This article has spoilers for Toy Story 3 and Toy Story 4.
One of the big questions around the recent release of Toy Story 4 was whether the film was “necessary” after Toy Story 3 had already provided a fitting conclusion to the saga. In The New Yorker, Anthony Lane mused that “admirers of the Toy Story franchise have spent years under the distinct impression that Toy Story 3 marked the end of the affair.” Writing at The Hollywood Reporter, Josh Spiegel asked of the fourth film in the franchise, “How could this movie improve upon what felt like the equivalent of a massive book being closed for good?” Mashable was even less subtle, headlining one preview of the film, “Toy Story 4 makers explain why this movie is a thing that exists.”
Reading these headlines would confront any feature film with the existential anxiety that the new toy Forky (Tony Hale) feels through Toy Story 4. The latest addition to the core cast, Forky is effectively a sentient spork decorated with arts and crafts supplies who spends much of his screen time questioning the nature of his own existence.
“Why am I alive?” the googly-eyed toy wonders aloud at various points in the film, while also actively trying to negate his own existence by returning to the trash from whence he was spawned. It would be easy to read this as a piece of metacommentary. Toy Story 4 is reflecting on its own necessity as a franchise that had already been retired after reaching a fitting conclusion, but was still being kept alive.
Of course, there are any number of answers that might be offered to those questioning the necessity of Toy Story 4. Most obviously, it is rarely a requirement that entertainment be necessary — merely that it be good. Critical and audience response to Toy Story 4 has been overwhelmingly positive, so it seems like the film has justified its own existence.
Even allowing for the film’s lukewarm domestic take, the sequel has earned more than enough abroad to turn a profit. More than that, the film is cannily constructed in such a way as to distinguish itself from Toy Story 3, both in playing its emotional beats more subtly and also in narrowing its focus from an ensemble picture to a playful character study of Woody.
Toy Story 4 offers a different sort of ending to Toy Story 3. Of course, it’s fair to ask if either really counts as an ending. The gang was reunited repeatedly after Toy Story 3 for short films like Toy Story of Terror and Toy Story that Time Forgot, as well as to help sell Sky Broadband in the United Kingdom. In a very tangible and real sense, Toy Story 3 was never truly an ending, no matter how much it might have felt like one.
Similarly, there are early indications that Toy Story 4 might not really be an ending either. There are already reports of Pixar creating Forky-centric shorts that will most likely be unveiled to coincide with the film’s home media release. Nothing ever truly ends, particularly in this era of brand management. There is always the possibility of another tie-in or a reboot or a relaunch. Still, allowing for that commercial reality, both Toy Story 3 and Toy Story 4 feel like endings. They just approach the idea of resolution in a different way.
The ending of Toy Story 3 articulated something that had been implied with Woody in Toy Story and Toy Story 2. The franchise had long hinted that Sheriff Woody might be a second-generation toy, handed down to Andy from his absent father. Incidentally, this would explain how a ‘50s toy is still the center of attention in the bedroom of a ‘90s child.
Toy Story 3 suggested that these toys could live forever, passed from one generation to the next. It’s an emotionally devastating film, building to a number of crescendos. The last of these involves Andy bidding farewell to his toys. No longer a child, Andy is destined for college. He considers keeping Woody as a curiosity and donating the rest of his toys to the local kindergarten. Andy has become a young man, and it is time to put away childish things. The heart of the sequence comes with Andy seeing a young girl named Bonnie, and deciding to give all of his toys to her so that she might make them her own.
Toy Story 3 arrived in cinemas in July 2010. This was an interesting moment in popular culture. The Marvel Cinematic Universe was only finding its feet; the relative failure of The Incredible Hulk meant that Iron Man and Iron Man 2 were still the cornerstones of the soon-to-be cinematic empire that had only been purchased by Disney the previous summer. Christopher Nolan was in the middle of his Dark Knight trilogy, a reboot of the iconic Batman character that was worlds removed from the work of Tim Burton or Joel Schumacher. J.J. Abrams had recently launched an acclaimed soft reboot of the ‘60s Star Trek as a blockbuster franchise. The following year, Fox would attempt its own soft reboot of the X-Men franchise with Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class. About two years later, Disney would purchase Lucasfilm and begin working on a new slate of Star Wars films.
All of this is to say that pop culture was going through a massive sea change. Like Andy handing his beloved toys over to Bonnie, fans of older and established properties were facing the prospect of seeing their beloved toys given to a younger generation who would make them their own.
However, the transition was never as smooth as Toy Story 3 made it look. Established fandoms rarely handed over their beloved toys with the grace and dignity of Andy surrendering Woody to Bonnie. A few years after Toy Story 3, a backlash began.
There are any number of early examples. In 2013, Star Trek Into Darkness was released to strong critical acclaim and reasonable box office success. It even earned enough public support to place on the Internet Movie Database’s list of the Top 250 Movies of All Time for three months. However, fan backlash was swift.
In August 2013, fans voted Into Darkness the worst Star Trek movie ever, coinciding with its departure from the list. Taste is obviously subjective, but this seems unfair in the context of a cinematic franchise that includes The Final Frontier, Insurrection, and Nemesis. That same summer, Shane Black’s radical reinvention of the Mandarin away from his Yellow Peril origins in Iron Man 3 sparked a similar fandom backlash, with articles insisting, “Iron Man 3 ruined the Mandarin, and real fans should be pissed.”
From there, the trend only accelerated. In 2016, the release of a female-led reboot of Ghostbusters became a flashpoint in an emerging culture war centered on the established fan base. Perhaps the most recent example of this trend is the aggressive reaction that certain fans had to The Last Jedi, reflected in campaigns to drive actors off social media or to produce men-only edits or to fundraise for a remake of the film meeting their own specifications.
There are legitimate criticisms that can be leveled at Iron Man 3, Star Trek Into Darkness, Ghostbusters, or The Last Jedi, or any media subject to this degree of scrutiny. However, the nature of the backlash was overwhelming and existential. It was not that fans did not care for these things; it was that fans did not care for these things and did not want them to exist. They wanted a sequel to Ghostbusters II, starring the original cast that will “hand the movie back to the original fans.”
As a result, the context of Toy Story 4 is radically different than the context of Toy Story 3. The ending of Toy Story 3 was a heartwarming allegory about growing up and passing on a beloved toy to a next generation. Woody and Buzz would outlive Andy, and probably even Bonnie — much like it seems likely that Star Trek and Star Wars will outlive many of their current fans. That was a happy ending in July 2010.
However, things are different in Toy Story 4. In fact, a lot of Toy Story 4 is given over to layering nuance and complexity on to that seemingly happy ending. Toy Story 4 starts with a premise that should have been self-evident at the end of Toy Story 3, but which clearly needed articulation. Bonnie will not play with her toys in the same way that Andy did. Bonnie will want to make those toys her own. That is the nature of such things. It is not something to be mourned; it is something to be celebrated.
Toy Story 4 finds Woody struggling to adapt to the new status quo. Bonnie is not playing with him as frequently as Andy did. The other toys have noticed that Woody has been spending more and more time in the closet, attracting dust bunnies. At one point, Bonnie realizes that playtime needs a sheriff, and she has just the toy in mind.
Bonnie takes Woody out of the cupboard. It seems as though she finally might be ready to play with him. Instead, she takes his “sheriff” badge and places it on Jesse, who is anointed Bonnie’s sheriff. It is a sweet and touching scene, one that will resonate with anybody who has ever opened a door to trick-or-treaters dressed as Rey or Holtzmann. It is a quintessential Pixar storytelling beat, evocative and memorable, speaking to something emotive and profound without over-explaining itself.
In fact, Woody repeatedly finds himself clashing with feminine authority figures in Toy Story 4. Early on, he tries to “run the room,” only to discover that the rag doll Dolly is in charge of managing the toys in Bonnie’s room. During the mission to rescue Forky, Woody tries to take charge of the situation and accelerate the confrontation when he spots Bonnie entering the story. In doing so, he ignores and overrules Bo Peep, a toy who has actual experience navigating the aisles and shelves of this particular space. Similarly, Woody mistakenly assumes that Bo Peep’s sheep are “guys.” The movie also introduces a female law enforcement official in the character of Officer Giggles McDimples.
It is very telling that Toy Story 4 chooses to present the liberated and emancipated Bo Peep in a manner that consciously evokes Mad Max: Fury Road. The production history of Toy Story 4 is long and complicated, but early statements by John Lasseter suggested that the movie’s original arc was about bringing Bo Peep back to Andy’s household.
The finished movie’s emphasis on Bo Peep’s freedom and autonomy is particularly striking considering how it emerged from a tumultuous time at Pixar. Writers Rashida Jones and Will McCormick both left Toy Story 4 citing “a culture where women and people of color do not have an equal creative voice.” During the development of Toy Story 4, John Lasseter departed the studio amid allegations of inappropriate behavior. The production of Toy Story 4 overlapped with a genuine push for diversity and modernization within Pixar, perhaps best reflected in the release of Coco in late 2017.
Most of Toy Story 4 is dedicated to Woody grappling with his own redundancy and the fact that he is no longer the star of playtime in the same way that he used to be. It is a setup that will be familiar to any fans sad to see their beloved properties move beyond their favorite iterations, developing in unforeseen ways.
Woody’s uncertainty reflects the discomfort that many fans of Luke Skywalker might have felt at his presentation in The Last Jedi, or how many traditional Doctor Who fans might have reacted to the modernization of the show through casting Jodie Whittaker. However, Woody does not react with anger or bitterness towards Bonnie and Jesse or resent them for moving beyond him.
Instead, Woody tries to make himself useful to Bonnie, devoting a lot of energy and effort to protecting Forky rather than elevating himself. Woody understands that his importance to Bonnie lies in his willingness to protect what is important to her, and his time with her is complete when Forky eventually realizes his value to the young girl.
This is even reflected in the relationship between Woody and Gabby Gabby, the sinister life-like doll played by Christina Hendricks. Gabby has a defective voice box and never felt a child’s love. Some minor controversy around Toy Story 4 focuses on reading Gabby’s malfunctioning voice box as a metaphor for disability. While there may be some truth in that, it fails to consider the arc of the film as a whole.
Gabby is initially presented as an antagonist who wants to steal Woody’s voice box so that she can be complete and have the love she wants. However, Toy Story 4 humanizes Gabby, distinguishing her from earlier antagonists like Toy Story 2’s Stinky Pete or Toy Story 3’s Lots-o’-Huggin’ Bear. In the end, Woody decides that the most heroic thing that he can do is surrender his voice box to Gabby Gabby in order to get Forky back to Bonnie. Woody chooses to give somebody else a chance to speak.
As with the earlier moment involving Bonnie and Jessie, the gender dynamics are revealing. Woody’s most heroic act in Toy Story 4 is to embrace his own redundancy and obsolescence, whether that means letting Jesse be sheriff, getting Forky back to Bonnie, or giving Gabby a chance to be heard.
Indeed, this is where the reading of Gabby’s broken voice box as a metaphor for disability falls apart. Woody surrenders his voice box at the end of Toy Story 4, but the film does not treat this as a grave injury that diminishes the character. The film plays some of the scenes involving Gabby and her ventriloquist dummy henchmen as horror, but the removal of Woody’s voice box is a lot less aggressive and traumatic than the resetting of Buzz’s settings in Toy Story 3.
If anything, Woody is elevated by his willingness to let go of the past and accept that it is no longer his time. Woody’s goodbye to the rest of the cast elevates him, showing him reaching across the camper van canopy and standing atop a fairground stall. Without his voice box, Woody is more whole and complete than he has ever been before. He’s more liberated, and more in control of his own destiny.
Toy Story 4 allows its toy cowboy to walk off into the sunset, understanding that it is time for some other voices to have their say. That is a different sort of heroism than Toy Story 3 demanded of its hero, and one much more in step with the present moment.