For us mere mortals the past is a complicated place. We acknowledge that it is littered with bad times and more than a few atrocities yet when we look back we do so with a sort of glowing fondness for days gone by. Nostalgia is so powerful that it has become the basis for political campaigns on both sides of the ideological spectrum. Conveniently, we ignore the pesky fact that the past no longer exists anywhere beyond our memory and history books. We must live with it’s consequences but cannot remedy them by returning to their source.
Turns out this very human conundrum is also the default setting for the seemingly immortal beings of the Toy Story universe. For a whole trilogy we are saddled up with cowboy Woody (Tom Hanks) as he tries his best to get back to what he knows. Back to Andy, back to his friends, back to a time when he felt truly loved. But for the first time in the franchise, Toy Story 4 presents a way forward instead of back.
From the moment a newly sentient spork begins to scream in Bonnie’s bag, it’s clear that we are in for a Toy Story story attempting to eschew the boundaries set by its predecessors. A child’s love may animate these characters but alive they remain. Woody and company have spent their entire shelf life in a bubble. This bubble has expanded slowly with each installment, but the golden rule remained constant; the toys existed to make a child happy. Not just any child, their child.
When Toy Story 3 shifted from Andy to Bonnie it felt like a natural end point. Andy had grown up, the toys had finished their cycle with him and would begin a new iteration with Bonnie. Toy Story’s bubble had expanded to it’s maximum capacity. A fourth film could be nothing but redundant within the constructs of the series. So what did the team at Pixar do? They took a fork — more accurately a spork — and popped the bubble.
In this sense, Forky (a delightfully neurotic Tony Hale) is not the protagonist of Toy Story 4, serving rather as its catalyst. When he shows up in Bonnie’s room for the first time it feels like an echo of the franchise’s beginnings. Despite Bonnie’s name on the bottom of his popsicle-stick feet, Forky is as disconnected from his new purpose as Buzz (Tom Hanks) was in Toy Story. He’s convinced that he is still trash and history tells us that it will be up to Woody to dispel him of such notions. Toy Story 4 is not interested in history and we learn quickly that looking back will not help us navigate this newest installment. This time it isn’t the new toy who is out of touch with reality.
Instead it’s Woody who is in crisis to begin Toy Story 4, even if he’d never admit it. After desperately clawing his way back to Andy for a third time in as many films, he has been passed along to another kid and quickly relegated to the back of the closet. The venerable sheriff has always excelled at moving backwards, he’s done it time after time for three films. Every imminent threat that separates him from Andy is something that isolates him from his past. If anything, Toy Story as a franchise has represented the desire to cling to the past because an unknown future can be frightening.
For this reason, Toy Story’s dogma mirrors that of our country in this moment. It is in our nature to fear what we don’t know and reactively recede to the comfort of a white-washed past. When Toy Story 4 finally confront’s Woody’s endless pursuit of a life that has long since outgrown him, it confronts America’s current quest to find prosperity in a past that may never have existed the way it does in our myths. This is the idea that I’ve turned over in my head in the weeks and months since seeing Toy Story 4.
Toy Story 4 shakes up the formula by eschewing the classic franchise opening of a sequence of play, instead depicting the toys autonomously attempting a rescue. A seemingly small change but one that untethers these characters from their dependence on Andy or any other child god. After a thrilling intro, the film’s plot begins in earnest like any other of the series, by separating Woody from his kid. In this case Woody must chase after Forky, the new favorite toy of Bonnie, after he jumps out a window seeking a return to the comfort of his garbage can. Just like each of his previous adventures, the plastic lawman must then begin the long journey back to the only life he knows. This time however Woody is beckoned by a different kind of history, an alternate history. Transfixed by the familiar glow of a lamp belonging to his old friend Bo Peep (Annie Potts), Woody veers off into a journey for what could have been.
Along the way, as he once again tries to claw his way back to the past, Woody meets a collection of toys for whom the past has been far lest kind. Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), Ducky (Keegan Michael Key), Bunny (Jordan Peele), and all the other lost toys he meets are just looking for a taste of the joy Woody has experienced in service of a child. Lost as he may be at his current juncture, Woody has lived a charmed life for a toy. His reticence to let go is a familiar portrait of a generation that is frozen — petrified by a future that may not value them in the way the past has.
By the third act it becomes impossible to see this film as anything but a commentary on the MAGA era. Those who historically have had success cling desperately to the past at the expense of progress for those who had been left behind. This is the space Woody occupies, intentionally or not. Like so many humans born of his era— the movie explicitly states that Woody was made in the sixties, officially making him a boomer—the toy sheriff had it all. He was in control of the playroom and lived in luxury as the favorite toy much as the, mostly white, boys who grew up on the specific type of heroism in Gunsmoke, Bonanza or any other Woody’s Roundup type show experienced lives in which they were the heroes. But as his, and their privilege, begins slipping through his plastic fingers, he desperately seeks a return to a world that has moved on.
But time marches forward, even for a toy. And the beauty of Toy Story 4 is that it refuses to resign itself to the idea that Woody doesn’t belong in this new age. Woody has always had a strong conscience and a good heart. As he meets these displaced toys he comes to empathize with their struggles. He begins to realize that he can help more kids and more toys by building up a better future. So that’s what he does. He and Bo set off to help lost toys connect with new kids. In that way, Woody’s journey actually charts a new way forward for all of us stuck in this backwards looking mindset. It turns out that being open to change and embracing the future is the key to progress.
Ultimately Toy Story 4 works so well because it shuns the core concepts of its franchise. Woody becomes disconnected from his privilege and learns that prosperity isn’t divided equally. The good sheriff teaches us all a lesson in this regard. We can never grow by getting back to where we once were. Time never truly moves past us and we all have a place in the uncertain future. The only way is forward, no matter how scary that future may seem.
Toy Story 4 continues to play in theaters across the US and will be available on home media October 8.