One of the greatest tricks the Toy Story franchise ever pulled was turning what on the surface looks like this consumerist paean to stuff into a poignant riff on mortality. This came to a head with the incinerator scene in Toy Story 3, when the characters hold hands while facing down the inevitability of death, a scene that should be laughable coming from anthropomorphized toys in glorified toy company movie but nonetheless gets me embarrassingly sniffly every time. The Pixar boys managed to flip the concept so that it wasn’t about stuff per se, but a bittersweet riff on the ephemeral nature of childhood. Not exactly a brand new idea for children’s entertainment (Winnie The Pooh, The Giving Tree, Peter Pan, et al), but a pretty well-played trick nonetheless.
Where to go from there? In Toy Story 4, the franchise transitions from fear of death to exploring the desire for it. Our hero, Woody the wind-up cowboy, has been passed down from his original owner, Andy — having gone off to college — to Bonnie, who seems to prefer other toys to Woody (including, Jessie, the female version of Woody voiced by Joan Cusack). In a last-ditch effort at relevance, Woody stows away in Bonnie’s backpack on her first day of kindergarten, hoping to catch her eye at an emotionally vulnerable time. Which frankly seems like kind of a fuckboi move. (is Woody a fucktoi? Discuss.) Only instead of turning to Woody for solace, Bonnie constructs for herself a new toy out of a spork, a pipe cleaner, a broken popsicle stick, and some clay, a character she names “Forky.”
Following its own narrative rules, in turning trash into a toy, Bonnie has inadvertently made Forky sentient. And Forky, rather than being excited about his promotion from presumably inanimate pieces of garbage to full consciousness and favored toy status, now desperately wants to go back to being insensate trash. Woody spends basically the next 20 minutes of screen time trying to get Forky to be the toy Bonnie wants him to be and stop him from jumping into garbage cans (Forky returning to his grave, essentially).