I have read The Velveteen Rabbit to my children more times than I can count, and the metaphysics of the ending never fails to raise a modest lump inside my gorge. The toy rabbit, aged and battered and dewhiskered in the service of his child, gets infected with scarlet fever and left outside for the next day’s bonfire, where he falls into existential despair: “Of what use was it to be loved and lose one’s beauty and become Real if it all ended like this?” And then (spoiler alert) this thought coaxes a real tear from his velveteen flesh, and the nursery magic fairy appears where it fell, to lift him up and make him into a real rabbit at last, flesh and blood and hindquarters, and set him loose in Rabbit-land — where, she tells the other rabbits, “he is going to live with you forever and ever,” world without end, amen.
One of the interesting things about the Toy Story movies, perhaps better described as the Toy Story franchise now that we have reached installment No. 4, is that while they rest on the same conscious-toys conceit that The Velveteen Rabbit does, and pluck some of the same emotional strings, they have resolutely resisted the idea that toys should wish to become real or imagine themselves as something more authentic and imperishable than their wooden or glass or plastic selves.
Not for the Pixar toys the yearnings of Pinocchio or the existential anguish of the rabbit on the pyre. The plot of the original Toy Story, now almost a quarter century old, was all about reconciling one of its protagonists, the pompous spaceman Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), to his status as a toy and disabusing him of any aspiration to be more than just a plaything. Realizing that you aren’t real, that you can’t be real, that your purpose in life is to find the right series of children to play with you and nothing more, is the heart of nursery wisdom in these stories — repeated in variations in Toy Story 2, where the bad guy is a toy who wants the faux-immortality of life in a toy museum, and in the circle-of-life conclusion of Toy Story 3, where our heroes’ now-teenage owner passes them on to a little girl.
In Toy Story 4 this message is recycled yet again through the strange character of Forky, a plaything invented by the little girl of the last movie, Bonnie, with an assist from our reliable hero-cowboy, Woody (Tom Hanks), during her anxious first day at preschool. Forky (Tony Hale) is a spork with a drawn-on mouth and a pipe cleaner attached for arms, and he is brought to life when Bonnie writes her name on his popsicle-stick feet — an act of godlike power that the creation tries to reject, declaring over and over again that he is actually “trash” and hurling himself vigorously into every receptacle that presents itself. It falls to Woody, amid various misadventures on a family road trip, to persuade Forky to accept the burdens of existence, to make Bonnie his purpose rather than the quest for sweet oblivion.