Smartphones are wreaking havoc on everything. I walked by a Manhattan playground yesterday; the level of teenage basketball skills nowadays is appalling, due to a smartphone-induced drop in athleticism.
Back in the 1970s, forty miles up the Hudson from Manhattan, kids had incredible hoop skills. But it was known that if you came down to the city, you’d get slaughtered by any random kid on any playground, because Manhattan b-ball was vicious. Even junior high kids played “above the rim.”
Now, it’s shocking to witness the severely atrophied level of basketball that goes on, and entirely all across the racial board. Nonathletic youth of all colors and ethnicities, out of shape and with zero coordination, cardio, and skills. Smartphones and tablets are destroying our youth.
So it’s refreshing to see, in “Toy Story 4,” that the toys are ensconced in their rightful, traditional, existential capacity of enhancing children’s imaginations. Nary a cellphone in sight.
Toys have been with us since the dawn of time. Toys excavated from the Indus River Valley (3300–1300 B.C.) include small carts, dice and marbles, whistles shaped like birds, and figurines with movable heads, most of which depict cattle.
“The Toy Story” franchise has always harkened back to traditional values and simpler times via vintage toys such as “Woody” (voiced by Tom Hanks), a fake toy based on 1950s American children’s preoccupation with cowboys.
And the main thing about “Toy Story 4,” among its many wonderful qualities, is that it is hands down the funniest of the entries to date.
“Toy Story 4” continues the tradition with roughly the same 1950s-style toys reprising their roles (like Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head), but it explores more in depth the intrinsic nature of toys.
It gets a little bit philosophical on us, sort of, like: Wherefore art we toys? Why doth the toy exist? What be the underlying morality, and, forsooth, the mission of toys?
This is why Pixar movies are interesting to adults; they’re jam-packed with insights into the meaning of life, conveyed via toy narrative, a metaphor whereby Toy Story informs Human Story.
The fourth installment brings new twists, turns, and archetypal themes. For example, the hands-down star of “Toy Story 4” is Forky, a wee, white plastic utensil (a spork) that the movie’s main child, Bonnie (the latest owner of all the toys), has made on her first day at a kindergarten.
Forky’s got two sizes of eyes—those little plastic bubble eyes with black “irises” that swirl around—along with some maroon, fuzzy pipe-cleaner arms and fingers, and some glued-on Popsicle-stick feet, with Bonnie’s name scribbled on the bottom of them. It seems it was the act of naming him that brought Forky to life (“In the beginning was the word”?), but don’t quote me on that because I was laughing too hard to be sharp and discerning.
Suffice it to say, Forky lives. And like a child learning to say “Dada,” all Forky’s Silly Putty lips can utter is “Trash!” Why? Because trash is the universe from which Forky cameth, and so he feels therefore deeply compelled, like a spork version of a salmon swimming upstream, to return there.
The many sequences of frenetic hopping, surreptitious dashes, and hellbent-for-trash flailing of Forky’s impassioned attempts to return to the trash (only to be retrieved by his self-appointed guardian, Woody), and the inspired voice-acting with which Tony Hale brings the infant and toddler phases of a spork to life will have you in absolute stitches.
So, Bonnie’s family takes a road-trip vacation in an RV. But Forky’s not having it. He refuses to be a toy and makes a mad escape out the window. However, Woody vows to keep Bonnie happy and continuously attempts to corral Forky for Bonnie’s play-pleasure.
On their extended adventures, Woody, Buzz Lightyear, et al, wind up in an antique shop.
A vintage pull-string talking doll named Gabby Gabby (voiced by Christina Hendricks), with beautiful-scary doll eyes, lives there. She’s slightly like Annabelle (the horror-film doll) but basically sweet. However, she’s also got bodyguards—a pack of exorcist-type head-swiveling, zombiefied, ventriloquist dummies.
Gabby needs a new voice box. Maybe she’ll get her minion dummies to divest Woody of his pull-string voice box. The live-organ-harvesting-related concept, along with those scary dummies, is perhaps a tad grotesque and macabre for kids, but then, Grimms’ Fairy Tales are rather dark too.
Then there’s a reunion with Bo Peep and her three-headed sheep. Bo’s been out on a Hero’s Journey. She’s broken away from the need to belong to a kid. She’s become a “lost toy” (a play on Peter Pan’s Lost Boys, most likely), and likes it that way. Since Woody’s got a major crush on Bo Peep, he finds the concept both daunting and thrilling.
What else? There’s a carnival, where we meet the very funny carnival toys Bunny and Ducky (voiced by Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key).
And a Canadian version of Evel Knievel: Duke Caboom (voiced by Keanu Reeves). Keanu is currently in the midst of a “Keanussance” and nails this cape-and-Fu-Manchu-‘stache-wearing, essentially insecure, stunt-motorcyclist toy, as only Keanu can.
More on Woody’s Mission
Woody’s goal in life—actually any toy’s main hope in life—is to be his or her child’s essential toy. Woody understands the torch has been passed—Forky is Bonnie’s favorite now. But Forky doesn’t want to be a toy; he doesn’t know who the heck he is.
And isn’t that kinda like all of us? Most of us don’t know who we are, let alone whether we’re useful, or what our mission in life is, and we think we’re basically trash. Expect to see “I am Forky” T-shirts in the near future.
As mentioned, Woody’s new mission is to safeguard Forky. It could be argued that it’s not an entirely selfless act, because it makes him feel useful, but it is nevertheless generated by compassion.
Because just like kids have toys, toys also have kids. Bonnie’s now Woody’s kid, and he will make her happy, as he previously did for Andy and Molly, by providing Bonnie with the happiness and sense of accomplishment of having Forky to play with. It’s a great lesson of selflessness and service, for children.
The Next Stage
Traditionally, when Greek girls came of age, part of their rite of passage to adulthood was to sacrifice their childhood toys to the gods; 14-year-old girls, on their wedding nights, would offer up their dolls in a temple.
In the end, “Toy Story 4” segues to the concept of children outgrowing toys and toys outgrowing children, by giving Woody a choice. It’s the classic Hero’s Journey call to adventure. Woody is confronted with Bo Peep’s “lost toy” status. Should he stay in the “safe” confines of his child’s bedroom? Or should he heed the call and follow his bliss? But isn’t his bliss taking care of his child? It would appear that Bo Peep is also his bliss. What to do… what to do.
What you should do, is go see Woody decide what to do. Very rewarding. And your kids will be more than happy to leave their cellphones off for the entirety of the tale. Maybe afterward, they’ll even feel like shooting a few baskets.
‘Toy Story 4’
Director: Josh Cooley
Starring: Voices of Tom Hanks, Keanu Reeves, Christina Hendricks, Annie Potts, Tim Allen, Joan Cusack, Tony Hale
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes
Release Date: June 21
Rated 4 stars out of 5