By Matthew Sorrento.
Like all films in the series, the fourth installment of Toy Story (2019) concerns kids’ fears of abandonment, with lost toys working in place of children. Once again, the toys get lost for an adventure, for some form or return/reconciliation at the conclusion. There’s only so much to be done in a franchise dedicated to this idea.
And yet the best installments in the series employ a gothic sensibility, beginning with the first film. This 1995 film owes much to the classic Twilight Zone episode “Five Characters in Search of an Exit” (December 22, 1961; itself a spin on Luigi Pirandello’s 1921 play Six Characters in Search of an Author), in which identity is an illusion. In Toy Story, astronaut Buzz Lightyear (voiced by then TV star, Tim Allen) thinks himself to be the real thing. The series guiding conscience, Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks), soon leads him to accepting his place (as a toy). This realization comes just before Buzz and Woody escape the home of a toy-torturing child, Sid (Erik von Detten), who from what I have seen still scares young viewers. He gets his comeuppance when Woody, assisted by the “freakish” toys made of random parts, breaks the rule of not coming alive around people to eerily approach him, recalling the Freaks/ revenge against their oppressor in Tod Browning’s 1932 classic.
Toy Story 2 (1999), in which Woody becomes the target of toy dealers, exposes corporate control and consumerism of youth entertainment. Less of a gothic approach, the plot’s darker suspense, in which Woody is “kidnapped” by a toy dealer, gives life to what appeared to be a retread. The newest entry, meanwhile, employs Frankenstein imagery with the creation of a new toy, and Woody now fearful of his own fragmentation (his voicebox is desired by another toy) to revive the anxiety of abandonment. (The third, coming after a 11-year hiatus in 2010, regretfully ignores the gothic approach.) By engaging in a more direct dialog with a genre tradition, the franchise has found some drive aside from its concluding sentiment of maturation (spoiler alert): Woody must let go of his friends to give everything to a relationship (with Bopeep, with whom he reconnects earlier in the film).
Bonnie, the little girl who gets Woody and the gang from Andy (their kid in the earlier films), makes Forky (a dressed-up spork, that fond bit of memory for parents from the ‘80s), to escape her own anxiety of the first day of Kindergarten. Like his creator, Forky feels immediate anxiety about identity and abandonment. In a comic turn, he wants to be trash, to reverse the original Frankenstein’s monster’s value of self, to not be thrown away. In a move for comedy – Forky keeps diving into trashbins, with the ragdoll Woody playing defense/rescue – the film suggests rightful rebellion by a group not getting its due, while hinting at the darker, gothic developments to come.
Woody serves as the alter ego to the new, defiant creation (as he serves to Buzz in the first film, and other characters hence). The toys-as-children surrogate motif, naturally, reflects kids’ crisis of autonomy versus agency. And the Frankenstein device resounds once Woody reaches a gothic antique shop, where Gabby, a defective “talky” girl doll (referencing another Twilight Zone classic, Talky Tina in “Living Doll,” November 1, 1963) wants Woody’s voice box so she can become desirable for a little girl. With Woody fearing this fate, the film employs the Frankenstein mythos to underscore the anxiety of maturation (the mature male voicebox emerging, the older voice leaving). Whereas Sid is a threating presence in the first film, the monstrous appears as one in kind with Woody, a fellow toy. The uncanny move takes the monstrous outsider away from a controlling presence (toy owner) for the toys (i.e., children) to see the monstrous in themselves. Set in a toy-story surrogate for an “old dark house,” an antique shop, we get a platform for the gothic, comical-frenzied mayhem of James Whale’s 1932 film of that name to fuel material for this franchise. Gabby works as a mad scientist aiming to retrieve and use the part, her dummy goons recalling those especially uncanny figures onscreen (again, The Twilight Zone). These insights of the monstrous and identity aside – including Woody’s allowing his “voice” to be taken – his leaving his friends at the end isn’t all that different than the Little Mermaid (1989) leaving home for maturation, as in other Disney works, now being redone in live action/CGI (heaven help us). At least here, Bopeep, Woody’s intended, is the more mature one, already navigating out in the real world, where being an outsider is the norm. Let’s hope new renditions of Disney properties continue such correctives, and that genre revisionism will again be in service.
Matthew Sorrento is Co-editor of Film International and teaches film and media studies at Rutgers University in Camden, NJ. He recently contributed to Becoming: Genre, Queerness, and Transformation in NBC’s Hannibal (Syracuse UP, 2019) and has an essay collection, co-edited with David Ryan, forthcoming on David Fincher’s Zodiac (Fairleigh Dickinson UP).