In a world where things and people merge, what happens when you outlive your usefulness? The question that workers worldwide have been asking themselves is somehow also the question at the heart of Toy Story 4. Arriving nine years after its predecessor, the latest in Disney-Pixar's hit animated series is a bright-colored, speedy entertainment for kids, a cash grab for studio execs — and, frankly, existentially unsettling.
In the universe to which Toy Story (1995) introduced us, toys are sentient beings with a primal commitment to meeting the needs of their child owners. If they were made of flesh and blood instead of felt, china and plush, we'd say they needed a liberation movement.
Children's fiction offers plenty of precedent for dancing around the queasy implications of a living-toy premise. But the folks at Pixar (Josh Cooley directed this installment; Andrew Stanton and Stephany Folsom scripted) choose instead to lean into those implications. In Toy Story 3, the toys' owner grew up, and the series' beloved characters were nearly incinerated as "trash." At the last minute, though, they found a new owner/savior/god, the shy toddler Bonnie (voice of Madeleine McGraw).
Once a favorite toy, protagonist Woody (Tom Hanks), now spends most days chilling in Bonnie's closet, but he's still 100 percent committed to her needs. When Bonnie pastes googly eyes on a spork and brings it home as her new favorite toy, Woody makes it his mission to keep the two together. That isn't easy, because "Forky" (Tony Hale) identifies as trash and not a toy, and he likes being trash, dashing for the warm embrace of any waste receptacle he can find. It's the cutest depiction of Freud's death drive I've seen.
But oblivion isn't the only option for lost or abandoned toys, as Woody discovers when his pursuit of the fleeing Forky takes him off course. In a tourist town, Woody encounters a fleet of unchilded toys, including his old friend Bo Peep (Annie Potts) and the Norma Desmond-esque Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), who lives in an antique store guarded by ventriloquists' dummies. The two are polar opposites: While the fiery Bo embraces her freedom ("Seven fabulous years!" she proclaims), Gabby is so desperate for a child's love that she'll hurt other toys to get it.
Bright and shiny, with much of the third act set in and around a carnival, Toy Story 4 boasts impressive animation. Settings and weather often look photorealistic, while the stylized toys have a convincingly human expressive range. The pacing can get frenetic for adult tastes, and the film introduces so many new characters so quickly (including ones voiced by Keanu Reeves, Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele) that fans of the original gang could feel short-changed.
At the center of this whirlwind, though, is a genuinely compelling question. Which model will Woody follow — cling to his old purpose, or carve out a risky new life for himself? In most stories, the answer would be obvious. But the entire Toy Story series has been spent establishing that kids and toys belong together. Woody's identity as a team player is a big part of what makes him our hero. Now it's his potential downfall. In his mind, he's Bonnie's surrogate parent; in hers, he could be an over-the-hill employee ready for retirement — or even the trash.
That the service you've spent your life offering won't always have value is a lesson that today's kids, raised in the gig economy, may not need. But their parents will get it.