‘Toy Story 4’: the Clingy Cowboy

An Animated Parable About a Needy Ex-Boyfriend

Good Lord, toys are so needy. It’s amazing that a culturally beloved character like Woody (Tom Hanks), the standard-bearer of four films, three shorts, and two TV specials, is such a thirsty wreck. The dude is addicted to kid hugs. That was cute at first, then tolerable, and eventually exhausting. Now, the fourth time around, it’s downright disturbing. Hanks and his panicky cadence need a rest.

TOY STORY 4 ★★★ (3/5 stars)
Directed by: Josh Cooley
Written by: Stephany Folsom, Andrew Stanton
Starring: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Annie Potts, Tony Hale, Keegan-Michael Key, Jordan Peele
Running time: 100 min


Don’t get him started on Andy, his forever boy who gave him away in the last movie to a girl named Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw). Bonnie is like the methadone to Andy’s opiate-rush of dopamine bliss. She’s OK, she numbs the pain. But man, Woody sure needs a hit of that good stuff. And, at this point, so do audiences.

Seriously? Toy Story 4? What are you doing, Pixar? We get it, Disney bought you for a few billion dollars in 2006, so you made Toy Story 3 to placate shareholder supplicants. Amazingly, that movie stuck the landing and rounded off a lovely, if imperfect, trilogy. So why are we back here, nine years later? Take a cue from Andy. Move on already.

Neurotic Toys and the People Who Kinda Love Them
Woody introduces Forky to the gang in ‘Toy Story 4’.

Toy Story 4 is a movie about getting dumped. Which is weird, because the whole point of this franchise is to celebrate how much kids adore toys. But its most troublingly enduring catalyst for dramatic tension is to make the toys perpetually fretful that kids won’t want them, while also thinking that the kids can’t live without them. And that’s always been the films’ Achilles Heel. Why should we respect toys that exist not when they love themselves but only when another person loves them? Talk about an asymmetric relationship.

It’s preposterous to discuss toys as though they have psychological profiles. And yet that’s what Pixar has insisted we do, ever since the first Toy Story. Forget Bob McKee’s Story Structure advice: all screenwriting conflict must stem from conditions straight out of the APA’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Disorders. In their debut film, Woody feels threated by the emergence of Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) because of his inferiority complex! Buzz, who can’t cope with reality, retreats into delusions of grandeur! And when Rex (Wallace Shawn) fails to save Buzz and Woody, he says, “Now I’ll have guilt.”

But nothing overrides the toys’ imperative to serve their master: the boy or girl who plays with them. In Toy Story 3, the toys’ faithless owner drops them off at a Day Care center, so they’ve already faced that fatalistic sense of irrelevance. Now, in Toy Story 4, Woody is even more anxious that he’s unnecessary to Bonnie, and doubles down by turning into an insufferable helicopter parent, sneaking into her backpack to make sure her kindergarten orientation goes smoothly. He’s convinced he must be with Bonnie at all times to protect her from any emotional discomfort. So, when Bonnie feels lonely and dejected, Woody sneakily provides some discarded items that she turns into a toy: Forky (Tony Hale), a spork with pipe cleaner arms and a broken popsicle stick for two feet.

“I’m trash!” Forky declares repeatedly, and keeps wanting to throw himself away. Forky has the right idea. He is an idiot who knows who he is, sees no purpose in being a toy, and lives in the moment. “Hide and Seek? Sounds complicated!” he says at one point. Exactly.

But Still, There’s Keanu

Pixar likes to overcomplicate its adventures. That is why there’s a Toy Story 4. But Pixar is also full of incredibly talented, very funny, and extremely silly animators. And that’s why there’s Forky. That’s also why there’s Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves, hilariously), a Canadian daredevil toy with a damaged psyche because Rigon, his French Canadian boy, rejected him for not doing an impossible stunt as unrealistically advertised on TV. “Why, Rigon, why?” wails Duke Caboom at the haunting memory of his fickle owner. It’s as though the folks at Pixar are making a parody version of the psychologically traumatized toy. Because traumatized toys are inherently stupid.

That goofball mentality is what redeems Toy Story 4. It’s also why we have a Key and Peele reunion, in the form of streetwise surrealists Ducky (Keegan-Michael Key) and Bunny (Jordan Peele). The sewn-together-at-the-hand duo hatch some of the most hilariously misconceived schemes, plus they have an end-credits fantasy that involves shooting lasers out of their eyes and breathing fire. This is the Toy Story movie I want to see.

Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch

Oh, wait. Woody. Ugh. Forgot that we’re stuck with him as the protagonist. Basically, he needs to choose between serving a perfidious child or living the “lost toy life” that unrequited flame Bo Peep (Annie Potts) has enjoyed ever since being thrown out. Bo Peep has agency, and over the years has transformed herself into a sort of porcelain Laura Croft who drives around the real world in a supercharged skunk-mobile. Spoiler alert: it’s pretty clear that Woody needs to go cold turkey from being with kids, and maybe spend some time getting to know himself.

Handsy alcoholic John Lasseter, the disgraced former Pixar rainmaker who masterminded the Toy Story series, gets a “story by” credit for Toy Story 4, along with seven other people. He was originally supposed to direct this barrel-scraping sequel, but then #MeToo folks realized that he was a lush who fondled employees. Desperate for love—just like Woody! Calling Dr. Freud…

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Stephen Garrett

Stephen Garrett is the former film editor of 'Time Out New York’ and has written about the movie industry for more than 20 years. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer, Garrett is also the founder of Jump Cut, a marketing company that creates trailers and posters for independent, foreign-language, and documentary films.

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