Mom, please come pick me up, Pixar is making me cry.
As evidenced by almost all of its films, Pixar has turned tugging on heartstrings into a symphonic art. The animation studio hasn’t lost a single step with Toy Story 4, which opens with an Up-esque wordless montage to get any forgetful or first-time viewers up to speed on how these toys have come together and changed hands. Almost a decade on from Toy Story 3, the franchise hasn’t lost an ounce of shine; the fourth installment is gorgeous, inside and out. That it’s a little messy is no object — after all, one of its protagonists is, too.
I’m speaking, of course, about Forky (voiced by Tony Hale), the animated spork whose appearance in the trailers sparked a fresh wave of existential angst as to just how toys become sentient. With mismatched googly eyes, pipe cleaner arms that aren’t quite properly affixed, and feet made of a broken popsicle stick stuck on with a lump of Play-Doh, Forky is a cute, walking crisis.
When Toy Story 4 begins, Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw) is about to begin kindergarten, and Woody (Tom Hanks) is struggling with the fact that she seems to be losing interest in him. During playtime, he’s left in the closet more often than not, collecting dust and growing anxious. Things get no easier when Bonnie actually makes a new friend at school: Forky, who, being made out of objects found in the trash, seeks to return from whence he came. Thus, Woody finds his second lease on life with Bonnie, battling obsolescence by taking responsibility for Forky’s well-being.
With each installment, the Toy Story movies have made their interrogation of a toy’s duty more and more explicit. Never has it been more harrowing than in Toy Story 4, which not only features dueling crises on the parts of Woody and Forky, but introduces the idea that toys can exist independently and find fulfillment separate from any children. Woody’s loyalty to Bonnie is tested not only by the fact that she seems to no longer need him, but by his reunion with Bo Peep (Annie Potts), who has been living on her own for the better part of the last nine years.
The reintroduction of Bo is not only a rectifying of her past sidelining as Woody’s love interest — the idea was that, as she was made of porcelain, she couldn’t go on adventures with the rest of the gang lest she break — but the best Disney has done in course-correcting and signifying strength in its female characters. Yes, Bo wears pants now, but that’s not why she’s become a leader among the outcast toys; her femininity has nothing to do with how well she holds her own in a fight or survives in the wild and risks breaking along the way.
The change is made so deftly that it almost doesn’t register, or at least feels like totally organic growth. Her relationship with Woody, which wasn’t given all that much time in the first two Toy Story movies, similarly feels like a known quantity rather than something built off of a relatively negligible detail. It’s impressive world-building — and it has to be, as the relationship serves as the backbone for the film.
The most beautiful moments in Toy Story 4 are those between Woody and Bo. From the specific pattern of light cast by the lamp she used to stand on, to the way they come into focus and the background blurs whenever they’re together (whereas the rest of the film is relatively clear), the visuals make it clear that the movie, while still a meditation on childhood and letting go, is also a love story.
Toy Story 4 does an even better job than Toy Story 3 of managing mature themes while remaining kid-friendly. The film’s ostensible villain, a pull-string doll named Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), has a motive that verges on Cronenbergian body horror if you think about it for too long, and is accompanied by a cadre of nightmarish ventriloquist dolls all named Benson. Despite all that, she remains just this side of understandable (and cute) enough that you still feel bad for her, in the end.
Forky pulls off a similar trick. His existential crisis never really goes away — neither he nor any of the other toys can quite answer why he’s come to life — but his hapless features are so sweet that the film doesn’t sink under that weight. That he’s always on the verge of a breakdown also feels less strange given how profoundly weird the rest of the movie gets. A couple of stuffed animals (voiced by Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele), for instance, are obsessed with aggressive tactics when it comes to dealing with the humans around them, and as stalling becomes necessary, one of Bonnie’s toys keeps suggesting that they send Bonnie’s dad to jail.
There are so many wonderful details and moments in Toy Story 4 that Keanu Reeves’ role as the Canadian stuntman toy Duke Caboom almost doesn’t merit mentioning. He’s great — and, as per his cameo in Always Be My Maybe, in more of the movie than you’d expect — but the sequel doesn’t need him to juice up the proceedings. The film doesn’t even need the early reprise of Randy Newman’s “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” to open the floodgates. It’s wonderful as it is, and has even more of a note of finality to it than Toy Story 3, which, at the time, seemed like the height of introspective, emotional final installments.
The Toy Story franchise isn’t over and done with (a Forky spinoff series is coming to Disney Plus), but if this film is the last chapter we get, it’s the perfect ending.
Toy Story 4 premieres June 21 in theaters.