After Toy Story 3 nearly incinerated its entire cast in 2010, I decided to stop going into Toy Story movies with expectations. I knew vaguely that I was probably going to cry at Toy Story 4's ending, that I was terrified about the well-being of the sentient spork in the trailer, and that the film would have at least one Disney+ spinoff.
What I did not realize was that I was sitting down for a horror movie.
Before I go on, it bears clarifying: You can absolutely take your kids to see this movie. In fact, you absolutely should. Toy Story 4's horror is cleverly designed to go right over youngsters' heads — and into their parents' nightmares.
Out Friday, Toy Story 4 is the exceptional and (possible) final chapter in the adventures of Woody (Tom Hanks) and Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), which had initially begun way back when I was a kid, in 1995. Following up Toy Story 3 — which was nominated for Best Picture, and won Best Animated Feature, in 2011 — Toy Story 4 finds Woody playing second fiddle to Bonnie's new favorite toy, a fork with a face drawn on it. When "Forky" goes missing during Bonnie's family vacation, Woody has to reckon with the dusty and desperate denizens of an antique store in order to get his kid's favorite toy back.
It might sound like a sweet, charming adventure story, but I assure you it's much creepier than that. For one thing, the primary antagonist is an antique doll named Gabby Gabby, whose henchmen are ventriloquist dummies on a mission to rip Woody's voice box out. For children who aren't acquainted with Dead of Night, Devil Doll, Saw, or Chucky and Annabelle, the "Vincent" dummies might just seem to be loose-limbed, stumbling dolls who are being mean to Woody. But Toy Story 4 intentionally flirts with the horror roots of ventriloquism, even introducing the initial "Vincent" with an ominous thrumming horror-cue that wouldn't be out of place in Child's Play. During my screening, which included an audience of children, parents, and critics, one mom even gasped "oh god!" at this moment — a reaction I wholeheartedly shared:
This is deemed "appropriate" for children four and up, but what they don't warn you is it's nightmare fodder for the 16-and-older crowd.
The Vincents aren't the only scary toys in the movie, though. There is also an entire joke around a decapitated toy, the casualty of a cat named Dragon (don't worry kids, we see his other half alive and well later in the movie ... which, on second thought, is maybe even more horrifying). The creators even had to cut other horror elements, including a "creepy" Christmas toy in the original script. "We had that in the movie at one point," director Josh Cooley told ComicBook.com. "[Y]ou hear, 'Tis the season for desperation' and behind them was one of those [dancing antique] Santas, and he was like, lurking in the shadows." Nope, hard pass!
Toy Story 4 even features jump scares, a classic, startling trademark of horror films. And yes, that's plural scares! "There are jump scares here worthy of [Evil Dead director] Sam Raimi, and a cunning nod to The Shining," observes GamesRadar. (Toy Story does a surprising amount of elbow-rubbing with The Shining, in fact; Toy Story 3's director Lee Unkrich curates a Tumblr dedicated to the movie). Still, while the jump scares certainly made my heart leap out of my chest, I blame that on my naiveté of expecting a kid's movie to be "tame." Even the bloodthirsty Gabby Gabby and her army of ventriloquist dummies aren't so out of place in the Toy Story Extended Universe; the original film, featuring the sadistic neighbor Sid and his monstrous inventions, was one of many movies that terrified me as a child.
What really pushes Toy Story 4 over the line into horror for adults, though, is the existential dread imbued by the spork Forky. Constructed from trash and made sentient by Bonnie's attention and love, Forky's central conflict is that he doesn't understand why he exists. He yearns to return to the trash from whence he came, a sort of ugly duckling who really doesn't want to be a swan. After a montage of Forky being stopped mid-death-drive by Woody, set to the lyrics "I can't let you throw yourself away," Forky finally makes his great escape by hurdling himself out the R.V.'s window, screaming "freeeedom." Because of this, Forky was widely agreed to be "a mood."
Consistently bold and shocking gambles such as these are what have made the Toy Story franchise a multigenerational hit. "The best part of Toy Story 4 is the existential terror," ruled Slate, and it's true; now that I'm no longer the kid in the audience, I can enjoy all the winks in my direction.
I didn't expect Toy Story 4 to give me evil doll nightmares and philosophical dread over my own baffling existence. Still, how glad I am that it did.