‘Toy Story 4’ and the Love That Defines Us

What do you do when you feel like you no longer have a purpose? How do you move on? Toy Story 4, the latest and presumably final installment in the beloved Toy Story franchise, attempts to explore these (and many other) existential questions in a way that is accessible and hopeful for both kids and adults, while still delivering punchy one-liners and the Disney/Pixar charm we’ve grown to expect. The series is built on the premise of toys coming to life and having their own adventures, relationships, ambitions and worries, all when humans aren’t paying attention. From our very first introduction of the character in 1995, Woody (Tom Hanks) has made one thing certain – his main purpose in life is to be there for his kid. In returning to this premise and its importance, Toy Story 4 builds on the already emotionally resonant story by challenging what has driven all of Woody’s choices throughout the series.

The film begins with a familiar situation for Woody, as he tries not to feel left out when his new owner, Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw), chooses other toys over him during playtime. He has learned from his jealousy of favored toys like Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), which was the main conflict of the first film, and is comforted by the fact that he will still be there if Bonnie decides she needs him. At her kindergarten orientation, which Woody sneaks into, Bonnie is nervous and shy when she is tasked to decorate a pencil holder. From pieces of trash that Woody has subtly added to her craft supplies, Bonnie creates a new friend out of a spork who she aptly calls Forky.

When Forky (Tony Hale) comes to life in front of the other toys, it’s startling. His existence means that in the world of Toy Story, the rules of what is or isn’t considered a toy and is therefore sentient are looser than we initially thought. Forky is confused and panicked, immediately questioning why he is alive. When Bonnie and her family embark on a road trip before she officially starts kindergarten, the toys are faced with the challenge of keeping Forky in line and out of harm’s way, especially considering his importance to Bonnie.

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Although the concept of Forky may be a bit off-putting compared to the other toys, it also makes total sense. When you’re a kid, there are seemingly no limits to your imagination, so any ordinary thing you see or can get your hands on has the possibility of being remarkable and special. That’s why a lot of kids have collections of ‘treasures’ which are usually just random, found items, be that a cool leaf or rock from your yard, plastic jewelry from a toy vending machine or hand-me-downs from older siblings. It’s understandable why Bonnie would create Forky out of literal trash and see him as the most special thing in the world – because he’s entirely hers, and she found him.

At first, Forky doesn’t understand why Bonnie wants to always have him near her. He insists that he’s only trash, and that’s where he belongs. Woody takes this as an opportunity to become a mentor to Forky, telling him that “being there for a child is the most noble thing a toy can do.” Forky is important to the world because he’s important to Bonnie. That is the highest and most profound truth in Toy Story – you exist and you keep going because of your ties to the people who love you, and the purpose you serve in their lives. For the entirety of the series, Woody’s primary motivations have always been directly influenced by being there for his kid. He cares for Andy and Bonnie like a parent does for their own children. That’s why it’s absolutely crushing when a kid outgrows him, or just loses interest altogether.

When Bonnie shifts her focus to Forky, and chooses other toys like Jessie (Joan Cusack) to be the star of playtime, Woody has to re-evaluate his very purpose. We, the audience, understand the weight of this change because we know what it means to try to exist outside of something you once belonged to, something you may have given yourself over to entirely. Maybe it’s a relationship, or a job, or something tied more closely to your identity. But when who you are is wrapped so tightly around one thing for so long, it’s difficult to remember that aspect of your life is just a part of a whole – of a bigger, more complex picture.

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Woody sees what a life without a name written on his boot could be like when he is reunited with Bo Peep (Annie Potts), an old friend who was given away by Andy’s mom years ago. She has since become a “lost toy”, travelling and having adventures on her own. She insists that she was never Andy’s toy, nor was she really Molly’s (his younger sister). She outgrew her initial purpose, and that was okay. Bo Peep still found a way to not only survive, but to make room for new people to love. When Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves), a discarded stuntman toy residing in a flea market, is troubled by the possibility that he can’t be of any use or help because he doesn’t have the ability to fly through the air like he was intended to, Bo Peep tells him to “be who you are right now”. While the line in context is meant to be a more comedic moment, it also feels like universal advice to the struggling toys.

Although Woody has always been the unofficial leader of the group, and instinctively thinks that he’ll be a mentor to Forky, he ultimately learns more from his friends than he ever learned on his own. Forky takes some convincing to understand his place in the world, but he knows how Woody is feeling when he admits to feeling no longer important. Forky’s entire purpose is to be used and discarded, which is essentially the cycle the toys go through when they grow up with a kid but are given away. But through both Forky and Woody, we see that the end of something doesn’t have to mean letting it go entirely or that you stop caring about it. We learn from loss just as much as we learn from love.

The Toy Story movies tap into a very specific emotional place in those who watch them, because they remind us of a time when we were able to love things unabashedly, and how any source of comfort had the potential to become our whole world. If the series has taught us anything, it is to value the time we have with something or someone, even if it doesn’t last forever.