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Toy Story 4 Is a Movie About Getting Older and Getting Out of the Way

Woody and co., pondering the purpose of their existence. Either that or they’re trying to figure out how to rescue a spork. Photo: Disney/Pixar

Warning: Major Toy Story 4 spoilers ahead. Make sure you avoid the part about Woody’s untimely demise. Just kidding! But seriously: There are big-time spoilers ahead.

Early on in Toy Story 4, it becomes clear that Bonnie, the adorable preschooler who inherited all of Andy’s toys in Toy Story 3, doesn’t have much use for Woody anymore. Under the Andy regime, Woody was always the head organizer and leader of the other toys. He was Andy’s favorite, the chosen one who got to go on trips to Pizza Planet and develop the closest bond with the boy of the house.

But at Bonnie’s place, things are different. Dolly, the purple-haired rag doll who’s got seniority on Woody in this new workplace of sorts, assumes the authority-figure role among the toys. When Bonnie wants to play, she often leaves Woody behind on the floor of her closet. She even takes Woody’s sheriff badge and pins it on Jessie instead.

Still, Woody is determined to do his part. So when it’s time for kindergarten orientation, he sneaks into Bonnie’s backpack, insistent that he must go with her because she’ll need a friend in this unfamiliar environment, even though Bonnie has made it clear that if she needed a friend, she probably wouldn’t choose Woody. All the other toys beg him not to go. He does it anyway.

I realize this is a Pixar–Disney movie. But watching Woody’s insistence on inserting himself into a situation where he’s no longer needed made me think: God, that’s such a baby-boomer move. Or maybe it’s a Joe Biden move. Wait, wait: It might be a Jay Leno move. Whatever you want to call it, it’s a Pixar movie version of a real-life phenomenon in which older men refuse to step aside so that a new generation can step up, take charge, and prove that they are capable of running the show as well as capitalizing on opportunities and benefits that older men have enjoyed for decades. It also marks a shift in the point of view of the Toy Story movies.

In the first three Toy Story films, the focus is always on maintaining the toy status quo for the sake of a child who needs to have her best manufactured friends by her side. All of the movies inevitably involve a rescue mission designed to get Andy’s toys back where they belong. Toy Story 4 follows that same basic story trajectory but in a Bonnie context: When Bonnie’s new beloved DIY toy Forky tries to escape during a road trip, Woody goes off to find him. Once he does, they both get stuck in a small-town antique shop, prompting the rest of the toys to try to rescue Woody and Forky. (Lest you think there is no creepy entity holding Woody and Forky hostage, please know that in keeping with creepy Sid, creepy toy-collector Al McWhiggin, and creepy bear Lotso, Toy Story 4 features multiple ventriloquist dummies who live at the antique shop and act like they weren’t ripped right out of R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps.)

There’s a slight shift in the story arc from Toy Story 3 when Woody finally accepts that, with Andy going off to college, his purpose is now to make a new child happy. But in general, those first three movies adhere to a modified version of that famous Matthew McConaughey line from Dazed and Confused: The kids get older. But the toys stay the same age.

That changes in Toy Story 4. It’s not like Woody suddenly gets wrinkles or Slinky Dog finally experiences the joint pain that has seemed inevitable throughout the franchise. One could argue that Buzz Lightyear is showing signs of mild dementia in Toy Story 4, but my counterargument is that Buzz Lightyear has always shown signs of mild dementia. What changes is that Woody realizes, eventually, after a lot of kicking and screaming, that it’s best for him and for everyone if he retires. He had his time as leader of the toys, and that time has passed. Woody struggles with this a lot throughout the film; it’s really the movie’s primary conflict. And he does it in ways that make it hard not to relate his experience to what’s happening — or rather, what should be happening — in the real world.

When Woody and Forky — and yes, Forky is a spork with Mr. Bill’s mouth and pipe-cleaner arms, and while that sounds like a parody of a Pixar character, he’s the best — land in the antique shop, they meet Gabby Gabby, a doll baby who, like Woody, was produced in the 1950s. (What other generation was largely produced in the 1950s? Hmmm … let me think.) Gabby Gabby is immediately interested in Woody when she realizes he has a working voice box, something she has coveted for years. She keeps him in the store, with help from her dummy minions, in order to hopefully get a voice-box transplant using Woody as a reluctant donor.

Initially, Gabby Gabby, like the dummies, is played through the lens of horror. We’ve all seen enough dolls come to life in scary movies to immediately think of the blinking baby doll in that mode. We’re also seeing her from Woody’s standpoint, and of course he’s a little wary of her. She wants to surgically remove from him the thing he’s metaphorically afraid that he’s already losing: his voice and his sense of toy identity. Again, I don’t think it’s an accident that everyone who stands to inherit some form of toy empowerment from Woody — Dolly, Jessie, Gabby Gabby, who’s voiced by Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks, which is perfect — happens to be female. It’s not an accident either that Bonnie, the child he’s supposed to serve, is a girl and doesn’t connect with him on the same level that Andy once did.

To Forky and Bo, the generational equal and potential partner with whom Woody reunites, Woody talks about how his purpose is to be loyal to a child, using loyalty with the same reverence some old-timers might use to talk about how back in the day, company loyalty still meant something. He speaks about the past as the most joyful time of his life. When Bo, who now travels the world, suggests that change can be good, he waves off that idea. “You can’t teach this old toy new tricks,” he says.

Woody has always been the most sentimental toy in the Toy Story franchise, the one who valued the traditions of childhood so much that he would do whatever it took to make sure it unfolded without disruption for Andy and, later, for Bonnie. But for the first time, in Toy Story 4, that quality starts to seem like a negative. The movie, in its subtle, kid-friendly way, forces us to see Woody from a different perspective. Sure, he’s still a hero who cares about the kids who love him and looks out for his friends. But from another angle, he’s also a cowboy from the 1950s who is stuck in the past and doesn’t know how to adapt. (That thread has actually low-key been a part of his character since the first movie, when he got bent out of shape by the arrival of Buzz with all his bells and whistles.)

I’m not going to take a ridiculous think-piece leap and say that Woody is the equivalent of a Trump voter. For starters, he has the voice of Tom Hanks and I would never, ever degrade the name of Mr. Thomas Jeffrey Hanks in that manner. But I do think director Josh Cooley and screenwriters Andrew Stanton and Stephany Folsom are deliberately sending a timely message, which is that glorifying the past and remaining stuck in your ways isn’t good for you, and, more importantly, prevents natural, needed progress from taking place. (Don’t worry, I’m not going to turn Toy Story 4 into a metaphor for the 2020 election. If I did, though, I’m pretty sure Bo would be Elizabeth Warren.)

Again, big-time spoilers incoming, so look away if you haven’t seen the movie yet. The nice thing about Toy Story 4 is that it can deliver the right and happy ending in this situation much more quickly than American society can. Which is why Woody realizes that Gabby Gabby isn’t bad, she’s just sad and bitter because her dodgy voice box has prevented her from attracting the attention of a child who might love her the way Andy loved Woody. So Woody gives her his and eventually, she’s able to connect with a child the way Woody once took for granted, because he had never known a world that didn’t give him an Andy.

Woody also opts to leave his gang of toy friends and stay in that small town with Bo, leaving Bonnie in the hands of Dolly and Buzz, the toy he was once so afraid would usurp his authority. He realizes that he’s helped shape the imaginations of a millennial boy and, for a while, a Gen-Z girl, and that it’s time for him to have new adventures and let others take care of things. (If you’re wondering where Generation X fits into all this, we’re Bonnie’s parents, just minding our own business, trying to keep things running smoothly, then wondering what the hell is going on when chaos breaks out all around us. Yes. This sounds right.)

Unless you’re a weirdo like me, you probably watched Toy Story 4 and did not think about any of this stuff for even a millisecond. You just felt sad for Woody when he had to say goodbye to his friends, even though it’s the right thing to do and also means he gets to be with Bo. That’s because it’s hard to back away from a job you love and a past that’s so rich and rewarding that you always want it to be your present. That’s what Woody is struggling with and what baby-boomer colleagues who refuse to retire or presidential candidates who won’t stop running are struggling with, deep down, too. But it’s hard to see the nuances in that struggle in real life, when it feels like those older individuals are stubbornly standing in the front of the line while people behind them have been waiting their damn turn for a really long time. It’s also hard because not everyone in real life has the grace and self-awareness to make the choice that Woody makes.

Toy Story 4 is primarily here to entertain us and to save the summer movie season from being an almost total loss. But maybe it’s also here to make us reflect on these things a little. Maybe it’s here to remind people that sometimes the most heroic thing you can do is take yourself out of the picture.

Toy Story 4 Is a Movie About Getting Out of the Way