The Toy Story franchise is the closest thing we have to an undisputed national anthem, a popular belief that celebrates what we think we all stand for — cooperation, ingenuity, and simple values, such as perpetual hope. This fact of our infantile, desensitized culture became apparent back in 2010 when I took a knee on Toy Story 3 and Rotten Tomatoes sprouted death threats — as if I had made Ilhan Omar–style comments against the history of America and its institutions.
That mob-like mania is depicted during a fairly creepy sequence in Toy Story 4 when cowboy doll Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks) explores an antiques-and-consignment store and is threatened by a menacing phalanx of lookalike, thinkalike, actalike Pee-wee Herman dolls. It’s a Pixar vision of a high-tech lynching, but this mad dash by revengeful analog gadgets also, inadvertently, symbolizes the conformity that has taken over amusement culture: The Toy Story franchise proves that movies (especially from Disney and Pixar) are produced to be critic-proof.
My heretical point, when writing about Toy Story 3, was that this insulting franchise delimited movies — particularly those targeted at children — as no longer expressive art but mere products synonymous with toys and the utility of toys: All reflection and imagination is left to the manufacturer. There’s nothing for the viewer to do but worship the formula.
In Toy Story 4, the familiar characters including Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), are joined by a new creation: Forky (Tony Hale) is not an expensively manufactured doll but a doohickey handmade by Bonnie, this story’s new human child progenitor (a mixed-race girl to replace the original white boy Andy). Bonnie invests wishing into Forky, a plastic spork outfitted with pipe-cleaner arms and pasted-on eye decals. No different from a perfectly used ragdoll, Forky recalls the lonely desperation of Blade Runner’s toymaker who said he made his friends himself. But that notion is even darker and more complicated than Pixar’s nihilistic Wall-E. Thus, Bonnie’s awkward, Asperger-spectrum imagination brings unfair competition to Pixar’s toy-movie monopoly, so Forky is characterized as a snarky, neurotic outcast, an existential threat to the regular toy characters who are easily marketable tie-in products.
Toy Story 4’s unsurprising journey-home plot confirms that Pixar practices Big Tech industrial hypnotism. Fans — Pixarnoids — who don’t think outside the toy chest, or even care about the development of ideas, will settle for routine, politically correct placation. This comes in the form of Woody’s old flame Bo Peep (Annie Potts), who returns from the first film as a newly empowered woman. She even instructs Woody about “change.”
VIEW GALLERY: Toy Story 4 Premiere
But if Toy Story fans are also film students (Pixar has given rise to a new category of unapologetic but not necessarily cinema-oriented geek), then Bo Peep will disturb their passive enjoyment. As a digital creation, Bo Beep’s plasticine sheen and feminine curves recall Robert Zemeckis’s eerie Welcome to Marwen, where female doll figures (whether heroic or villainous) came to life as representations of the social fears and psychopathology of its damaged protagonist, Mark Hogencamp (Steve Carell). Welcome to Marwen flopped because it fell between family-movie escapism and a social-justice victimhood tract. Zemeckis couldn’t navigate reality and fantasy and then trivialized the issue of post-traumatic stress by using superficial, high-tech placebo (F/X courtesy of DreamWorks, cousin to Pixar-Disney).
At least recognizing the desire to escape into childhood fantasy gave Welcome to Marwen substance worthy of viewers’ attention. Having exposed Hollywood’s animated anthropomorphic impulse, it relates to the current era of political hoaxes in which the struggle for political power (“control of the narrative”) reveals a loss of conviction and sense of futility.
But when Pixar introduces a new stuntman doll named Duke Caboom, he is redundant next to Buzz Lightyear. Voiced by Keanu Reeves, Duke Caboom offers nothing close to the giddy delight of that relentless, surreal, slapstick taxi-cab battle in John Wick 2. A less enjoyable franchise is perpetuated by Toy Store 4. Pixar continues to indoctrinate viewers into childish, compulsive consumerism.