There is no reason that a movie about toys should be this emotional affecting, but there’s no denying it. Woody’s journey in this movie feels as real to me as any in recent memory. It takes the fantastical situation of living toys and applies a recognizable metaphor that relates to the human experience, all done with possibly the most realistic visuals of any animated movie and in a lively idiom that can appeal to children at the same time. It’s a delicate balancing act that the movie pulls of perfectly.
Toy Story 3 seemingly left off at the perfect spot. The toys had said goodbye to Andy, their previous kid, and they were placed in the hands of a little girl named Bonnie. All seemed well with the world, and there should be nowhere else emotionally for them to go. Well, they found something really good for Woody, and that was uselessness. Bonnie just isn’t interested in playing with Woody anymore. This is a very different dynamic than when Buzz showed up in Andy’s room in the first film. Woody had his long life with one kid and is trying to start another, but it’s just not taking. He doesn’t feel indignation at a lost place, because he’s never had it with Bonnie, but simply uselessness. He’s spent his life giving joy to a kid, and now he’s in a position where he can’t help.
When Bonnie goes to kindergarten orientation and isn’t allowed any toys along, so Woody sees his chance and sneaks along, helping her to find solace in the creation of Forky, the new marketing opportunity for Disney. Forky, though, is a handful, and requires Woody’s every attention as he tries to throw himself away, convinced that he’s nothing more than trash. What makes this Forky bit really effective is that Forky is a mirror image of Woody in every way. Forky is thrown together from a spork and other simple materials while Woody was lovingly crafted decades before. Forky knows his purpose is to be trash and not help a kid, but Woody is effectively trash and knows that his purpose is to help a kid. Their bonding helps provide Woody with the beginning of clarity that maybe his time as a kid’s toy is done.
That doesn’t come to complete fruition, however, until Woody meets Bo-Peep again. Lost for more than seven years and without a kid, Bo has lived her life of freedom to the fullest, getting played with by random kids but never tying herself down to a single kid. The two are at odds because Woody is desperate to get back to Bonnie after having been separated from her and Bo simply cannot understand why he would want to continue in that life having given so much already. Out of their past friendship, though, Bo helps Woody track down Forky after he’s been taken by Gabby Gabby, the queen bee toy of the local antique shop.
Gabby Gabby has a similar journey as Woody. She’s useless, in her mind, because of a broken voice box and all she wants is to fix it so she can appeal to Harmony, the granddaughter of the woman who owns the shop. When she eventually gets the voice box, she gets as rejected as Woody has been by Bonnie, and she enters a deep depression.
There are four characters in this film going through similar and related journeys, which is a lot, but the movie makes it work specifically because they’re similar and related. They’re all touching on the same idea of purpose and just approaching it from different directions. The other key is that three of them play as support to Woody’s journey. They help inform Woody’s emotional reality. Through Forky, he can see that his purpose isn’t always to actually play with a kid. Through Bo, he can see the value of living without a kid. Through Gabby, he gives away a part of himself that makes him a toy in order to help another find a kid. When Woody eventually lets go of his life as a kid’s toy, it’s a decision that makes perfect sense for him, providing him with an enticing alternative life with Bo. It reflects, in a certain way, the empty nest of a parent who’s seen their children off to college, looking for a new life to live not centered around another person dependent on them. It’s a relatable feeling that bridges the emotional gap between living people and a rubber toy in a movie.
In addition to the movie’s strong emotional and narrative core, there are strengths abounding. The voice acting is great. There was a technical innovation that provided Pixar the ability to more accurately reflect light levels that gives the visuals a far more textured and realistic look, making the whole affair more sumptuous to simply look at. There’s a wide array of side characters both old and new (from Buzz and Jesse to the new Duke Caboom) that fill out the edges of the frame to entertaining effect.
From beginning to end, the film is thematically rich, entertaining, and a joy to watch. This is one of Pixar’s best films.