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“Toy Story 4” (2019): A Second Look


Ash has a bachelor's in English Lit. She loves analyzing fiction and obsessing over books, film, and television.

Toy Story 4 is the fourth (and hopefully final) installment of the Toy Story movie franchise, not counting the many delightful short films that have been produced over the years. It was created by Pixar studios and it’s a children’s film.

Ya-da. Ya-da. You know the drill.

Last year I wrote a review of this film that criticized it for its faux-feminist message. As someone who grew up watching what are now classic Pixar films, it really annoyed me to have the beloved characters and the setting used so that some baffled man could explore his precious feelings about women finally being treated like human beings and not second-class citizens or sex objects.

When I look at a “Toy Story” film, I don’t want to know what some clueless guy feels about feminism. I want to see a sentimental and heartwarming story that makes me laugh and sends me out of the theater feeling good.

But now that my irritation at the film’s tacky message has waned, I admit I’ve enjoyed watching it again and again. I do love this franchise, after all. And there were things that I loved about this movie, even if it didn’t live up to the standards of the other three films.

As I said on the other article, Bo Beep was probably the best thing about Toy Story 4.

My only complaint is that men still don’t seem to understand what a strong female character is. A female character doesn’t have to be a weapon-wielding badass to be strong. When we say “strong,” we are not talking about physical strength. We are talking about a character that is written strongly.

In other words, a character that is depicted as a human being and not a sexist and vapid caricature. Somehow, Bo Beep managed to be both physically strong and strongly written.

Ten points to Pixar for that.

Of course, that’s not what I actually loved about this film. While I appreciated Bo Beep’s depiction, it was her romance with Woody that caught my attention.

The “Toy Story” films usually aren’t big on romance. Most Pixar films aren’t, and to be honest, it’s something I always enjoyed about them. For instance, A Bug’s Life wasn’t about Flik trying to marry Atta. It was about Flik trying to liberate his people from grasshopper oppression (that sounds so hilarious as I’m typing it).

Likewise, other Pixar films have always been about the (male) main character trying to meet some goal: Flik wanted to liberate his people, that old man in Up wanted to go on a last great adventure, and Woody just wanted to go home so he could be there for his owner, Andy. No romance needed.

I always found that refreshing after growing up watching Disney animated films where every single story was about the main character trying to get laid. So to have Pixar branch off in a different direction was like a breath of fresh air.

It was something new.

But for some reason, I really liked the romance between Woody and Bo and the way it was depicted in this film. I was disappointed when Bo wasn’t in Toy Story 3 because it was the last film (at the time), and I had always liked Bo, even if she wasn’t really a main character. She couldn’t do acrobatics like Jessie because she was porcelain and frail – literally a walking damsel in distress type.

And yet, I still liked her for the role she played in the films, however small. She was funny (“I’m just a couple of blocks away . . .”), and she was caring. She was a nice background character who fleshed Woody out as a person (I mean . . . that’s what good background characters do).

So to see her get upgraded from a mere background character to a secondary character was pretty awesome.

Bo Peep's evolution.

Bo Peep's evolution.

For people who aren’t down with nerd speak, a secondary character is the second most important character in a story, and for Toy Story 4, that character was Bo.

Secondary characters have goals of their own and their lives don’t revolve around the protagonist. They may even abandon the protagonist for a portion of the story, only to return later and help. Some good examples of this in fiction would be Ron Weasley from Harry Potter, Liara from the Mass Effect franchise, Roxanne from Megamind, Christopher Robin from Winnie the Pooh, and Aragorn from The Fellowship of the Ring.

I know. I might be pushing it with Aragorn since he was such a vastly important character, but in The Fellowship of the Ring (which I recall reading eons ago), he was not as important as Frodo. He even left Frodo’s side for a while and wound up helping him indirectly by battling the forces of Mordor.

Secondary characters are just as well developed and well-written as the main character. They have full personalities, goals, desires, lives of their own. They are not objects in the background that merely exist to serve the lead character. The only real difference between them and the main character is that the story isn’t theirs, so they aren’t the center focus.

Bo Peep and another awesome female character, Giggles McDimples.

Bo Peep and another awesome female character, Giggles McDimples.

This is the upgrade Bo Beep was given. Instead of centering her life around Woody and spending all her time giving him emotional labor and support, she now has her own crap to do, her own life to live, her own goals, her own desires.

Bo Beep is depicted as someone who’s willing to take control of her life. The first good example of this is the night she leaves Andy’s house and is given to another kid.

Woody wants Bo to sneak back in the house, which makes zero sense because she would just be given away again once the confused humans realized she’d been left behind. It shows that Woody, in his state of anguish, was not thinking clearly. He even forgot for a moment that Bo Beep wasn’t Andy’s toy.

In that moment in the rain, Bo Beep is the one who thinks clearly and rationally. She tells Woody that it’s time to move on with her life, it’s time for the next kid.

This right here is a moment where the writers are really true to the characters.

Woody Wakes Up Scud

Throughout the franchise, Woody has been depicted as someone who is more emotional than rational, who takes silly risks and screws up a lot because of those risks.

In the very first Toy Story film, while trapped in Sid’s house, Woody sees that Sid has left the bedroom door open. He knows that Scud the dog is lurking outside, and even though the (admittedly mute) toys in Sid’s bedroom try to warn him, he still rushes headlong down the stairs and is nearly caught by the dog. He is rescued by Buzz, who warns him to stop being so flighty and irrational.

This plays out again in Toy Story 4 when Woody rushes headlong through the center of the antique shop, and Bo’s sheep are captured as a result of his risky maneuver.

Bo is furious with Woody, and because she’s been depicted in a non-sexist way (as a fully three dimensional person), she is allowed to be angry without being called a “bitch” or “put in her place” by a male. She’s allowed to have feelings and some kind of reaction besides perpetually smiling like a decoration for the pleasure of men.

And it’s marvelous.

There’s also a hilarious joke where an angry Bo Beep tells Woody to just be quiet, and he teases her by talking with his pull string.

For those who’ve been watching since the first film, we know that Woody can control what his voice box says. In the very first movie, when Andy pulls his string, Woody says, “You’re my favorite deputy!” as a way of communicating with Andy. It’s supposed to be sweet because it’s the only way he has to communicate his love to this child he’s cared for so many years.

Likewise, at the beginning of Toy Story 4, the writers remind us of Woody’s ability by having him say the same thing to Bonnie when she pulls his strong. It sets up the joke nicely, anyway.

The night she leaves Andy’s house, Bo Beep suggests that Woody come with her. She gestures to an empty space in the box beside her, a silent invitation.

It’s a character defining moment when Woody lifts his leg and almost climbs into the box. It shows that he loves Bo Beep so much that he’s willing to give up his life with Andy (who he also loves) and go away with her.

But Woody is also loyal. By being Andy’s toy, he’s made a commitment to the boy’s happiness. He won’t walk away. When he hears Andy calling for him, he drops to the ground instead and waits to be found.

But the audience is given a shot of his face covered in rainwater as Bo Beep is carried away.

It leaves us realizing just how much Woody sacrificed in order to be there for Andy. Woody gave up years of happiness with Bo Beep so that he could be there to make sure Andy was happy. The toys are a lot like tiny parents in that regard.

I also loved the romance between Woody and Bo Beep, because not only is it very character defining (which is important to me because I’m a writer), it’s also realistic.

About as realistic as a romance between two talking toys can be.

Couples don’t always get along. Sometimes they fight. Sometimes they disagree. Sometimes they separate for a while. It doesn’t mean they don’t love each other. It just means they’re people. People tend to disagree every once in a while.

Seeing Woody and Bo argue and makeup was, I think, important for children. Far too many Disney movies depict love as this perfect, flawless thing that it is not.

Love hurts.

It hurts terribly. But if a person is worth it, you stay.

Also, please keep in mind that I’m not talking about abuse. Abuse isn’t love. Anyone in an abusive situation should leave as soon as they possibly can.

"You can stay out of my way!"

"You can stay out of my way!"

I loved that Bo shouted at Woody, “No, you’re lost!”

Putting aside the film’s annoying faux-feminism, Woody is lost without Andy. Now he’s Bonnie’s toy but he’s not her favorite and he doesn’t know what to do with himself.

The word “lost” has so many connotations here.

Woody is lost without Andy.

Woody is lost without the purpose that being the favorite toy gave him.

Woody is literally lost because Bonnie can’t find him, is not even looking for him, and is on the verge of leaving him behind, making him a lost toy in the wild just like Bo – a reality he refuses to accept.

To Woody, being a lost toy is the worst possible thing that could happen to him. He doesn’t know how to exist or function without a kid, because to not have an owner is to have no purpose.

It’s clear that Woody has never just lived for himself.

In the very first film, after fighting with Buzz at the gas station and being left behind there by Andy and his mother, Woody sobs to the sky, “Oh, I’m a lost toy!”

He knows that even if he runs back to Andy’s house, he might not make there it in time before Andy and his family have moved away. This causes him to panic and lash out at Buzz.

Later, in Toy Story 3, Woody warns the other toys that daycare is a “sad place for washed up old toys who have no owners.” To which Barbie hilariously bursts out in tears.

It’s clear that to Woody, having no owner is the worst possible thing that can happen to a toy. So he would always rather have an owner, even if they don’t care enough about him to wonder where he is -- like Bonnie, who only cares about Forky now, her favorite toy.

I also mentioned in the other article that Woody handing over his voice box to Gabby Gabby was symbolic of men handing rights and privileges to women (the ridiculous implication being that men would lose their own rights and privileges. They would not).

But the handing over of the voice box could be interpreted in a number of ways. From the perspective of Woody coming to terms with his purposeless existence, the handing over of his voice box symbolizes the final acceptance that he is a lost toy, and that he doesn’t have to have an owner to enjoy life.

Likewise, Gabby Gabby taking the voice box symbolizes her no longer being lost. Because she finally has a voice box, she can be played with and loved by a child. She can finally have an owner.

That’s what the movie is saying, but honestly, I find that ridiculous. Before Google enslaved us, children were perfectly capable of playing with simple toys that had no voice boxes and pull strings and wifi and other doohickeys. Children used to actually have imaginations.

I’m in my thirties, but I’m still old enough to remember a time when toys did not need to be electronic. I played with dolls that couldn’t talk and stuffed animals that couldn’t read to me, and I was perfectly happy. Gabby Gabby thinking no child can love her without a voice box is absurd.

No child can love her because antique dolls are creepy AF.

So in the end, Bo Beep teaches Woody that life can have meaning beyond being loved by a kid, that a toy is a sentient being that can choose to live for itself, rather than being the eternal plaything of child after child.

The movie is basically about toys asserting their personhood! Asserting that they are more than mere objects! And the fact that a female toy asserts this for Woody and teaches him this lesson is probably the only correctly feminist thing about the film.

Women are treated as objects and less than people. So to have Bo Beep declaring her personhood is reaffirming that women are people, not just to Woody but to every little girl in the audience.

And every little boy as well.

I almost want to say the feminist undertones will go over these kids' heads, but that’s actually not true. Every child learns what is expected of them by the patriarchy before they’ve even hit prepubescence. They are told this by media, commercials, video games, movies, television, songs.

The message is screamed to them over and over that women are all supposed to have perfect hourglass figures and exist solely to please men. And they absorb these messages whether they realize it or not.

It's scary how easily our reality can be altered by our subconscious. But there it is.

Toy Story 4 spoke out against sexism rather than (continuing to) reaffirm it through Bo Beep’s unapologetic depiction as a fully realized person with thoughts and feelings.

And that’s wonderful.

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