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‘Toy Story 4’ Is the Rare Pixar Film That Takes Mercy on Parents

The latest installment in the franchise is still fun for kids while being a little less emotional for their chaperones

A still image of Woody from ‘Toy Story 4’ imposed on a theater screen in front of a parent and children Walt Disney Pictures/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

My kids laughed harder, and louder, and way more often at Toy Story 4 than at any other movie I’ve ever watched with them in a theater, and maybe that’s all anybody needs, in terms of an endorsement. Giggles, guffaws, theater-disrupting gleeful bursts, the whole bit. By that metric, it beats Incredibles 2, or Pokémon Detective Pikachu, or Ralph Breaks the Internet, or any of the fucking Lego movies.

Meanwhile, in terms of Daddy’s usual crying jags, I teared up a few times (Sheriff Woody and his pals do a lotta hugging), but did not quite dissolve into a blubbering mess, as certainly I did during Coco, or fucking Inside Out, or, come to think of it, Ralph Breaks the Internet. That’s a ringing endorsement, too, honestly. The usual Pixar movie magic trick—it’s a whimsical comedy for kids and a harrowing tragedy for their parents!—is both impressive and exhausting. The destruction of Inside Out’s Goofball Island, which literalized a joyful child’s inevitable transformation into a sullen teenager, was my personal Chernobyl. There is, as always, an inherent pathos to Toy Story 4: The toys are needy, the toys are sad, the toys are resigned to their inevitable abandonment as their kids get older. But Pixar is, for the moment anyway, no longer trying to strike all parents dead on the spot.

And so: four stars! Zero existential breakdowns! My sons, 8 and 5, laughed at Forky, the newest edition to the Toy Story gang, a kindergartener’s art project (voiced by Tony Hale) whose body and head is a spork, and whose arms and hands are pipe cleaners, and whose function is to spend the first 30 minutes of the movie loudly insisting that he is actually “trash.” (The 8-year-old loved the way Forky kept saying “trash,” and practiced doing it himself the whole car ride home.) They laughed at fellow new additions Ducky and Bunny (voiced by Key & Peele), who brought down the house with an extended vignette in which they repeatedly pummel a little old lady who runs an antique store. (Seriously, it was hilarious.) And as the story reached its emotional climax—Woody (the god Tom Hanks) is reunited with his old pal and love interest, the plucky Bo Peep (Annie Potts)—the kids betrayed some level of emotional investment, which is to say that the 8-year-old disrupted the theater once again by blurting out, They’re gonna smooch! Don’t you dare!

I apologize to everyone in the theater. Daddy is, as always, trying his best.

The dad in Toy Story 4 (directed by Pixar vet Josh Cooley) spends basically the whole second half of the movie struggling to change an RV tire: very relatable. The toys themselves, meanwhile, continue to reckon adorably with their own mortality, or at least disposability. There is, blessedly, no equivalent to the harrowing climactic scene in 2010’s Toy Story 3, wherein Woody and the gang somberly join hands and submit to seemingly certain death via trash incinerator: a Top-Three Pixar Crying Jag moment, for sure. But this universe, whimsical as it might be, is shot through with melancholy by design. (The foundational idea, introduced in 1995’s Pixar-launching original Toy Story, that every single toy you own has its own vivid personality and feelings, and yearns for your undivided love and attention specifically, is a hell of a rap to lay on a kid, anxiety-wise. I suspect 7-year-old me would’ve handled it even more poorly than ostensibly adult me.)

And so here, in yet another Pixar sequel that nonetheless conjures up more verve and imagination than most of the other retreads Hollywood’s coughing up in summer 2019, we find Sheriff Woody in his direst straits yet. Once the beloved favorite toy of his first kid, the long-since-college-bound Andy, Woody is now largely ignored by his new kid, Bonnie, who stashes him in the closet, where the dreaded dust tumbleweeds roll. (The parents in my theater thought the dust tumbleweeds were very funny.) Bonnie, painfully shy during her kindergarten orientation, makes Forky to calm herself down, but Forky springs to life only to have a full-blown identity crisis: He doesn’t want to be a toy. He wants to be trash.

(Traaash, my 8-year-old cries, exuberantly. Beep boop!)

Thus, in the midst of a madcap RV road trip, Woody resolves to convince Forky to be a toy, for Bonnie’s sake, though it’s understood that Bonnie’s love and attention is fleeting, as with all kids: “You watch them grow up, and become a person, and then they leave. They’ll do things you’ll never see.” The parents in my theater did not think that part was funny.

Verily, the finest moments in the Pixar pantheon—the opening scenes-from-a-marriage sequence in 2009’s Up, the titanic final performance of “Remember Me” in 2017’s majestic Coco, the whole of 2015’s fucking WHAT IF FEELINGS HAD FEELINGS monstrosity Inside Out—tend to double as the most painful. The kids burst out of the theater thoroughly entertained if not elated; their parents stagger out as blubbering wrecks. It’s an awe-inspiring duality, to be sure, but it leaves poor old Dad walking into each new Pixar movie with a palpable sense of dread: How will this one destroy me?

What I appreciated, then, about Toy Story 4 is that it pulls back on the pathos just enough that it doesn’t overwhelm the pleasure. Every new toy just wants to find a loving kid, from the quasi-villainous Gabby Gabby (a vintage ’50s pull-string doll voiced by Christina Hendricks) to the semicompetent Canadian motorcycle stuntman Duke Caboom (voiced by Keanu Reeves and vexed by the fact that he can’t jump as far as he does in his TV commercial). Every toy also knows that no kid will love them forever, and yes, considering the implications of that for even 10 seconds can’t help but make your heart ache. But that exquisite ennui is leavened by far less heartbreaking gags, some depending on sequel familiarity (“My panic is attacking me!” blurts out Wallace Shawn, as the ever-timorous Rex), others lampooning the ever-clueless parents who drove all these giggling kids to the theater. “We can frame Dad for a crime,” suggests Buttercup the Unicorn in a delay-tactics brainstorming session, “so he goes to jail!”

But what is childhood, after all, but one massive delay-tactics brainstorming session? Too emo for you? This ain’t your franchise, even now. Toy Story 4 likewise functions as a reverent send-off for both Woody and Hanks, with a denouement every bit as stingingly sweet as Avengers: Endgame’s hat tip to both Iron Man and Robert Downey Jr. That is assuming, of course, that Hanks does not reenter the vocal booth for Toy Story 5. But would that be such a terrible thing, integrity-wise, if it helped the kids stay kids for just a little bit longer, onscreen and off? It is enough, for now, that Pixar has this time driven me not so much to therapy as to Walmart, where Forky is on sale for $16.87. Obviously, we should just get a spork and make our own. But there are, on the other hand, far higher prices to pay.