'Toy Story 4' & Keeping Things Simple
*Warning - Spoilers ahead for Toy Story 4. If you haven't seen it yet...what have you been doing? Go see it. Come on...*
When it was announced that PIXAR was moving forward with another Toy Story film it was difficult to feel optimistic. After all, Toy Story 3 not only offered what seemed like a perfect ending (at the time) but also rounded off the trilogy by speaking to the kids who directly grew up with the series. Once again it was a charming, beautiful, touching and funny story about the inevitability of growing up and how, above all else, moving on is okay. A fourth installment couldn't possibly maintain the high standard right? And what story would it tell? We've already finished Andy's story with his toys.
But what if all this time it's really been the story of a lonely cowboy...
I know that's not much a stretch of the imagination - the series has always focused on Woody as a protagonist over Buzz anyway, but Toy Story 4 manages to dredge up the subject of abandonment and existential crisis for the sheriff. With Andy gone and Bonnie not taking as much interest in him, Woody finds himself enforcing his insecurities on others - most notably Forky (voiced by the wonderfully innocent Tony Hale) a spork who has been forced into consciousness by Bonnie making him her favourite toy.
The screenplay for Toy Story 4 by Stephany Folsom and Andrew Stanton is brisk, with a delicacy towards introspection PIXAR haven't shown since Inside Out - but most of all it keeps things simple. Woody feels left out. Bonnie builds Forky. Woody sees himself in Forky so when he gets lost it's up to Woody to reunite them. Along the way they bump into Bo Peep, who disappeared years ago and is a badass now. She's world-weary and teaches the cowboy how to be independently happy and they return Forky to Bonnie. Case closed.
I say this like the other films in the series have difficult plots (let's face it, they're a hairline away from being identical) but 4 manages to embed the mature sense of identity into its storytelling without bogging down the jokes or pacing of a film that also has to keep children under five entertained. This is made all the more impressive when you think that the story was tweaked over a difficult production period by *large inhale*
John Lasseter, Rashida Jones, Will McCormack, Josh Cooley, Valerie LaPointe, Martin Hynes, Stephany Folsom and Andrew Stanton...that's a lot of cooks.
In his book Into the Woods, John Yorke writes that 'a character's facade, is an outer manifestation of an inner conflict'. Woody's facade is his want to be needed; we've known this since the first film. The moment he's ignored the cowboy often antagonises and oppresses those in a better situation than him (see Toy Story and the jealousy of Buzz). It's clear that Woody wears his emotions on his sleeve, it's why he stays likeable. His dedication to the person who means the most to him (Andy and subsequently Bonnie) is his personal drive, and is what initially drives him to return Forky to Bonnie in Toy Story 4 - Forky is her favourite toy, the one helping her through a rough time starting school, and Woody feels responsible for Bonnie's happiness. He is her toy, even if she leaves him in the cupboard as she plays with everyone else. But for the first time this isn't enough. Woody finds himself no longer jealous of Forky, but saddened. There's a mature acceptance of his inability to make Bonnie happy, and a sign of the end. With this in mind a change is set into place, and is so with the introduction of two other characters - Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) and the return of Bo Peep (Annie Potts).
Both of these inclusions are pivotal not only to 4's narrative (Gabby is the antagonist, Bo the heroine) but to Woody himself; they are embodiments of his conflicting feelings. Gabby Gabby represents Woody had he never met Andy. She's dreamed of the love she could receive from a child, yet due to a manufacturing error has been left without and therefore sits in an antique store gathering dust. Granted, she chooses terrifying ventriloquist dummies as company but her initial involvement merely shows a toy desperate to be played with. Bo on the other hand, having been removed from her place with Woody in a devastating flashback at the start of the film, represents Woody's potential. She's free. With no child to hold her down, she travels across the country with her sheep helping other toys - something that Woody's been doing throughout the whole trilogy. She's proof the sheriff needs that it's okay for things to end, and that it can be okay without dependency on the love of a child.
There's an intense focus on Woody for the fourth film. Buzz is probably in less scenes than any of the other films (not to say he's wasted, far from it), and over the 100 minute runtime we see Woody having to choose whether to follow in Gabby or Bo's footsteps...so let's break it down.
John Yorke argues that important character changes can progress throughout the entirety of the text when used to their full potential, and this is vividly seen throughout Toy Story 4. Please bare with me because this might be all hogwash but...this is the internet. The best place for hogwash.
- Woody initially harkens back to his life with Andy and translates it to his time with Bonnie. He has no knowledge of the change.
- As he's left in the cupboard during playtime (Jessie takes on the role of Bonnie's sheriff), there's a growing knowledge that something's coming, and it manifests itself as denied sadness on Woody's part.
- This combined with the memories of Bo Peep, usher in a small awakening in Woody. He doesn't act on it, but for the first time there's doubt in his expressions.
- When Bonnie is forced to start school, her fear casts doubt over this awakening, and Woody takes it upon himself to go to school with her and watch over her. This is his presumed role, after all.
- When Forky is introduced, he ushers in the reluctance against Woody's awakening. Woody looks after Forky because that's what makes Bonnie happy. Woody thinks it's still up to him to make Bonnie happy. This is one of the points where the film skips over or alters the roadmap, but the idea is still there.
- When Forky runs away during a road trip, Woody tails after him and they go to catch up to Bonnie. Woody has accepted this new role, despite feeling unfulfilled from it. (I know this kind of goes against the structure but it still works - go with it).
- Woody and Forky meet Gabby Gabby and subsequently Bo Peep. They are separated: Woody with Bo and Forky with Gabby - this is where we receive new knowledge to experiment with, e.g. Gabby's past, Bo's independence.
- Woody's breakthrough comes when he realises that Bo is happier on her own than she ever has been. Not only is she the only other person he's ever wanted, but she offers a new lifestyle that has never occurred to him.
- Woody then chooses to experiment with this knowledge by meeting the surrounding toys, it's very light, but it's another small awakening as Woody comes to a big decision.
- The plan to 'save' Forky from Gabby Gabby shrouds Woody with doubt. The pipe dream of freedom is just a distraction; Bonnie needs him or...she needs him to bring Forky home.
- With Forky saved, Woody's reluctance to his awakening doesn't particularly grow, but assures itself. He sacrifices his voice-box to Gabby, so that she can realise her dream of being someone's toy. He reaffirms that this is what he's meant for.
- This regression takes hold, as Woody, Buzz and the gang are ready to return to the RV and head home with Bonnie...
- ...until the last five minutes. Woody re-awakens as the RV is about to head off. Bolstered by Bo Peep and her achievements, there's a new option for him to be happy elsewhere.
- The re-acceptance comes when he stops himself from joining his friends. He knows this is what he wants, but he needs some help to make the decision that can make him happy.
- Finally, Woody's total mastery of his happiness doesn't come from himself, not really. He looks to Buzz, and all of his friends, who assure him Bonnie is going to be okay without him. It's they're blessing. Woody and Buzz hug goodbye, and I try desperately to stop the floods of tears that escape me.
Of course, this is all from Woody's point of view only. It doesn't touch on Keanu Reeves' hilarious Duke Kaboom, Key & Peele's Ducky and Bunny or Buzz's side-plot about finding his inner-voice, all of which also add up to make the fourth film the funniest of the lot.
Toy Story 4 never feels fast, though it flies by. It's storytelling at its very best, where you can barely even tell all the intricacies are there until you reflect on it after crying for an hour straight once you turn the lights off...ahem.
Toy Story 3's ending was designed for the audience, we're all Andy. We need to sometimes let go and move on from what made us feel safe when we were younger, it's a touching tale of growing up...but Woody deserved better. His fear of abandonment and denial at being left to a life of consistently being either left or passed down from child to child filled him with a mixture of separation anxiety and existential crisis. Instead of allowing Forky to be a gateway into the philosophical topic of what it is to be alive, PIXAR wisely realised that Woody was the perfect embodiment of this all along.
The reason this kind of character study is able to take place and feel so gratifying is due to the simplistic surface layer of story. Keeping the narrative simple can often allow you to play more with character, and this is what makes Toy Story 4 feel like the final goodbye for Woody. We're sad to see him go but know he's off to live his best life...so long, partner.
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