Look, Pixar has always been pretty good about finding moments of genuine humanity within their movies about flying houses, sentient toys and cute robots, but they're masters at unearthing the sadness at the core of the human condition. Animated movies about anthropomorphic toys shouldn't be so gut wrenchingly honest and upsetting, but here we are.
Each of the "Toy Story" movies has had a specific thematic motif that the filmmakers were interested in unearthing. The original focused on the cowboy Woody (voiced with breathtaking humanity by Tom Hanks) being afraid of being replaced by Buzz Lightyear, a new and flashier toy (Tim Allen). That feeling of watching the world pass you by is a universal one, and gave adults something to think about even as kids enjoyed the jokes and animation.
- Photo courtesy of Disney
- Three guesses which of these characters is voiced by Keanu Reeves.
"Toy Story 2" explored the ideas of what toys would actually be afraid of: not fulfilling their purpose of being played with by children. This beautifully mirrors the very human fear of not living up to our potential, and just existing without truly living.
Then "Toy Story 3" got dark, exploring our fears of death through a meditation on loss and love. Just like J.K. Rowling did with her "Harry Potter" novels, the "Toy Story" franchise grew up with the kids it served, telling stories made to get children to ask their parents the big questions.
Even though "Toy Story 3" seemed like the perfect ending to the story of these beloved toys, I can't imagine the series without No. 4. The film has the darkness of the last entry, but tempers it with a powerful message that most live action films can't even pull off, let alone a cartoon about children's toys.
There are so many layers to the ideas in "Toy Story 4" that audiences can basically take out of it whatever they feel like putting in. Whether it's the bittersweet love story or the bleak look at mental illness and suicide. Or, a kid can watch it and just think it's colorful and funny and ignore any of the thematic goo.
The physical scale of the series shrinks, as most of "Toy Story 4" takes place in an antique store next to a carnival, but the emotional scale encompasses stuff like the acceptance of mortality and whether people who are emotionally broken can accept being loved.
There's a spork whose only purpose is to throw himself in the trash and die, and a little toy girl who was a factory defect so has never been loved by a child. Buzz is starting to feel incapable of original thought while Woody still hasn't gotten over Andy giving him to another child. None of these toys can move on, instead they're stuck in a feedback loop of diminishing prospects, desperate for a future that gets more remote every day.
All of this might sound extremely heavy for children, but most of the kids in the screening I saw were laughing all the way through. It's a fun movie filled with inventive action, photo-realistic animation and beautiful moments of friendship and love. All the dark stuff is aimed at the big kids who are wrestling with these questions already. There's nothing too mature here that will destroy your kid...unless you're uncomfortable with them asking why you're crying.