The conflicted nostalgia of Toy Story 4

The Toy Story films look wistfully back at the analogue childhoods they helped to bring to an end.

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Along with Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Jurassic Park and The Mask, Pixar’s original Toy Story (1995) did more to accelerate the CGI revolution than any other movie. And yet the on-screen universe of the film and its sequels is devoid of any trace of the digital realm and its benefits. Andy uses a laptop in Toy Story 3, from 2010, though by that point he was in his teens and could hardly have been shown whiling away the hours on an abacus. Most reception-age schoolchildren are conversant with the workings of computers but this hasn’t impinged on Toy Story 4, which takes place mainly in locations suspended in time: a fun fair, an antiques store. It’s as if the animation studio knows that for all the wonderment it has generated, it may have done its bit to erode the playroom tactility it holds in such high esteem. To watch a Toy Story movie is to enter an idealised alternate reality untouched by Pixar and its progress.

In the first film, the cowboy Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks) came close to being rendered obsolete by the spaceman Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), and had to learn the value of solidarity. Toy Story 4 partly reprises this idea with the arrival of Forky (Tony Hale), a plaything that four-year-old Bonnie (who inherited Andy’s old toys in the last film) has bodged together at kindergarten from a plastic utensil, a pipe-cleaner, a broken lolly stick and some googly eyes. It feels like a small kindness to cash-strapped parents for Pixar to include a character who can be easily improvised at home. No need to fork out for Forky.

His presence introduces the terrifying prospect of the preschooler as God. Woody, Buzz and the rest would have existed whether or not Andy took them out of the box, whereas Forky is an arbitrary assortment of rubbish granted sentience only on Bonnie’s whim. We’re accustomed in these films to children maiming or abandoning toys. A child actually creating life, though, is a philosophically complex idea, the bizarreness of which is not dispelled by a throwaway joke in the end credits.

Believing that the child’s happiness is more important than his own, Woody dedicates himself to keeping Bonnie and her playmate together on a family road-trip. Forky tries endlessly to return to the bin like a frog drawn back to the pond where it was spawned; he’s not the sharpest utensil in the drawer.

These adventures bring Woody into contact with Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), a sort of plastic baby matriarch who rules the roost at Second Chance Antiques. She wants something Woody has: a functioning voice-box, which she is certain will help her find an owner. Not unreasonably, Woody objects to surrendering the mechanism (it’s sewn inside him, as he points out) but by the end of the movie he comes to see the act not as cannibalism but organ donation. If he can make do without it, why not? The Toy Story series has its share of tyrants, and even Gabby has her sinister moments, but with Woody’s epiphany the picture comes close to being a children’s entertainment with no villains, an ideal exemplified by Studio Ghibli in My Neighbour Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service.

The voice-box issue forms a small part of the movie’s theme of toys finding out what they’re made of. Ducky (Keegan-Michael Key) and Bunny (Jordan Peele) are shocked to see kapok fibre spilling out of a zebra torn in two. “Is that how we look on the inside?” wonders Ducky. “There’s so much… fluff,” Bunny marvels. Elsewhere, Bo Peep (Annie Potts) hides in the belly of a motorised skunk, while another toy is swallowed by a cat before being regurgitated in a puddle of saliva. The visceral need not be horrifying. Woody reflects that his inner voice would never forgive him if he didn’t do his best to please Bonnie, though Buzz assumes he is referring to the phrases that ring out whenever the string on his back is pulled.

Woody reaches a new plane of enlightenment with each movie and is well on his way to becoming a fabric Dalai Lama. His lesson this time is to ignore the need for approval, prizing instead his internal self. The wisdom is infectious, reaching Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves), an Evel Knievel-style stunt rider who finds peace with the mantra: “Be. Who. I. Am.” Woody goes from thinking that meaning lies in his relationship with a child (“There’s nothing else”) to achieving inner contentment. Losing an arm caused him an existential crisis in Toy Story 2 but an estranged limb can be fixed, as Bo demonstrates. Inside is what counts.

And what’s inside Toy Story 4? A strain of conflicted nostalgia, even regret, judging by the scene in which the toys use an old home movie projector as part of a rescue mission, winding the film lovingly on to the spools. Just be tolerant if its appearance raises some difficult questions in the cinema.

“Mum? What’s that long shiny stuff like black Sellotape?”

“It’s called celluloid, darling.”

“What’s ‘celluloid’?”

“It’s what this film helped kill off.” 

Toy Story 4 is in cinemas from Friday 21 June

Toy Story 4 (U)
dir: Josh Cooley

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 19 June 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Bad news