You're too young to realize this yet, but you are now part of a filmmaking tradition that had its start way back with the first Toy Story movie. "Production babies" is the name given to the children born to a movie's cast or crew during its production. Among Toy Story's many firsts, the introduction of the production baby was one. I bring this up because as I watched you and your cohort's names scroll by in the closing credits to Toy Story 4, a thought struck me: there are Toy Story production babies who are now old enough to be members of the newest movie's actual production staff.
Today, the original Toy Story production babies would be at least 24 years old, only slightly younger than Andy, the original owner of Woody, Buzz, and the rest of the gang. The same Andy, who, at the end of Toy Story 3, let go of his prized toys when he gave them to Bonnie, the daughter of some family friends. Toy Story 3 is all about letting go, whether it's Andy and his toys, the toys attachment to Andy, or even our attachment to this franchise itself. At least, that's what I thought before I saw Toy Story 4.
I can't say why it took me four films to realize this, but it's not acceptance that drives the Toy Story, but fear. More specifically the fear of loss; lost toys, lost owners, lost friends. And while acceptance of these things is a key element of each film, that fear is something that never goes away, no matter your age. It's a tough lesson to learn this early, Willard, but it's for the best.
When we reconnect with the gang at the start of Toy Story 4, this anxiety has already set in for Woody. Bonnie is playing with him less and less, and the one thing he could always count on—being the leader— has been usurped by Dolly, one of Bonnie’s pre-existing toys. Toy Story 4's early scenes find Woody desperately trying to force himself back into Bonnie's favour to no real avail. It does lead him, however, to meet Forky, a toy Bonnie herself makes from a plastic spork, pipe cleaners, and popsicle sticks. Never one to give up an opportunity to take charge, Woody immediately takes it upon himself to show the newly-conscious Forky the ropes of being a toy. In a kind of inverse of the fears that live inside the other toys, Forky sees himself as trash - he is a disposable spork, after all, and his natural state after a single use is to be tossed away. He needs that to achieve meaning.
Woody, on the other hand argues that Forky's worth comes from the owner who loves him, not his original purpose. It's a nice thought, that none of our places in the world are pre-determined (and the opposite of more problematic Pixar films like Cars, where conforming to and accepting one's original purpose is encouraged and celebrated). This leaves Woody in an existential crisis: if his owner is loving him less and less, what's his worth in the world? This casually cruel nature of a toy's existence is best illustrated in Toy Story 4's opening rescue scene (which takes place nine years before the main story), one that harshly zags from triumph to tragedy when Woody’s crush, Bo Peep, is suddenly given away to charity. Like most major moments in life, this comes without warning, leaving the gang to deal with its effects after the fact rather than in the moment.
Back in the present, Bonnie's parents have decided to take her on a road trip before the beginning of the school year, and she's naturally brought along her favourite toys, including her new love Forky (and Woody, who manages to work his way into the group). Like Buzz Lightyear in Toy Story, Forky just can't come to terms with his identity as a toy and makes a break for the trash heap any chance he can. And, also like Toy Story, this leads to a rescue mission that Woody feels compelled to lead.
Toy Story 4's second and third acts play out at an RV park that features an antiques shop which serves as this film's gloss on The Island of Misfit Toys (Sid's bedroom, the collector's display room, and the daycare in the previous entries, respectively). This trope might have felt too familiar the fourth time out, but shot in a hazy, dusty light, the antiques shop location is so fully realized you can almost smell the must , physically representing the things we never want to change, no matter how much life pushes us away from them.
What brings Woody and Forky inside the shop is the glimpse of Bo Peep's lamp. Woody, always casting himself as the saviour, takes it upon himself to find Bo Peep and her sheep and bring them back to their 'rightful' place – owned (and loved) by a child. Standing in the way of Woody's version of perfection is the doll Gabby Gabby and her squad of ventriloquist's dummies. Manufactured with a defective voice box, Gabby immediately covets Woody's functional one.
I know, Willard - this is pretty heady stuff to throw at a newborn. The good news is that enveloping all of this ennui is a delightful, charming, and funny story. First-time director Josh Cooley keeps the pace brisk. Like every movie in the series, Toy Story 4 introduces a new collection of idiosyncratic toys, my favourite of which was Keanu Reeves' Duke Caboom, Canada's greatest stuntman. Despite his bluster, Duke has lived an existence of shame from the moment he failed to live up to his previous owner's expectations, literally right out of the box. This may be too much of an insight into my national identity, but a Canadian toy constantly obsessed with impressing his peers struck a chord.
The brightest star here, though, is Annie Potts' Bo Peep, relegated to the sidelines of the previous films, Bo Peep may be the most self-actualized character in any of the Toy Story films. Where the story takes her (and where she takes Woody) was genuinely surprising and thrilling. I went into Toy Story 4 questioning the need for its existence, but what Bo Peep shows Woody (and us) about growth and acceptance left me happy to be so very wrong.
So, Willard, while your production baby status is not only part of a proud movie-making tradition, it's also part of what is still a great movie series. But even though the quality of film whose production you were born during might be mostly chance—there are Cars 2 production babies, after all—the growth from it is what really defines us – and rewards us for coming back.