less relatable, and it certainly helps that the young child characters in particular seem more vulnerable and “developmentally appropriate” than your all-too-common snarky, overly precocious modern movie kid hero. For older viewers, it lends an irony worthy of Greek tragedy to the toy characters’ primary yearning: to be played with by real children. It’s what gives meaning to their existence. Those of us with our “hair loved off” – in the process of discovering that the fear of mortality associated with aging is more about dying before we’ve justified our existences by doing something really meaningful than about simply no longer being alive – will get what these toys are going through, even more than the kids we bring to the cinema will.
Toy Story 3 was long touted as the last of a trilogy, the narrative reaching a natural ending as the boy Andy (John Morris) went off to college and passed his toy collection on to a worthy preschooler, Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw). The rationale for a Toy Story 4 to happen had to be a good one – something beyond guaranteed great box office and merchandising potential. It went through several major rewrites (Stephany Folsom and Andrew Stanton get the final screenplay credit) over a period of more than five years, and perhaps it was in contemplating the need for this movie to exist at all that the writers hit on the idea that makes it work: a brand-new character named Forky (Tony Hale), assembled from a discarded spork and various kindergarten craft-table scraps.
From an external point of view, Forky is a tribute to the creative drive in children; on the inside, he believes his only destiny to be rejoining the trash. Woody (Tom Hanks) spends much of the movie trying to thwart his suicidal impulses, recognizing that Bonnie’s love for the toy she made herself is precisely what makes a toy’s life worth living. Reuniting Forky and Bonnie when they become separated on a family road trip makes up most of the zany action of the movie, but Forky’s existential crisis – mirrored in Woody’s lack of a sense of purpose after parting with Andy, and in the backstory of the primary villain, a doll named Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) who believes that she will find a child to love her if she can only replace her defective voice box with Woody’s functional one – sets its autumnal tone. Ending Toy Story 4 with one character asking “Why am I alive?” and another responding “I don’t know” is as clear a signal as we could ask that there’s no way to continue this series on the big screen without wading too deeply into the mire of post-Nietzschean philosophy.
Happily, there’s nothing that feels ponderous about this presumably final animated romp. Knowing what makes Woody and his pals tick gives Toy Story 4 ample heart, just like its predecessors, without risking alienating wannabe-edgy tweens and teens. The franchise’s brand of character-based humor remains fresh even as it tosses out Easter eggs referencing earlier Pixar and Disney products (it’s fun to look closely at the stuff accumulated in the antiques store where several toys are held captive). There are several engaging new characters, including Keanu Reeves as Duke Caboom, a motorcycle daredevil toy à la Evel Knievel whose Canadian patriotism becomes a running joke, and the comedy team of Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key as Bunny and Ducky, two stuffed toys sewn together who have long cherished crazed revenge schemes against humans whilst languishing as unclaimed prizes in a carnival game.
Perhaps best of all, if you’re among those viewers who always thought that the Toy Story franchise needed more female toy characters front and center, is the return of Bo Peep (Annie Potts), who, we learn, has gone renegade during her long exile from Andy’s toybox. The genteel, fragile porcelain shepherdess has turned thoroughly badass, and pretty well steals the whole movie along with Woody’s heart. Forky may give voice to our vestiges of low self-esteem, but Bo embodies the latent leadership potential in even the shyest among us.
If for no other reason, Toy Story 4 is worth a watch and listen just to take in the Randy Newman score. But you’re sure to find plenty of other reasons. Even when its time has come to end, it’s tough to part with a movie franchise this well-honed at delivering the goods. Let’s give Woody and his friends a grateful sendoff.