Though it’s set only a few years after the events of Lee Unkrich’s 2010 Toy Story 3, Josh Cooley’s Toy Story 4 reflects a comparatively woke 2019 sensibility.
This is a welcome development, because the franchise’s gender politics have never been great. Consider the fate of Prospector Pete in Toy Story 2, or the constant gender-shaming of Ken in Toy Story 3 — and that was all years before studio chief John Lasseter’s sexual misconduct became public knowledge, let alone writer Rashida Jones leaving this particular project because of Pixar’s tendency to stifle the voices of women and people of color.
Toy Story 4 begins with a flashback in which we learn what happened to Bo Peep (Annie Potts) between second and third films. From there, the story follows the established formula: some combination of the toys land in a new environment in which the benevolent leader of the local playthings proves to be unconscionably selfish. In this case, while his owner Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw) is on a road trip with her family, Woody (Tom Hanks) searches for Bo in an antique shop where he runs afoul of Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks). Gabby is a vintage doll who wants to steal Woody’s voice box to replace her own, and if that doesn’t strike you as a metaphor for the anxieties of straight men in the #MeToo Era, you’re not paying attention.
Though Toy Story 4 is as funny and action-packed and as effective a tearjerker as is to be expected from this series, what’s truly remarkable is Bo’s evolution. In 1995’s Toy Story and 1999’s Toy Story 2 she was the object of Woody’s desire, little more than a prize for a job well done. She was written out of Toy Story 3 with a single line of dialog, and she’s now the co-lead of Toy Story 4. So it took a quarter-century after Bo was introduced for her to be given a personality, but who’s counting? Odds are her newfound agency will anger the same MRAs who fumed about Arya slaying the Night King or the very existence of Captain Marvel. (They’ll probably also hate the mini-arc about Woody learning to not misgender Bo’s sheep, if they pick up on it.)
As for Woody, he continues to represent the status quo. Even after being adopted by Bonnie he still hasn’t gotten over Andy, and while Andy and Woody tend to accept and/or cling to how things are, Bonnie and Bo — who, it should be pointed out, never cross paths—take the initiative to improve their lives. Indeed, Bonnie creates a new toy and thus a new life, Forky (Tony Hale).
Toy Story 2 and 3 were essentially existential horror films — you may have sobbed during the incinerator scene in 3, but since it had been established that toys live forever otherwise, an argument could be made that annihilation would be a mercy. With Forky, Toy Story 4 continues to swerve into exploring the horrors of consciousness, and the very last line of dialog addresses the fundamental question behind the series. That it’s in the context of a tired gag which almost undercuts the positive gender politics of the rest of the film is a shame, but wokeness doesn’t preclude laziness.
Rated G. Opens Friday, June 20, at the Alamo Drafthouse New Mission, the AMC Metreon 16, the Century San Francisco Centre 9, the AMC Dine-In Kabuki, the Presidio, and the Balboa Twin.