To talk about “Toy Story 4” is to talk about Forky. This is a movie that doesn’t initially appear to have any compelling reason to exist — the forced but satisfying third installment of Pixar’s signature franchise seemed to wrap things up when it came out almost a full decade ago — and yet Forky alone is enough to elevate this potential cash-grab into the beautiful and hilarious coda that its long-running series needed to be truly complete. Forky is the hero we need in 2019.
Forget Andy, forget Woody, and definitely forget that lame Buzz Lightyear (the writers of “Toy Story 4” already have), Forky is the god’s honest truth. He’s everything these films have been working towards. After 25 years, several billion dollars, and the rise of a cartoon empire that has become synonymous with top-drawer family entertainment, the beating heart of the “Toy Story” saga is best expressed by a plastic spork with mismatched googly eyes, a red pipe cleaner for arms, and an existential crisis that causes him to snap even though he technically can’t even bend.
See, the thing about Forky (voiced by Tony Hale, doing a lobotomized Buster Bluth) is that he was never meant to be a toy; he’s just an art project that a young girl named Bonnie frankensteins together in kindergarten one day. But something magical happens when she writes her name along the bottom of the wooden popsicle sticks that Forky uses as his stupid little feet: He comes to life. He’s endowed with a soul. Bonnie’s affection for this misbegotten thing is all it takes to transform an inanimate object into a character with a name and a home and a place to belong.
Sentience is a strange thing to give to a spork, and Forky may be slow to wrap his brainless scoop of a head around these hard ideas — he’s convinced that he’s a piece of trash, and spends a brilliant sequence doing everything in his power to get back into the garbage — but he still epitomizes the big idea that props up the “Toy Story” universe, if not Pixar’s entire brand. These movies don’t just present love as something we look for, but also quite literally as the force that animates life itself.
Which is why Woody (Tom Hanks doing Tom Hanks) is starting to feel a bit anxious about his own future. Things have been different since Andy — Woody’s original kid — grew up and gave all of his old toys to Bonnie, who has a different way of playing with them. She’s a great kid, and Woody is hellbent on doing everything he can to help her through her childhood years, but she’s also started to take Woody’s sheriff’s star and pin it on Jessie (Joan Cusack), her bedroom’s resident cowgirl. Woody was manufactured to reach for the sky, but these days he finds himself stuck on the floor; it’s a hard time to be an old white male toy.
It’s gradually dawning on the floppy little gunslinger that he’s not as needed as he used to be, and things only get worse when Bonnie discovers that she can make her own toys out of discarded utensils, and that she loves her plastic monstrosities as much as she does any of her more professional dolls. And so Woody finds himself caught between the joys of usefulness and the purgatory of the attic — he’s an immortal being who’s basically shifting into retirement age — and that’s a lot for him to take. What’s a toy supposed to do when no one really wants all the love it has to give?
“Kids lose their toys every day,” becomes a common refrain, as death metaphors creep back into a franchise that’s always welcomed them with open arms. Woody is on the brink of a nervous breakdown, and Forky — sweet, suicidal Forky — isn’t helping. One is a toy who’s afraid of becoming trash, and the other is a piece of trash who doesn’t want to become a toy. Bonnie’s love, or the apparent lack of it, is enough to transform them into perfect toils.
These characters are so well-suited for each other that it’s a wonder the film doesn’t grind to a halt when they’re separated for almost the entire second act, as a road trip (the kind of road trip that threatens to spread a movie like this way too thin), gets snagged in a midwest antiques store that’s ruled by another mid-century doll who’s struggling to make sense of her late 60s. Her name is Gabby Gabby (a sinister but soulful Christina Hendricks), her voice box is broken, and she’s willing to hold Forky hostage until Woody offers her the tinny speaker that’s sewn into his back.
Chaos reigns from there, as the series’ latest (and seemingly last) meditation on death becomes a wild chase around a veritable graveyard of forgotten objects. First-time director Josh Cooley, working from a script that’s credited to Stephany Folsom and Andrew Stanton but shaped by everyone from Rashida Jones (yay!) to John Lasseter (boo!), turns the antique store into a veritable “Toy Story” Temple of Doom, but without all those pesky racist caricatures. Instead, the film is littered with the franchise’s most enjoyable collection of plushies and action figures, including a traumatized Canadian daredevil toy named Duke Caboom (obviously Keanu Reeves), two anarchic stuffed animals from the carnival down the street (Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele), and a tiny Happy Meal-looking thing named Giggle McDimples (Ally Maki).
And while all of your favorite characters also pop up here and there — Tim Allen’s Buzz Lightyear being unsurprisingly well-suited to a third-string plot thread that keeps him busy until he’s needed for the emotional wallop of the film’s grand finale — Bo Peep (Annie Potts) is the only member of the old guard who’s promoted to a lead role. And not a minute too soon. Now living in the wild as a Lauren Bacall-like “lost toy” with her three-headed Cerberus sheep, Bo has been reborn as Pixar’s version of a Miyazaki heroine; using her staff to navigate the human world like the whole planet was designed as her playpen, she moves through the antiques store with the savage grace of Princess Mononoke, pushing Cooley’s animators to make this the most fluid and enjoyably kinetic Pixar film since “Ratatouille.”
Clever, breathless, and never manic just for the sake of keeping your kids’ eyes busy, the action in “Toy Story 4” is character-driven and paced to perfection. Whether Duke is trying to jump over a cat, or Bo is running away from Gabby Gabby’s army of horrifying ventriloquist dummies, the movie’s elegant physical energy makes it a rare testament to the virtues of computer-generated animation — a form that too often feels like a shortcut — and serves to remind us that this franchise is still better suited to Pixar’s style than anything else the studio has ever made. Woody could never be useless so long as he’s capable of sparking this much joy.
Alas, as you may have gleaned by the absence of his name in these last few paragraphs, “Toy Story 4” could have used a lot more Forky. Admirable as it is that Pixar doesn’t shove that demented spork down our throats, Forky’s nihilism, his self-destruction, and his Bergman-esque gripe with a God (or a child) cruel enough to birth him unto a world in which death is the only true dignity that will ever be available to him… well, it’s enough to make Forky the most human character that Pixar has ever created. We are Forky, and Forky is us. Better to let kids make their peace with that now.
But Forky’s emotional arc is basically complete by the end of the first act, and every time he’s not on screen, the audience can’t help but ask themselves: “Where’s Forky?” He’s always in our hearts, but often far from our sights, and none of the film’s many other funny gags can hold a candle to the heartbreaking comedy of watching Forky’s miserable, consoling hand stick into somebody else’s close-up. He’s a disposable character by design, and the film all but throws him away after using him to feed Woody’s own identity crisis.
At the end of the day, however, this has always been Woody’s story. If the second act of “Toy Story 4” lacks the deranged genius of its first, and the third act lacks the sublime action of the second, the climactic stretch does a fine job of recentering our focus on the sheriff as he rides into the sunset. The tear-jerking final moments seem to come out of nowhere, but where the ending of “Toy Story 3” simply deferred to the cycle of life, this finale ties a much stronger bow around the franchise by cutting to its core instead of just circling back to the start.
Woody has always been convinced that he was put on this planet to provide for Andy and Bonnie and whatever kid might have him; he’s lawman, and that’s his code. But, with Forky’s help, “Toy Story 4” takes a step back and forces Woody to re-evaluate his own sense of frontier justice. Yes, he was manufactured for the love that he has to give. But he’s only alive because of the love that he’s received in return.
Disney will release “Toy Story 4” in theaters on June 21.