WARNING: Major spoilers for Toy Story 4 ahead.
Toy Story 4's ending is a perfect conclusion to the entire Toy Story saga, resolving both the story of Woody and bigger ideas raised across the movies. The new entry (directed by Josh Cooley) may feature Canadian stuntmen voiced by Keanu Reeves and motorized skunk action setpieces, but this is a much more internalized and emotive look at the toys themselves - even by Pixar standards.
Picking up not long after Toy Story 3, Toy Story 4 sees Woody (Tom Hanks) now demoted to the closest during playtime and, after the typical string of mishaps, become custodian to a spork-turned-toy, Forky (Tony Hale), who despite being Bonnie's new favorite toy believes himself to be trash. As Woody convinces Forky of his true purpose, his own perspective is shaken by remeeting lost love Bo Peep (Annie Potts). By way of an antique store overseen by the menacing-yet-misunderstood Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) and various fairground rides, the mission is to get Forky and Woody back to Bonnie.
Toy Story 4 ends with Woody leaving his child behind to live a life with Bo Peep in a traveling carnival. But, more than just providing a resolute farewell to the rootinest-tootinest cowboy around, this sees Pixar make some big statements about the nature of life, true purpose, and our own relationship with death. Here's what Toy Story 4's ending really means.
Why Woody Leaves Bonnie To Live With Bo Peep
For all the eclectic toys met along the way, Woody has always been the main character of Toy Story, and in Toy Story 4 his internal conflict is even more at the forefront. Rejected by Bonnie, who gives his Sherrif badge to Jessie (Joan Cusack) and has more affection for a spork wrapped in pipe-cleaner, the once favorite toy and leader of the bedroom is adrift. He finds reluctant purpose in keeping Forky alive, a mission that comes to define his every waking moment, with him taking on increasingly dangerous and zany challenges in a bid to save his friend fulfill his singular purpose: keep a child happy.
Across the movie, this drive becomes self-destructive and about more than just Bonnie. Woody gives up his voice box to ensure once-villain Gabby Gabby gets an owner after decades collecting dust, and risks his safety to help Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves) deliver a stunt worthy of his advertisement. When meeting the rambunctious Ducky and Bunny (Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, respectively), he doesn't pause in promising them a child. In Toy Story 4, Woody goes beyond being a child's plaything into something more abstract and selfless. He wants to help everyone in a bid to prove he has worth.
But the despondency with his ultimate lot is never far away, and the return of Bo Peep - with whom he considered, however briefly, running away with before turning back to Andy - gives a taste of being a "lost toy", free from that burden. Still, he powers through, driven to return Forky - and himself - to Bonnie, not really understanding the transformation he's undergoing. He only admits what he wants for himself when Buzz (Tim Allen), who's been learning to trust his inner-voice, gives him the freedom to remain with Bo Peep: Bonnie doesn't need him and he doesn't need her.
With this, Woody isn't losing his purpose or leaving the idea of being a toy behind. Instead, he's understanding his role in the grander scheme of things and ensuring that others are helped and made happy. As revealed in Toy Story 4's credits sequence, he, Bo, Duke, Ducky and Bunny help the various carnival prizes find owners, fitting into the world around them while improving it ever so slightly.
Toy Story 4's Ending Finally Addresses How Toys Come To Life (Sort Of)
Away from the carnival, life continues for Bonnie's toys. Jessie, handed down Woody's Sheriff badge, becomes Bonnie's favorite toy, and there's a general cohesive community teased in the credits. Concern over their long-term future remains - what will happen when Bonnie outgrows them just as Andy (and, in Jessie's case, Emily) before them? - but, in contrast to Woody's resolute ending, there's a degree of acceptance similar to the end of Toy Story 2. It's a fitting show of how life will always carry on.
Perhaps the most important side of this, though, is Forky. His unexpected creation and breakdown at being a piece of trash was the catalyst for Woody's own existential crisis, but the core question that his being alive raises remains: what makes a toy, a toy? It's hinted that the onus is on the child's love - Bonnie writing her name on his sticks is cited by Woody - but there are enough random cases across the Toy Story movies (such as Utility Belt Buzz in Toy Story 2) that make the idea more abstract.
This is lampshaded by the introduction of another homemade toy, a female, knife-based version of Forky. After he calms her down, she questions what they "are", to which Forky responds bluntly, "I don't know." It's a rather tongue-in-cheek addressing of the biggest audience critique of Toy Story since 1995 from Pixar, highlighting that the internal logic isn't the point at all. Indeed, just as how life on Earth was actually created is a moot point when it comes to discussing the elusive "meaning of life", so it goes with the living playthings of Toy Story...
What Toy Story 4's Ending Really Means
If the first Toy Story was asking "What if toys were alive?", Toy Story 2 "What happens to toys when we grow up?" and Toy Story 3 the same but in a more concrete manner, then Toy Story 4 is stepping away to get to the core. It's asking, plainly, "What is a toy anyway?"
That's in the discussion from the opening sequence where Woody is torn between his own interests and duty to Andy, and pushed to the fore by Forky's creation via affection. Up until this movie, it was simple. Per Buzz recounting what he learned from Woody in Toy Story 2, "life's only worth living if you're bein' loved by a kid." But what does that say about life when a child grows up, or when you're left in the closest in favor of others? How can idealism really hold up to the real world? What Toy Story 4 finds is a less direct form of love. It's not just about a singular, personal relationship but the grand web of life one can find themselves in.
And, of course, while Toy Story is ostensibly asking questions about the nature of toys in fictional confines, it's really going much deeper than that. The entire series is dealing with heady questions of human existence - of being replaced, of being broken, of loss - and since Toy Story 2 and Jessie's heartbreaking "When She Loved Me", it's been more directly addressing the constant fear and awareness of the inevitable end (how morbid you want to take that is up to you)
Now, Toy Story 4 can be read as a rather simple exploration on doing the right thing with your life and how meaning can be found in unexpected or unconventional places. But even though Woody's decision isn't one of "death" or obsolescence, it is one made with the knowledge of passing the torch, of a conscious and willing end. It's a true acceptance of the passage of time, and of finding the individual's part within that.
Toy Story 4 Ends The Entire Toy Story Franchise
The announcement of Toy Story 4 back in in 2014 was almost immediately met with skepticism from long-standing fans who grew up with the original movies, not least because of the perceived view that Toy Storys 1-3 were approaching being a "perfect trilogy". While it's true that the three movies do tell the complete story of Andy from a child through to leaving for college, there were some glaring thematic threads left hanging by its ending, namely the lack of finality in passing the toys across to Bonnie and how that merely maintains a cycle of avoidance. A fourth movie was almost required to round everything off.
And that's a responsibility Toy Story 4 takes seriously, essentially breaking the wheel. Woody transcends from the realm of being a child's plaything and moves towards another form of existence; in losing Andy and having done his job right, he's able to effectively retire. The fourth movie takes the ideas raised in Toy Story 2 - the film overtly poses the question of whether immortality is worth a lack of love - and runs them to their natural conclusion.
What Can A Toy Story 5 Be About Now?
If there's one question remaining after Toy Story 4 - assuming you accept the sly recognition that sentient inanimate objects don't make sense - is where the series can go from here?
On a basic level, more Toy Story feels inevitable. It was one year after Toy Story 3's seemingly-resolute finale for a short film - "Hawaiian Vacation" with Cars 2 - to release, followed by several more pre-movie spots and TV specials. In fact, a spinoff TV series is coming to Disney+ titled "Forky Asks A Question" following the character discovering the world around him, will release in the near future. But when it comes to the movies, things need to be bigger than fun diversions; can there be another story?
That's the delirious finality of Toy Story 4's ending. Although the film leaves multiple avenues for fresh narratives - the life of a lost toy is truly without bounds, while the more conventional stories can exist via those remaining with Bonnie - in terms of the core themes and ideas that have powered Toy Story for the past 24 years, there's real finality. The only thing left is having a direct and literal exploration of death, which is something that, for all Toy Story's subtext, would likely be a step too far, robbing so much of what's made the movies - especially Toy Story 2 & 4 - so great.
2019 is a year of endings. Already we've had How To Train Your Dragon, the MCU's Infinity Saga and Game of Thrones come to a close, and December adds Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker to the pile. And yet out of all the franchise's that are concluding (although it's worth noting that the majority will continue in some form), Toy Story 4 is the one (so far) that feels the most utterly complete.