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Evolution and Adaptation in ‘Toy Story 4’

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“Toy Story 4” presents a unique and meaningful story of family and legacy. It asks, “Can toys live on without connections to children?”

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Woody and Forky in ‘Toy Story 4’ // Credit: Pixar and Walt Disney Studios

As the saying goes, it takes a village to raise a child, but within our First World social order, Americans rarely subscribe to the notion as much as other communities around the globe. I’m old enough to have grown up in a loving enclave of Southern black women linked by bonds of friendship stronger than blood. My mother’s friends were her sisters and all of their kids merged into one big band of siblings. We loved, supported and held each other tight.

I was somewhat surprised to find myself contemplating such ideas during the fourth installment of Pixar’s Toy Story series. Honestly, did we need another movie considering how neatly the trilogy had wrapped up? With an overarching narrative about the purpose toys have in the lives of children, the story can be traced back to co-writer and director John Lasseter’s first take on Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks in full Henry Fonda mode), the cowboy doll who is a young boy’s center of attention until a spaceman named Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) enters the scene.

The Pixar animation team showed us the evolution of the relationship between these two alpha dolls and how the ever-growing collection of toys in young Andy’s room formed a powerful and necessary family unit. By the third installment, the toys confronted fears of abandonment as Andy had grown up and no longer needed them. The resolution achieved at the end of this tale felt self-contained and complete.

Yet Toy Story 4 presents a unique and meaningful story of family and legacy. Woody and his crew have merged with the toys of Andy’s much younger neighbor Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw), who is on the verge of starting kindergarten. Now, Woody faces a situation where he’s not the all-star or even a member of Bonnie’s starting five; rather, he’s the veteran on the end of the bench.

But he knows, through his years with Andy, the impact a good toy can have. And when he speaks of that role, he sounds like a parent. Woody desperately wants what’s best for his kid and nothing else; because he’s such a dynamic force in this expansive toy family, he inspires everyone else to work toward the same goal. This toy collective is the ultimate village.

When Bonnie heads off to kindergarten prep, Woody fears that she won’t be able to survive without an extra friend, so he stows away in her backpack — despite the warning from Bonnie’s parents and her new circle of favorite toys — and proves instrumental in helping her adjust to her big first day. He provides her with the tools to create a brand new toy, Forky (Tony Hale). Made of discarded pieces of plastic, wood and pipe cleaners, the latter struggles with his emerging role as a friend and protector because he only sees himself as trash.

Thus, Woody becomes a parent to both Bonnie and Forky. It is the job of watching over Forky that takes center stage in Toy Story 4. The movie explores the lengths that Woody is willing to go to protect this wayward toy and to instill a sense of purpose in Forky that will lead him into a fuller role in the village centered on Bonnie.

But at the heart of the movie is a lesson for Woody. In him, I see hints of myself as I prepare for my youngest daughter’s current transition as a high school graduate heading off to college. I’ve been a living version of Woody — enjoying taking her to the movies with me, spending countless hours playing board games at coffee shops or passing the time at the arcade. I’ve lived a whole second life through these exchanges with her, and while I will always be her parent, I understand and appreciate that she is going to head off on her own adventures. More importantly, I’m prepared for a very real second life of my own as an empty nester with my wife as we pursue our own path together.

Toy Story 4 forces Woody to consider this possibility for himself. When, if ever, do you start to think about yourself, your own life and purpose beyond serving others? Forget whether or not androids dream of electric sheep — can toys live on without connections to children? What happens to the village when the children are grown? All of us should watch and learn. (In theaters) (G) Grade: A