For three films, over the span of 15 years, the Toy Story franchise told us that a toy’s highest calling was dedication to the child who owned it. Second only to that primary mission we were shown that commitment to one’s fellow toys — never leaving a toy behind — was also of deep importance.
Toy Story had always been a modern parable pointing us toward unconditional love and loyalty even in the face of opposition, doubt, and self-inflicted wounds. Many characters along the way have illustrated those noble goals, but Sheriff Woody has been the heart of the films.
In the first movie, he learns that his loyalty can survive competition, jealousy, and even a co-starring role.
In the second he shows us that sacrificial service, even for a brief moment in time, is of far more importance than a lifetime of personal glory.
Finally, in film three, we watched as Woody walked through a toy’s toughest transition: accepting a new challenge and a new child.
And through it all the gang stayed together.
In Toy Story 4, many toys find children. A piece of “trash” even learns to love a kid. In fact, Forky and Gabby Gabby’s storylines would have made for excellent standalone television specials. But these facts, delivered with Pixar’s characteristic beauty and wit, serve only to distract from the film’s real message, embodied by Bo Peep: Why would you settle for one kid when you can have the world? (1:15)
This is a thesis uttered as if to Christ on a mountaintop looking over all the earthly kingdoms being offered to him.
This is an offer Woody would have rejected in any of the other films, but here he accepts and subverts the ethos of the previous ones.
Toy Story 4 is tantamount to Frank Capra making a sequel to It’s A Wonderful Life in which George Bailey quits The Building and Loan, leaves Bedford Falls, and travels the globe… with Violet Biggs.
It’s Shel Silverstein’s Giving Tree asking for its branches back.
By having Woody chose to leave his home, friends, and the very child to which Andy handed him at the emotional conclusion of Toy Story 3, the fourth film pulls the voice box out of a franchise that had been speaking truth since 1995. Someone, indeed, has poisoned the water hole.