This is Part Two of Looking Closer’s review of Toy Story 4.
Part One was posted previously. Note: Part Three concerns the ending of the film, and includes spoilers.


Forky might have just become another piece of plastic polluting a park or an ocean.

He began as a spork, after all—that most disposable of utensils. But then Bonnie, during her first day of kindergarten, asked that most dangerous question—”What if…?”—and gave him an extreme makeover. Thanks to her creative genius, Forky was born. He’s not the handsomest toy in the world—he looks like a cross between the flabbergasted fellow in Edvard Munch’s The Scream and a high-anxiety spoon critic in an apocalyptic Todd Herzfeldt cartoon. That doesn’t matter. What matters is this: He’s alive… he’s alive! 

But will Forky stay alive?

In the early stages of Toy Story 4, this seems to be the plot’s primary question. Forky, believing he’s nothing but a spork, believes he’s destined for nothing but the trash. But Bonnie loves him and needs him. And Sheriff Woody, who knows a thing or two about bonds between children and toys, and who values nothing more than a child’s happiness, is determined to make this work. Whatever magic brought Forky and Bonnie together, well… Woody won’t let anything tear them asunder.

And so, these Pixar storytellers have discovered an inspiring redemption story. In their gamble to enhance the already miraculous Toy Story world, they’ve stumbled onto one of its greatest inventions. Voiced perfectly (and with remarkable restraint) by Tony Hale, Forky spends much of the movie wrestling with his existential crisis — and in doing so, he becomes the funniest member of Woody’s community yet.

And what a relief that is!

Watching trailers for Toy Story 4, which made Forky look like the movie’s main character, I feared two likely outcomes: that he’d become for Pixar what Jar-Jar Binks was for Star Wars, or that he’d end up serving as little more than a prompt to talk about identity politics. (Being unclassifiable by the binary categories of fork or spoon, Forky looked custom-made to serve an LGBTQ spokesperson.)

Note: If you’re bothered by what I’ve just said, check the Footnote at the end of this post.

Forky, thank goodness, is not the propaganda I feared he would be. He’s an honest-to-goodness Toy Story character who earns his place in good company.

This scene about Woody and Forky ends up resembling a music video for U2’s “One”: “We’ve got to carry each other….”

Moreover, Forky expands this franchise’s vocabulary about the nature of creativity and play.

Assembled from a spork, popsicle sticks, pipe cleaners, and googly eyes, Forky’s been loved into life by a child who can envision unlikely possibilities. Suddenly self-aware, he panics, knowing only that sporks are meant to be disposable. He doesn’t understand what he has become: a new creature, designed to delight his Maker, capable of more than he knows. “I’m trash!” he repeatedly and smilingly asserts—and he’ll amount to nothing more than that if he refuses to consider larger possibilities than he’s known. To become his “best self,” Forky needs to slow down, pay attention, and discover that he is loved.  

When I laugh as Forky lunges madly, again and again, for any nearby trash can, I’m laughing in recognition. If you’re feeling down about yourself, self-destruction can become a compulsion. I suspect that most of us have experienced this to some degree. When I’m feeling low about myself, I’m prone to wasting time with mindless distractions. For others, it might be more drastic forms of self-harm or even suicidal impulses, demonstrations that suggest we believe the worst things that have been said about us. Perhaps Forky can remind us of the absurdity of our baser impulses and the possibility that we might have more potential and value than we ever dreamed.

I encounter an alarming number of students whose insecurities are the result of conditioning—they’ve been taught, through neglect, abuse, and other love deficiencies, to perceive themselves as trash. (If I’m meeting this many of them in college, imagine how many more, believing themselves to be trash, see the possibility of education as a waste of time and resources.) As hilariously absurd as this combination of plastic and pipe cleaners appears, Forky gives us an outstanding opportunity to talk about a person’s confidence and self-knowledge can be transformed by love.

But even this meaningful metaphor does not sum up what I love most about Forky. Above all, I love him because he’s a plastic utensil glued to popsicle sticks, wrapped in pipe cleaners, and decorated with googly eyes.

To explain, I have to tell you a story:

When I was a kid, I coveted Star Wars figures, and spent most of my allowance on Star Wars figures. In the early 2000s, as Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films arrived, I had a second childhood and bought Middle-Earth action figures with enthusiasm. But the action figure that means the most to me—the one that I’ve kept within reach from early childhood to this very day—is a cheap Fisher Price figure of a scuba diver.

Here’s why: One afternoon in the early 80s, as I was playing with two neighbor kids—a ten-year-old named Lauren and her younger brother Scott—we decided to round up all of our action figures and stuffed animals and dream up a story that would involve all of them. (This was a decade before the first Toy Story.) Right away we decided that these toys needed a leader, a captain, a boss. Since our priority in everything was to make each other laugh, I announced that the leader should be this arbitrary, fish-out-of-water character: this blue-suited scuba diver, whose features had been so cheaply painted on that they had rubbed off years earlier, leaving him faceless.

Here’s an image from Collectors.com of the same simple toy that changed my childhood.

“Why should they follow him?” asked Lauren. I answered, “Because he survives anything. Watch.” I grabbed a baseball bat, tossed this meaningless toy in the air, and struck him like a slugger. Pieces of this action figure soared and scattered over the roof of the house. Laughing, we dashed from the backyard around the house to the street. And, by sheer luck, we retrieved his pieces, one by one—all except a tiny chunk of his shoulder. Believe it or not—we reassembled him. And we realized that he was, now, more than just a leader for our community of toys. He had been destroyed, and yet he lived again! He was a legend! A mythical hero! A god-man!

“What shall we call him?” I asked. Scott, the youngest (and also the funniest), did not hesitate with his answer: “Jim!” he announced.

And thus, a legend was born. We told stories about Jim. We sang songs about Jim. We illustrated homemade comic books about Jim. Jim became an icon for us. And though I may not have fully understood it at the time, he became more valuable to me than any and all of my Star Wars figures: He represented inspiration. Just as a sock puppet came to life as Kermit the Frog in the hands of Jim Henson, and thus the Muppets were born, so I learned that a whole lot of something can come from almost nothing—that entire worlds can be spoken into existence, even with only a few ridiculous words.

That’s why I felt tears sting my eyes more than once during Toy Story 4. I was reminded again of how one crazy little question—”What if…?”—can not only change the world, but it can also create new worlds.

Jim the Scuba Diver is the incarnation, for me, of the power of the imagination. Bonnie doesn’t know it yet, but Forky is that for her.

I predict that, by the end of Toy Story 4, you’re going to find that Forky an essential new star in the Toy Story galaxy.

But Toy Story 4 isn’t just about Forky, as the trailers led me to believe. No—this movie’s meditation on the connection between love and identity goes so much farther.

I’ll look at that tomorrow, in Part Three. But before you move on to that post, know this: There will be SPOILERS.


Move on now to Part Three, but only if you’ve seen the movie, as it includes spoilers about the end of the movie.


Footnote:

Regarding my note about fearing that Forky was a prompt to discuss identity politics… don’t get me wrong. I’m not opposed to addressing questions about sexual identity in art.

We need art that challenges us to move beyond simplistic and harmful binaries that have been naively established and cruelly enforced for much of human history. As someone who ignorantly and arrogantly endorsed a destructive prejudice well into adulthood, I’m grateful that experience has taught me otherwise. Human beings are much more complicated and fluid in their nature than I was conditioned to believe when I was growing up, and the Gospel’s summons to love has taught me to favor grace over legalism. As a teacher (and thus, reluctantly, a counselor), I find myself frequently hearing testimonies from students about the harm they’ve suffered from the prejudice and presumption in their communities, churches, and families. They reject the rigid categories into which so many, for their own comfort and convenience, seem eager to force them. We need stories that lead all of us into a more nuanced, empathetic, and loving understanding.

Having said that, we don’t need sermonizing or propaganda about anything from our art — especially from movies made by Pixar, a studio that has wisely avoided any proselytizing so far. As the novelist Katherine Paterson (Bridge to Terabithia) once said in a Books and Culture interview,

“Propaganda occurs when a writer is directly trying to persuade, and in that sense, propaganda is not bad. … But persuasion is not story, and when you try to make a story out of persuasion then you’ve done something wrong to the story. You’ve violated the essence of what a story is.”

So, again, I’m relieved that Forky turned out to be so much more than the Toy Story 4 trailers suggested.

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