No, Toy Story 4 isn’t necessary. Yes, Toy Story 4 is fun. Does it end in a way that’s worthy of the series, and Woody in particular? We’ll get there.
First the fun, and his name is Forky. At the movie’s start, little Bonnie—who inherited Woody and the gang from a college-bound Andy at the end of Toy Story 3—heads to kindergarten. Sitting alone at a table on her first day, she crafts a new friend out of a spork, popsicle sticks, pipe cleaners, and a mismatched pair of googly eyes. Depending on which eye is looking at you, Forky is either adorable or horrifying, a cross between Gumby and Frankenstein’s monster.
Voiced by Tony Hale, Forky is at once very funny and existentially distressing. Literally made from scraps that Bonnie scooped out of the garbage, he’s obsessed with returning to trash cans once he gains consciousness. But Woody (Tom Hanks) insists he’s a toy, in fact “the most important toy to Bonnie right now.” The film’s sweetest scene takes place after Woody and Forky have fallen out of an RV on a family vacation and are slowly walking their way back toward Bonnie along the side of the road. Finally convinced by Woody of his purpose as a toy—and struggling to keep up with popsicle-stick feet that make him walk like a penguin on crutches—Forky turns to Woody and asks, “Carry me?”
This moment takes place as dawn breaks behind the pair, and the exquisite animation is evidence that Pixar has yet again moved the bar in terms of visual design. (The director, Josh Cooley, is making his feature debut.) With each new picture from the studio, the combination of realism and imagination is freshly astonishing—from the grit on this roadside to the rain in an earlier scene to the way Forky’s movements have both the awkwardness of a hodgepodge, kindergarten craft and the intentionality of a sentient being. Compared to this, 1995’s Toy Story looks like it was made by Etch A Sketch.
Etch, who had clever cameos in the previous films, doesn’t return in Toy Story 4, but we get other new characters in addition to Forky—especially when Bonnie’s family stops in a town with an antique shop and a traveling carnival. Jordan Peele and Keegan Michael-Key have amusing bit parts as stuffed-animal carnival prizes whose hands are sewn together, while that antique shop is presided over by a glassy-eyed vintage doll (Christina Hendricks) with a broken voice box. When she sees that Woody’s voice box still works, she sends her ventriloquist-dummy henchmen after him. (They’re creepy enough to make Forky’s one good eye pop off.) This allows for the sort of Rube Goldberg-inspired action sequences that have been one of the series’ hallmarks, including a daring toy motorcycle jump by a Canadian daredevil action figure voiced, of course, by Keanu Reeves. (Yes, there’s a “whoa.”)
Depending on which eye is looking at you, Forky is either adorable or horrifying.
Toy Story 4 also reunites us with Bo Peep (Annie Potts), Woody’s one-time paramour, who was missing from Toy Story 3. A flashback prologue reveals how they were separated, and later we discover that she ended up, then escaped from, the antique shop. Now living a free existence as a “lost toy,” Bo Peep and her three sheep careen around town in a remote-controlled car that’s disguised to look like a skunk. Wielding her shepherd’s crook like a lance and rumbling across the terrain with furrowed determination, she’s like a miniature Furiosa from Mad Max: Fury Road.
I loved this vision of Bo Peep; I don’t love how she’s involved in the film’s frustrating ending. In Toy Story 4’s final moments, after all the missing toys have been gathered and they’re about to head home with Bonnie’s family, Woody suddenly chooses to stay with Bo Peep to travel wherever the carnival takes them. It’s a decision set up by the screenplay (written by Andrew Stanton and Stephany Folsom), but one that still seems to come out of nowhere. Woody and Bo’s relationship has never been as foundational to this series as the other things Woody has always stood for: the nobility of one’s purpose as a toy; the love between plaything and child (what about Bonnie!?); the cultivation of a healthy, playroom community. Bo Peep bats her eyes—well, she also saves his butt—and Woody no longer cares about any of that?
It also strikes me as a strangely square move for the series to make, a sudden embrace of traditional romance (if not a pint-sized nuclear family, if you count the sheep) over the communal vision these movies have always painted. Bo may thrive out on her own, but Woody was never meant for the Wild Wild West. His place is the ranch—more specifically, the corral, where lost toys could be gathered and given purpose and community. (Think again about Forky.) Toy Story 3 left me feeling that although things had hugely changed and difficult goodbyes had been said, Woody’s world was also continuing on as it had before. There was sadness, as well as deep satisfaction. Toy Story 4 leaves me worried about Woody out there in the world, far from the playroom, without a kid to love, and without a kid to love him.