Toy Story 4 Elegantly Captures the Existential Terror of Being Alive


As a child of the early '90s, the Toy Story franchise feels as familiar as my mom’s home cooked lasagna. I grew up with Andy. I owned my own Woody, Rex, and Potato Head guys. I dressed up as Buzz and said “To Infinity and Beyond!” on Halloween. And when Andy grew up, said goodbye to his toys, and left for college, I did too. That’s why, when Toy Story 4 was announced, I tempered my excitement–not only because the trilogy had already closed off so elegantly in Toy Story 3–but because, after you say farewell to something from your past, it’s not always so fun to catch up with it again in your adult life. In some cases, actually, it can be pretty terrifying.

Toy Story 4 is by no means an unsatisfying entry into the series. The film, which is more moody and covered in darkness than the others, is very soothing at times. Centering itself around the character of Woody, the fourth feature of the iconic franchise drops a lot of the team-building and sibling rivalry themes in favor of a more introspective, meditative vibe, seeking to address the very existential mystery, what even is a toy, anyway? As it turns out, the horrors of consciousness, agency, and existence in general are not lost on the minds of these fun-loving dolls. Though on the surface, Toy Story 4 acts like a thoughtful road trip movie with some roller coaster set pieces and great sketch comedy bits from the likes of Keegan-Michael Key, Jordan Peele, and many of today's leading comedy minds, the film is clearly very invested in some much darker themes. Central among them, the philosophical crisis of a new character named Forky.

Photo by Disney / Pixar.

Forky is a sentient spork. The film’s first act sees the Frankenstein creation of this bizarre new member of the gang, as Bonnie–the toys’ new adorable kid–cobbles him together in a state of desperation during a particularly traumatic first day of kindergarten. Not unlike the droids in Star Wars, or the furniture in Pee Wee’sPlayhouse, the sentient toys of Toy Story have long provoked philosophical, albeit tongue-in-cheek, issues for the world of the franchise. Do they have feelings? How are they born? Can they die? I never thought I’d see this happen in a Toy Story film, but Forky, who is voiced by Tony Hale in what is inarguably a series highlight of voice-acting, somehow answers all these questions. And, like raising from the dead some old traumas of your past, or bringing to life a franchise that was long thought complete, the concept of animating a lifeless plastic utensil is actually quite unsettling. Especially because, at first, Forky does not want to be alive!

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Pixar’s fascination with sentience and agency is thematically present all throughout Toy Story 4. As Forky learns how to be alive, Woody is forced to remember what it means to be alive. At the beginning of the film, Woody's purpose is unclear, now living with Bonnie where there are new leaders and new friends. Like the franchise itself, the beloved Tom Hanks-voiced cowboy doesn’t feel all-too necessary anymore. When he comes face-to-face with an old toy from his past who’s leading a life without a kid, though, Woody comes to realize that existence isn’t all about leading, or even being part of, a gang. He learns that existence is about having agency in your own life. And in the choices that the dusty old cowboy is forced to make, we see Woody finally become his own man–or toy.

It should come as no surprise that a Pixar movie is deeply affecting. Seeing Woody voyage away from the pack to embark on a journey of newfound agency (and solitude) provokes a very vulnerable viewing experience. But I was not prepared for the all-out blitzkrieg on the emotions that Pixar unleashed in Toy Story 4. The film conjures a feeling not unlike a dewey nighttime drive through the streets of your childhood home, waiting at a stop light as you quietly parse through old memories both fond and tragic. Woody’s journey takes him through worlds that at-times feel like out-right horror films (with one memorable sequence directly evoking The Shining), and with the thrilling scares of a new adventure come, of course, the sadness of, once again, saying goodbye.


Of all the Toy Story films, 4 asks us to learn to be comfortable with bringing new things to life, and saying farewell to the things we once loved. Perhaps for you, this will come as a welcome lesson about some of the many trials of adult life. But for me, goodbyes are never easy. And Toy Story 4 choked me up and played by heartstrings like a goddamn mandolin.

This story originally appeared on Minor edits have been made by editors.

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Dom Nero
Senior Creative Producer
Dom Nero is a Senior Creative Producer at Esquire, where he also writes about film, tv, tech, and video games. Elsewhere, Dom hosts Eye of the Duck, a podcast about essential movie scenes.
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