[Editor’s Note: This review has been updated with new information in the Sexual Content and Conclusion sections.]
It might be hard to admit from a faithful toy’s perspective, but nothing lasts forever.
Even a great little deputy like Sheriff Woody’s beloved Andy has to grow up at some point. And taking a box of toys off to college, and beyond, doesn’t always work so well. So grown-up Andy shares his prized possessions—Woody, Buzz Lightyear, Jessie the cowgirl and all the rest—with a rambunctious little girl named Bonnie.
Of course, Woody understands Andy’s choice. It’s hard, but he gets it. He also understands that his former position as the toy-box leader is now somebody else’s job: It now belongs to a dolly … named Dolly. But even though he’s often overlooked at playtime or dropped in the closet with dust bunnies and forgotten playthings, Woody is still the most loyal, most faithful, most earnest plaything of them all.
So when he sees that Bonnie is anxious about her first day of kindergarten, Woody sneaks into her backpack to make sure her day goes well. And he even secretly helps her build a toy during craft time at school: a gussied-up little spork made with clay and pipe cleaners. She joyfully names it Forky.
Problem is, Forky wakes up a little confused after Bonnie crafts him. Bonnie sees Forky as a beloved toy, a symbol of comfort in a stressful world. But Forky sees himself as what he was originally created to be: an eating utensil to be thrown out after being used. His place, he feels, is the trash can. So when Bonnie isn’t looking, Forky spontaneously scampers for the nearest garbage receptacle. “Trash!” he yells gleefully. “TRASH!”
So it’s up to Woody to drag him back. For Bonnie’s sake. That’s Woody’s job. You see, duty to your kid is a toy’s paramount purpose. And that’s true even when your kid … doesn’t really care all that much about you anymore.
Bonnie’s parents decide to rent a motorhome and head off on a camping trip, and Bonnie brings along an armful of toys, including Woody, Buzz and, of course, her new best bud, Forky.
But the crazy spork keeps trying to “trash” himself, with Woody constantly trying to impede or undo Forky’s self-destructive impulses. Woody repeatedly puts himself on the line to keep Forky from “round-filing” himself in order to save the crazy spork and, in turn, Bonnie’s feelings. The two run into other dangers that Woody must brave. And in several scenes, Woody readily leaps without hesitation into the fray to save his friends. Gradually, Woody’s diligent efforts begin to help Forky understand his real purpose. (More on that in Spiritual Content.)
Woody also meets Bo Peep again after being separated from her for many years (after Andy’s sister gave the doll away). She’s now a “lost toy” who aids Woody with the new skills she’s developed over the years. She and some of her other lost toy friends bravely seek to help Woody and Forky when they get into trouble.
Bo Peep also raises questions about an individual’s responsibilities: When should a toy start thinking of its own needs? And when, for that matter, is it best to give up on something you’ve devoted yourself to and to find a different way to help and serve others? The film also looks closely at the fact that life’s situations and the people you love the most sometimes change. And you must decide at those times how to do what’s right and where you find your personal value.
That kind of thinking (and change), though, is very difficult for Woody. His purpose has always been wrapped up in his dedication. “That little voice inside me would never leave me alone if I ever gave up,” he tells Buzz, who’s never really noticed a “little voice inside” his helmeted head. So Buzz gives the idea of listening to your inner voice a try—though he mistakenly starts following the advice of his built-in voice box instead. Eventually, though, Buzz comes to understand what Woody was talking about, and he in turn urges Woody to follow his own inner voice and do what’s right.
Woody talks to the trash-focused Forky and eventually explains to him how wonderful it is to belong to someone who loves you. And Forky’s perspective is totally changed. “I’m Bonnie’s trash!” he says with a gasp of understanding. Several other toys long desperately for that kind of kid-toy love and acceptance. One of them asks Woody, “Was it as wonderful as they say? I’d give anything to be loved the way you have [been].” (One misguided toy, however, tries to find that special connection by hurting someone else and taking something that it believes will make it more desirable.)
Though there’s no genuinely spiritual content here, one theme that’s emphasized throughout the film has to do with finding and embracing one’s true purpose. Woody helps Forky understand what he was truly made for, while others help Woody hang on to his purpose in some trying moments as well. These scenes give the film a mildly existential feel at points, though parents are obviously more likely to notice these deeper messages than kids are.
A lost toy doll laments a past relationship saying, “You know about me and He-Man, I’m not proud.” It’s also easy to see there’s an obvious attraction between Woody and Bo Peep that goes beyond friendship. (There’s nothing other than soulful looks in the mix, however.)
[Updated Content] A very brief scene at Bonnie’s school shows two women in the background, apparently partners, hugging a child before departing on the first day of school.
There’s quite a bit of active peril in the story—toys being thumped around and tumbling into possible danger. Some of those moments also involve heroic rescues, such as Woody working with his toy crew to save a plaything that’s being washed away in a rainstorm or going to self-sacrificial lengths to rescue someone being held captive.
Other times, the thumping violence is a bit more personal. Woody and Forky are held in an antique store by Gabby Gabby, a lonely doll who wants Woody’s pull-string voice box, for instance. She and her henchmen, a group of creepy ventriloquist dummies, literally try to rip the voice box right out through Woody’s stitching (a scene that gets revisited somewhat disturbingly later in the film). In another case, Bo’s pottery arm falls off, much to Woody’s dismay. But she laughs it off and simply tapes the appendage back in place.
A cat in the antique store is seen by all as a threat. We glimpse a stuffed toy that has been ripped in half by the beast—the toy’s stuffing fluffing out on the floor. The cat also swallows a small toy whole before gagging and coughing it back up.
In a slightly sillier mode, two stuffed toys named Bunny and Ducky imagine themselves doing broadly ridiculous things. In a flight of fantasy, they repeatedly envision different ways of attacking an elderly lady to obtain a needed key. (Each time, their toy companions blanch and quickly reject the nutty ideas.) The pair also imagines themselves growing to an enormous size, shooting lasers from their eyes and breathing fire at crowds of people. (Which, of course, they cannot do.)
Elsewhere, a motorhome lurches dramatically through a carnival.
We hear exclamations such as “Chutes-‘n’-ladders!” “Move your plush!” and “Oh my goodness.”
In one of Bunny and Ducky’s imagined scenarios, an elderly woman is relaxing in a bubble bath with a glass of wine.
To help give Woody time and keep Bonnie’s parents from driving away, Jessie and some of the other toys secretly sabotage the family’s motorhome. They puncture one of the vehicle’s tires and mess around with the gas and brake pedals.
Because, well, money.
If you want to get truly cynical about it, that’s the answer to the question, “Why did they make this movie?” After all, fans who were 5-year-olds when Toy Story came out 24 years ago can now take their 5-year-olds to this latest Disney/Pixar entry. Whipping up another toy-box tale is an easy Hollywood sell with a built-in-audience. Just back the trucks up to the theater and fill ’em with box-office cash.
It’s easy to be cynical. But that callous adult response aside, I can’t help but admit that Toy Story 4 is a really engaging movie. It’s not the best of Woody and the gang—their original three-pic story arc was arguably one of the most satisfying trilogies ever made—but this sequel could well end up being one of the best pictures of this year.
Toy Story 4 is funny, dramatic, kid-friendly and tear-up-in-the-end sweet. Admittedly, it starts slowly. It takes a while for this story to really find its footing. But once Woody gets his boots a-churning, once Bo Peep starts swinging her staff, and once the whole gang begins thinking about issues of value and belonging and purpose, everything clicks into place.
This fourth entry does indeed stir up the same magic that the first three were stitched together with. It’s wonderfully animated. It’s achingly emotional in spots. And along the way, it quietly asks some very grown-up questions:
What are our responsibilities toward others? What connects us? What do we do when things change … or end? What’s our role beyond the ever-changing family that we love so dearly? What gives us value?
Toy Story 4 doesn’t offer up obviously spiritual answers to those pull-string questions. But it certainly pushes the toy-box lid open wide enough that thoughtful moms and dads could reach in and take the discussion in whatever direction they see fit.
[Editor’s Note: The very brief inclusion of a same-sex couple in the background of one scene, which we’ve noted in this updated review, is also an important issue families will want to consider with regard to this film.]
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.