Toy Story 4: Woody and Buzz Embrace the Gig Economy
A few weeks ago, Apple dropped a staggeringly ill-advised promoted tweet into my timeline: “With the longest battery life in an iPhone ever, you’ll lose power before your iPhone XR will.” I enjoy thinking about death even less than the average person, so my first reaction was that I’m not particularly cheered by a poorly worded suggestion that I’ll probably exit before my technology. My next thought was that Apple had inadvertently provided a solid metaphor for the eternal franchise era: assuming all goes as planned, it is not inconceivable that there will be Star Wars movies coming out after my death, certainly not an expectation I grew up with. In live action, returning to a property that’s grown more respectable with age has the inherent pull of both nostalgia and the inherently manipulative (but no less genuine) melancholy of seeing how much everyone has aged. This was baked into Twin Peaks: The Return but has funny side effects in much less credible endeavors: e.g., in the barely notable American Reunion, just by virtue of surviving with personality unchanged this long, Seann William Scott’s Stifler has acquired an unexpected dignity.
This affective property, of course, does not extend to animated films, especially ones whose protagonists are toys that, by definition, do not accrue frown lines or jowls; I suppose you could run Tim Allen and Tom Hanks’s voices through vocal spectrum analyses and compare/contrast with 1995 waveforms, but they basically sound the same. Death, of course, has come for the franchise by now: Jim Varney, voice of Slinky Dog, is long gone, and the late Don Rickles’s unused vocal tracks were scoured for a few lines to repurpose for his beyond-the-grave reprise of Mr. Potato Head. Meanwhile, Allen has transitioned from merely retrograde to actively objectionable Fox News guest. Toy Story 3 thematized the capitalist anxiety of losing your target audience by having Andy grow up and get rid of his toys, a stand-in for the kids who grew up on these films—would a new generation, weaned on repeat DVD viewings (presumably), be around to keep filling the coffers?
Arriving a full 24 years after the first installment (long enough for CG water to finally be mastered; I’m impressed) Toy Story 4 improves on its misbegotten predecessor, an unceasingly loud affair that climaxed with weirdly intense imagery of the toys on a conveyor belt heading towards an incinerator. It made me think of the Holocaust, and I know I’m not the only person who had that reaction (although showing it to a group of children and pausing it at regular intervals to discuss the parallels is a bit much, maybe). A friend thinks it’s more about Stalinism, another notes that “any ethnic cleansing situation would be applicable”—which, of course, is a desirable reaction to have to any children’s movie. 4 is lighter on its feet, containing at least five good jokes and much less aggravating freneticism. Setting aside the interplay between Buzz and Woody (effectively tabled in this installment), the primary business of the franchise is a) elaborate chases b) bits of business for the side characters, both of which get a good workout here. The film’s one really substantial and lasting achievement is the introduction of a new character, Forky (Tony Hale), a toy literally assembled out of trash who initially resists his new role as a playmate. “Trash!” he repeatedly says, ceaselessly trying to throw himself into the nearest bin, rejecting his identity as a toy. A character who is literally trash, who loves being trash, who wants only to be among trash: a truly modern update, ready for Twitter, and very funny.
This state of affairs cannot last: Woody convinces the recalcitrant spork that his duty is to their child/master/owner, and Forky finally steps up and commits to being a beloved toy. A film about toys, with the attendant tie-in business generated, is inevitably about cuddling up to capitalism, and it’s a credit to the first two films that they work as well as they do without coming off as creepy as they could. Where 3 transposed the anxiety of losing its target base onto the audience (only fitting for a society where corporate advertising encourages consumers to actively root for their success without receiving any of the economic benefits), 4 is similarly indoctrinated. Woody’s dominant trait was always his absolute loyalty to, and concern for the emotional well-being of, the child he belongs to. It doesn’t take a great deal of effort to translate this into explicitly capitalist terms, with Woody and Buzz devotees to a gig economy where they’re forever in danger of being out of work and having to find a new boss to keep them barely alive. Their ability to find validation and emotional gratification is tied solely and absolutely to their work. There’s a subplot here about Woody’s voice box that is similarly easy to translate into workers fighting over limited resources to the extent of turning on each other, a distraction meant to keep the upper classes safely insulated from the proletariat discovering who their true enemy is.
Honestly, none of this is an over-reading—these anxieties are definitely in the text, intended or not, and that’s even without getting into Woody’s arc. (He learns that the future is female and he needs to step aside and hand that sheriff’s badge over to lady sheriff Jessie instead; zero interpretation is required.) But going down this path is a little too easy/like an alternate universe in which I went to grad school and used the entire theoretical apparatus to justify ceaselessly watching trash as “rich texts.” These movies don’t actually offer much to think about, yet here I am, voluntarily engaging in thinking around it. Filmmaker does not, as a rule, prioritize reviews of massive first-run studio releases; this is a choice I made for myself and not one I’m entirely happy about. It proves I’m not beyond the pull of nostalgia (at least if I get to watch it for free)—I may be opposing the beast, but I’m still feeding it content. There is absolutely no reason for this movie to exist, aside from the obvious enterprise of making money; it’s fine for what it is, which is basically the best we can expect of the mass entertainment future. At least the photo-realistic cat is impressive.