screenplay by Stephany Folsom and Andrew Stanton
directed by Josh Cooley
by Walter Chaw Much like AI, Steven Spielberg's similarly fascinating, similarly imperfect spiritual collaboration with Stanley Kubrick, Josh Cooley's Toy Story 4 asks questions about creation and the responsibility of the creator to the created. Toy Story 4 is itself the product of a chimeric parentage, this being the third sequel to a franchise that is to Pixar what Mickey Mouse is, or once was, to Pixar's parent company, Disney. Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks) is a modern archetype of the sort described by Barthes: an image, a sign, encompassing an entire history of meaning for members of a sympathetic culture. It means one thing by connoting a multitude of things. The Toy Story films rely on the shared human experience of creating totems in the endless fort/da exercises we engage in as children. Inanimate objects are imbued in that way with our expectations of our parents and our disappointments with them, too, as we re-enact events real and play out dramas imagined. They are practice and we invest them with the payload of our souls; the root of the term "animation," after all, is that literal investment of a soul, and so many of our creation mythologies--Prometheus, Eve, the Golem--consider the lives of the lifeless. The Toy Story films are disturbing because they occasionally cause us to question our moral responsibility to things we gift with life only to abandon emotionally, if not always physically. (A quick scan around my office finds it to be a plastic chapel of toys I couldn't buy as a child.) They are disturbing because they speak to ideas of free will vs. predestination that apply to us--created beings, perhaps, programmed along certain paths and predilections certainly. Toy Story is epistemological theology.
Forky isn't suicidal, exactly--he's trash and should be thrown away. Woody isn't a saviour, exactly--he's a sign and acts as he must to honour the purpose with which he's imbued. The horror of Toy Story 4 is in contemplating that every object in the world has been given a preordained purpose it honours--and should we accept that premise, then we must accept that we are each objects with a preordained purpose that we honour. It's very obviously the basis of religion--and, not as obviously, the basis of atheism as well. (At least of mine.) I don't question that I've been programmed, though I resist the notion that I was programmed by sentient design. I've struggled with depression for as long as I can remember. I wonder if I'm trash and should be thrown away. I don't mention this to be self-pitying, just as a description of how the disease runs its course. I've seen others describe Forky as mentally challenged. I think the film takes pains to show he's not that at all. Along their travels, Woody and Forky end up in an antique store, where a vintage doll, Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), manufactured around the same time as Woody, sends her small army of ventriloquist dummies to rip Woody's voice box out of his back to graft into hers. Her plan is to restore her pull-string function, thus attracting a girl to be her master but also, it goes unspoken, to inject her with a soul. The suggestion that a thing only has a soul when it discovers its purpose is a sticky one. I think Kierkegaard and Camus would have a field day over it.
For a girl doll to wish to restore her voice at any expense is an extraordinarily loaded conceit. Add to it the character of Bo Peep (Annie Potts), with whom Woody has an uncomfortable sexual fission. They were made for each other, symbolically/mythologically speaking, as they're both representations of a frontier existence. Bo Peep has freed herself from her purpose, running wild on a carnival ground with a group of rogue followers and admirers. Reunited with Woody, she agrees to help him rescue Forky from Gabby Gabby's antique store. Her purpose now is tied to his and the rest of the film is a process of helping Woody make the right decision between fealty to a capricious, inconstant, ever-evolving deity or to another created being who recognizes and accepts his limitations as a construct (and always will). It's meaningful that these things are only animate out of sight of the artifactors of the greater reality (i.e., us)--that whatever animation they have within sight of their creators is literally the reflection of their creator's desires for their use. There's something there to unwind, too, about the dangers of imposing narratives on others, given that those narratives can only ever originate from an alien intuition. So much of the dialogue in Toy Story 4 (in all of these films) comprises pleas for understanding. It's only in this one, though, that the struggle for understanding becomes existential. When a cowardly stuntman (Keanu Reeves) does his most dangerous stunt out of a preponderance of confidence and closed eyes, the underlying notion of belief as the only real creator in the universe enters the text of these films at last.
Forky is presented with a Bride at the end in a brilliant homage to Mary Shelley and James Whale alike. It is, like most of the rest of the film, hilarious in the sense that it's both funny and terrible. Toy Story 4 is a work of genuine humanism not all that dissimilar from Milton's Paradise Lost. It's about rejecting design in favour of chaos: shrugging free of ideological and literal shackles in order to unburden oneself of the expectations of others. The movie has a real rebellious streak embedded in it, from a stuffed unicorn (Jeff Garlin) who insists on framing their master's father for various felonies to a pair of carnival prizes (Key and Peele) who fantasize about ambushing old women and vaporizing civilians--a sense, new to this series, that the toys falling limp in the presence of their masters is a choice, but no one's told the toys yet. By the end of Toy Story 4, a few of these objects have figured out that it's better to rule in Hell than to serve in Heaven. The picture is a gorgeously-composed and well-paced fantasy about childhood's end. If you don't want to notice that it's also teeming with ancient ideas and Zen koans, you'll still be satisfied. The danger is not having a talk with that feeling of apprehension sitting, if indeed it is, in the middle of your proverbial living room. However approached, it's probably a good thing this is the alleged last film in the series. The next one is a Stephen King conceit where all the broken thoughts we put into these fragments shored against our ruins come home to roost: unexamined, unfettered, and bursting with all of that terrible wisdom.