The message of Forky is simple: a child does not need to purchase a toy, for they can create one themselves with simple elements. Yet the Disney corporation are selling a ‘Make Your Own Forky’ kit packaged in plastic for $15. Here lies the central hypocrisy of Pixar; a company with inherently good, honest and often left-wing philosophies baked into the features and shorts; yet exists under the Disney umbrella for ultimate profit and merchandising. Toy Story 4 stands as the third sequel in twenty-five years to Disney’s (presumably) highest-selling merch brand, so it raises a trickle of suspicion when it arrives, Forky first, claiming to preach the values of socialist America and teach a message of transient independent living.
But Toy Story 4 almost gets away with it through homespun charm and an air of nostalgia that never gets too sweaty. Randy Newman’s all-timer insipid cheese anthem “You’ve Got A Friend In Me” plays over the opening credits and my skin crawled, but the film henceforth abandons such lazy efforts and throws itself into constructing a fresh (in look and feel) environment of toy escapades. If the action feels overly familiar (multiple toy rescues, characters hiding behind things… you know the drill) the canvas is almost entirely new: other than Woody, the film’s five or six main characters are previously undeveloped toys: among them Forky, Bo Peep and the very un-Pixar and jarring duo of Bunny and Ducky who — despite being voiced by the talented Key and Peele — have a disconcerting Secret Life of Pets energy.
The comedy in general has the broadness and infantilism of a lesser animation house, though Pixar still mercifully avoids the death trap of pop culture references that has doomed so many children’s films to short shelf-life (with the obvious exception of my beloved Shrek 2). Honestly, all the weaker jokes that don’t quite land are ultimately forgiven by the bravery and brilliance of the film’s one, defining great gag: Forky is — for the entire first act — profoundly suicidal, and Woody has to step in as interventionist. “I’m trash! I’m trash!” the confused little spork shouts as he throws himself into the bin again and again. Woody convincing Forky of his reason to be alive is more or less when the film stops being interesting. But it’s a wonderful first act.
One expects there was an unwritten rule in the production office that Toy Story 4 could under no circumstances hit the emotional lows of the furnace scene from Toy Story 3, and this film effortfully avoids anything so richly traumatic. This is to its detriment. While there’s obviously good reason to avoid repetitive manipulation, there is equally a sense that the stakes have significantly lowered this time around, and I haven’t the affection for this set of characters to compensate. If the film ends on a conclusive second ending for the series, more interested in Woody as franchise protagonist than the ensemble of Andy’s bedroom, it’s one that I found almost upsettingly unsatisfying and brusque: does Woody face immortality beyond the suburban home? An eternity lost in the wilderness? I left Toy Story 4 more frightened of the world than when I entered, and I fear that the uncertain handling of time and life in this film would have deeply scared me as a child.