John Serba is a film critic, unapologetic dad thrasher and writer of words. He's based in grand rapids, mi, but his mind occupies various pop cultural niches.

'Toy Story 4': The existential journey of Woody and Forky

'Toy Story 4': The existential journey of Woody and Forky

Woody and Forky walk hand-in-hand down the dark, misty, gloomy road of life. (Courtesy photo / Disney/Pixar)

Woody and Forky walk hand-in-hand down the dark, misty, gloomy road of life. (Courtesy photo / Disney/Pixar)

Note: The following contains plot spoilers for “Toy Story 4.” You’ve been warned.

I’m here to talk about Forky. Certainly, one can find plenty of worthy fodder for discussion in “Toy Story 4” -- the franchise’s popular and critical legacy, the perfection that is Tom Hanks’ performance, its thematic wrestling with ideas such as personal growth, stagnance and regression, its crisp action and clever comedy, how it’ll make you cry, again -- but Forky is as blatantly, terrifyingly existential as this series has ever been.

And that’s saying a lot. As you know, the first three films can be interpreted as Buzz Lightyear’s journey toward self-discovery: In the first, he was crushed to learn he wasn’t the real Buzz, but just a toy. In the second, he came face-to-face with a wall of Buzz dolls at a toy store, and he had to face his former, delusional self by battling an imposter toy Buzz, which is just the world further piling on about how he’s not special in the grand scheme of things (although he’s special to his owner Andy, and the other toys, who are his family, which is enough for him -- and for the vast majority of us insignificant individual humans among the billions). And in the third, the Spanish-language mode buried in his programming temporarily replaced his normal self, which surely had him even further questioning his maker, and his purpose.

This, as you may have noticed, is an epic, all in the head of a cartoon spaceman. And it’s really only a sliver of the rich mosaic that is the “Toy Story” series, which continues on its profound, profoundly melancholy, track with a fourth film. (A fourth film, I might add, that seemed unnecessary in concept, but now seems essential. It’s a joy.)

In “Toy Story 4,” Buzz, once again voiced by Tim Allen, shares a great scene with Woody (Hanks) where we learn the plastic space ranger has yet to reach the level of self-actualization as his cowboy bosom buddy. Woody talks about listening to the “voice inside” of him -- his conscience, he says flat-out. Lacking the deep-thought capabilities of Woody, Buzz takes it literally, and presses the buttons on his chest, triggering his pre-programmed voicebox, which repeats catchphrases. It’s a funny bit, yes, and sets up an even funnier one later. But it’s relevant because it answers a key question we’ve had about “Toy Story”: we always suspected these sentient toy-beings had consciences, and were capable of morality. But now we know they possess self-aware minds, and can recognize the existence of their own consciences -- or at least the more advanced intellects among them can.

Which brings us back to Forky, finally, because no moment in “Toy Story 4” should go unanalyzed. Forky is the funniest, most thematically pertinent among an accumulation of new characters. He’s voiced by Tony Hale, who boils neurotic bewilderment down to its core atoms with a single exclamatory utterance of five measly letters arranged to form one word: “Trash!”

And lo, Forky was brought forth on this Earth to question why the hell he exists.  ( Courtesy photo / Disney/Pixar)

And lo, Forky was brought forth on this Earth to question why the hell he exists. (Courtesy photo / Disney/Pixar)

Forky’s crude physical components are as follows: a spork body, two mismatched googly eyes, arms crafted from a length of red pipe cleaner, a piece of blue modeling clay contorted into a mouth, a wiggle of red clay for a unibrow, the ends of a popsicle stick for feet, a wad of putty gluing them to the spork, and A SOUL. No big deal. He’s just a far-beyond-Frankenstein abomination and/or an adorable art project by a kindergartener named Bonnie, who doesn’t realize she’s a god, because if she did, she might’ve put more consideration into the design. At a certain angle, he’s cute; at another, he’s a horror manifest from a pillow-soaking Lynchian nightmare. And he’s the kindergartner’s security blanket, the lifeline necessary for her survival of the first year of school, and its many heartbreaks.

Forky’s impulse for roughly the first 48 hours of his existence is to fling himself into the nearest trash receptacle. Self-awareness sure is a drag, ain’t it?

Forky jumps in the garbage. Woody hauls him out. Forky jumps, Woody hauls. Over and over again. All-too-disturbingly, Forky explains that he was never meant to be a toy -- he was made to shovel food into a person’s mouth, then be thrown away. Perhaps these are wispy tendrils of raw instinct seeping into his consciousness, like a domesticated pet cat attacking a feather because it’s programmed by evolution to kill and eat things smaller than it. As not all inanimate objects in the “Toy Story” universe walk and talk and diddlefart around when humans aren’t looking, we can only assume Forky came to life when his lifeless disparate parts were assembled to create a crude facsimile of a living creature. Oh, and also -- this is the important part -- when he was given the gift of love, and played with, in a crude facsimile of life itself.

I digress momentarily to point out the audacious meta-commentary inherent in presenting an obscenely mangled character design in a modern animated film. The medium has thus far found no talking mammal, fish, snail, automobile, feather duster, garden gnome, manifestation of emotion or emoji it hasn’t liked. And now, Pixar, geniuses all, creates a phenomenon about a spork-thing, skewering itself and reaching the ragged, disparate end of the mere notion of anthropomorphism. Forky is, frankly, animated garbage; insane people created him; people may not realize they’re insane for liking him; someone please buy me a toy Forky so that I may have my own to stare at blankly for hours at a time, wishing it was alive to help me bear the weight of existence.

Anyway, “Trash!” is all Forky understands until Woody explains the concepts of security and codependence to him: Bonnie is comforted by Forky, just as Forky is comforted by the “warmth” (his word, not mine) of laying in the trash. I emphasize the word “warmth” because of how relative it can be. And how reality is not nearly as kind as the false world we sometimes construct around us. This is the core idea behind the belief that covering one’s head with a blanket will stop the monsters from slinking out of the closet and eating us, that not thinking about death will deny it exists or is ever coming for us. “I’m Bonnie’s trash!” is Forky’s joyous revelatory declarative, and you can’t fault his logic, considering the context. He now comprehends his purpose, beyond food, mouth, and the dark loneliness of the bin. He has a second chance, rendering him an anomaly among the billions of sporks before him, which fulfilled their mundane, resolute landfill destinies.

How did this type of frivolity make its way into a children’s cartoon?  ( Courtesy photo / Disney/Pixar)

How did this type of frivolity make its way into a children’s cartoon? (Courtesy photo / Disney/Pixar)

Yes, this deeply strange children’s cartoon has a plot. Forky leaps out of the RV on Bonnie’s family’s road trip; Woody chases him down; there are complications at an antique shop and a traveling carnival. Buzz excepted, the old toy gang -- the Potato Heads, Slinky Dog, cowgirl Jessie, etc. -- are minor players. New toy-beings eat up screen time, such as Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves), a stunt motorcyclist who never lived up to the glamorous promises of his TV commercial, and Ducky (Keegan-Michael Key) and Bunny (Jordan Peele), plushie carnival prizes who dream of freaking out humans by suddenly and shockingly revealing their sentience.

These franchise neophytes are clever, but ultimately little more than comic fodder, an excuse to sell more merchandise to grade-schoolers, and an opportunity to make people like myself fall deep into melancholy yearning for the Evel Knievel doll of his childhood. Where is it now? Propped sad and alone in a vintage-toy case with a $300 price tag? Buried sad and alone, broken and slowly decaying in a landfill? Did I feel less sad and alone when I had him? Am I sad and alone without him now?

There are greater themes to be bear-trapped in the dusty antique-shop set piece, where a 1950s Gabby Gabby doll (Christina Hendricks) enjoys Godfatheresque rule over the store’s largest display cabinet. In her employ are dead-eyed ventriloquist dummies, who push her around in a doll carriage and act as her sentries and security thugs -- I wonder now what their level of self-awareness is. They seem like drones, and bring to mind eunuch servants in the employ of a Roman emperor. Do they yearn for human hands up their backs, like the other toys yearn for children to play with them? If there’s anything the toys in the “Toy Story” films share in common, it’s great yearning.

Gabby Gabby’s eyes are a little too wide and pristine to be fully trusted, and director Josh Cooley uses horror-movie edits, lighting and camera angles during her scenes. She’s in extraordinary condition, save for her voicebox, which we learn has been defective since -- I dunno, what should we call it? Birth? And if love brought Forky to life, and Gabby Gabby has never felt it, did spite for her existence do the same for her?

The exquisite lighting of this scene from ‘Toy Story 4’ perfectly captures the expressions of playthings looking ahead to a terribly uncertain future.  ( Courtesy photo / Disney/Pixar)

The exquisite lighting of this scene from ‘Toy Story 4’ perfectly captures the expressions of playthings looking ahead to a terribly uncertain future. (Courtesy photo / Disney/Pixar)

Gabby Gabby’s dark dominion masks her core ache. All she wants is to find a kid that’ll fulfill her, and give her a meaningful existence, even though she knows that toys’ existences in this context are finite. Kids, of course are subject to undeniable natural forces; they will be fickle and grow older, and set aside their playthings, thoughtlessly or otherwise. Such is the risk we take when we love something. Similarly, we adopt pets knowing we’ll outlive them, and the severance of the bond we’ve made with them will be painful; yet we do it anyway. The future beyond playtime is hauntingly uncertain. As previous “Toy Story” movies illustrated, you could end up beaten in a daycare center, or restored and put in a display case or, ideally, punting the ball and ending up in a different affectionate kid’s care, as happened to Woody, Buzz and co.

Or, existentially worse, you could be forgotten.

Gabby Gabby faces the same personal crisis as Woody. The last several times Bonnie got her toys out, he stayed in the closet. He even collects his first dustbunny. He’s patient, but weary, because he likely senses his obsolescence. Most toys don’t have his longevity, and perhaps we say he should be thankful for the amount of quality playtime he’s had, but is enough ever enough for intent, self-aware souls? We always want more, don’t we?

Woody is selfless enough to comprehend Forky’s importance in the context of Bonnie’s scary new life in school -- he understands that a child’s well-being is remarkably fragile, and the symbols of her security are sacred. Forky -- who enters the narrative as raw nihilism, evolves into a babbling nincompoop and ultimately becomes a sensitive thing like his philosophical mentor -- must be preserved at all costs.

Which brings us to the film’s terrible conundrum. Woody possesses a functional voicebox -- “There’s a snake in my boots,” and all that. Gabby Gabby wants it. Her goons capture Woody and Forky. Woody escapes, but Forky must be rescued. Must. Be. Rescued. Coincidence reconvenes Woody with his old, porcelain friend Bo Peep (Annie Potts). Last seen in “Toy Story 2,” Bo is now a “lost toy,” lacking a kid’s affection, but possessing the freedom to make her own way. What’s her greater purpose now? She lives a good life, has friends, is worldly. (For one thing, she knows Gabby Gabby and her minions are trouble.) Her arm is broken off, but easily fixed with a length of tape. Does one need cosmic purpose to enjoy one’s existence? Hardly.

Does one need a voicebox to enjoy one’s existence? Gabby believes so, but Woody doesn’t. Ultimately, he trades his voicebox, surgically removed by one of the creepy dummies, for Forky. What good is it doing me now? he no doubt thinks to himself; the charms of his voicebox chatter have no more bearing on the quality of his life. It’s expendable. He won’t miss it, too much.

So get this: Fresh from transplant surgery, Gabby Gabby resuscitates her “inner voice” -- “Will you be my best friend?” it chatters -- and uses it to court the girl whose love she desires. The girl picks her up, pauses, and in the stereotypical moment of swollen emotion, she abruptly discards the doll in a box, unimpressed. Fickle. Charmed one second, gone the next.

Leave it to her dramatic foil Woody to exhibit great empathy for the toy who mutilated him, and pull Gabby Gabby from her cardboard coffin, to pick up the pieces of her everything and find her a lost, lonely little girl to complete her redemptive arc. As we learned from previous “Toy Story” movies, Gabby Gabby may have ended up dumped, recycled, stuffed in an attic, tortured by cretins or straight-up lost. But as the saying goes, it’s better to have loved and lost than to be lord of toy purgatory until you crumble and join the dust.

‘Hey, gang! This is our new pal and symbol of existential ambivalence!’  ( Courtesy photo / Disney/Pixar)

‘Hey, gang! This is our new pal and symbol of existential ambivalence!’ (Courtesy photo / Disney/Pixar)

There’s more to the movie So much more. As revealed in flashback, Bo and Woody were once lovers, and the memory of her tugs at him. How the hell, you may ask, do toys experience romantic love, especially toys of different material structures? The movie doesn’t go into that, but psychologically, they’re capable. Bo is as smart and resourceful as Woody. They’re a good match. Could they possibly create new toy life somewhere down the line? Like I said, the movie doesn’t go into that.

And this is where “Toy Story 4” crushes its adult audience by putting Woody in the position to enact his own change -- wrenching, heartbreaking change, but nonetheless necessary for his growth as a cognizant toy entity (I almost typed “human being” right there). Time and circumstance have whisked away his greater purpose, which, for so long, has been tied to all his old friends. Buzz stands on one side, his goofy grin ever omnipresent, maybe more assured and confident, and maybe with a touch of sadness in his eyes. And on the other stand Bo (and Duke, and Bunny, and Ducky), an opportunity for new adventures, an opportunity to stave off obsolescence once again. This means breaking up the Lennon and McCartney of modern animated film. And he does it. Are we happy? Are we sad? Are we hopeful or despairing? Goddammit, I don’t know.

‘Toy Story 4’


MPAA rating: G

Voice cast: Tom Hanks, Annie Potts, Tim Allen, Tony Hale

Director: Josh Cooley

Run time: 100 minutes

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