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[This story contains spoilers for Toy Story 4.]
While every movie needs an antagonist, not every film is able to claim having a truly great one. The Toy Story franchise, which now spans nearly a full quarter-century, is at its strongest when the core ensemble of toys who originated in the bedroom of a little boy named Andy serve as both protagonist and antagonist. They’ve had to fend off the clutches of a destructive neighbor and two cruelly selfish toys, but they’re both heroes and villains of their own stories. In the latest entry, Toy Story 4, things aren’t any different. Though there is an ostensible outsider serving as the villain, the film is at its best when giving our heroes enough shading and dimension to serve as their own obstacles.
After all of the toys who made it through the fiery end of Toy Story 3 have become used to life with a new owner, the little girl Bonnie, they have to prepare themselves for a whole new phase. Sheriff Woody (Tom Hanks) has the biggest mental shift to make; no matter how much a teenaged Andy placed emphasis on the pull-string doll when handing him off, Bonnie doesn’t want to play with Woody. Woody, in turn, decides to help Bonnie out when it seems like she’s too emotionally distraught to start kindergarten. He ends up giving her the ingredients to build a new toy out of some discarded arts and crafts — a walking, talking spork she dubs Forky (Tony Hale). Woody tries to ease Forky into the life of a toy, as Bonnie takes her toys with her on a family road trip.
It’s on this road trip that Sheriff Woody is presented with a more direct representation of his existential crisis. What, he has to wonder, is the purpose of his being a toy if he has an owner who doesn’t really care that he exists? (When, in the early going, we see Bonnie pick him up, it’s only to transfer his sheriff’s badge to Jessie.) This question becomes more potent when Woody encounters his old friend and true love Bo Peep (Annie Potts, who was absent from Toy Story 3). Woody chose to let her go years earlier, and now that he’s run into her again, he’s somewhat taken aback at how confident Bo Peep is about her status as a toy that goes where it wants, when it wants.
Woody can only spend so much time with Bo Peep, though, because he’s got to fend off a particularly odd antagonist, the old-fashioned doll Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) and the quartet of exceptionally creepy ventriloquist dummies who follow her around, acting as her very own entourage. At first blush, Gabby Gabby feels like a kind of remix of the other toy-centric villains in the series. Like Stinky Pete from Toy Story 2, Gabby Gabby has never known the love of a kid, this time due to a permanently damaged voice box; and like Lots-O Huggin’ Bear from Toy Story 3, she tries to manipulate Woody due to his being in an antique store to begin with.
But Toy Story 4, to its immense credit, does one thing very differently than its predecessors. It redeems its villain, to the point where it’s eventually unfair to dub Gabby Gabby a true villain at all. The doll simply wants a working voice box, so it can impress the granddaughter of the woman who runs the antique store, presuming that as soon as her voice sounds correct, the little girl will want to play with her. At a low moment, Woody sacrifices his voice box only for him and Gabby Gabby to find, shockingly, that the gambit doesn’t work: the granddaughter sees the now-working doll, looks at it briefly, then tosses it away. But Woody, as always, refuses to leave a toy behind — it’s what he did in the climax of Toy Story 3, helping Lotso out before the nefarious bear betrayed our hero. In Toy Story 4, he offers to help Gabby Gabby and unite her with Bonnie.
Instead, in the more muted climax, Gabby Gabby, with the other toys who are trying to traverse a local carnival, sees a little lost girl hiding in the shadows, terrified and crying. Following her own instinct, she presents herself to the girl, who grabs and hugs the doll instantly, before having a member of the carnival’s security help her find her parents. It’s one of a number of emotionally powerful moments in the finale, in part because it’s the rare case of a Pixar villain not being remotely as bad as they seem. (Although Gabby Gabby’s dummy friends really are freaky.)
Throughout the rest of the film, the most consistent, if inadvertent, antagonist is Woody himself. (This is arguably true in each Toy Story film. He tries to sabotage Buzz in the first film, pushes his friends away after being tempted by fame in the second film and tries to guilt the other toys into leaving the daycare in the third film.) He keeps presuming that he knows best — diving after the existentially baffled Forky to force him to be Bonnie’s toy; trying to pull off a daring rescue despite Bo Peep’s warnings; and criticizing others for not agreeing with him. But Woody is also the innate hero of the series, constantly screwing up so he can gain a greater understanding of himself and his friends. What’s wonderful about Toy Story 4 is that, this time around, his faith in others (even those who might have meant to do him harm) is paid off in spades.
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