The new Toy Story 4 teaser trailer, which landed with a high-pitched plasticine thunk this week, reunites Woody, Buzz Lightyear, Slinky Dog, the Potato Heads, and the rest of the gang. The 80-second clip shows them dancing in such blissful harmony, fans can be excused for weeping. But the teaser also introduces a new character, an anthropomorphic spork with pipe-cleaner arms and googly eyes. This new character’s name? Forky. He’s something entirely new and different, a toy brought to life by the creativity of a child rather than by a factory worker in Shenzhen. His presence is a distinctly un-cynical acknowledgment by Disney, which has made a mint on Toy Story merchandise, that kids can play with anything and do.
Over the course of three classic movies, Toy Story has been largely populated with mass-produced children’s playthings. And each of the characters has, in turn, been mass produced. That profitable cycle has left very little room for acknowledgment of just how wild a child’s imagination can get. With Forky, it feels like Toy Story is finally treating the tremendous force of creation that is a child’s mind with the respect it deserves.
Also, he’s fun to look at.
Not to get too technical or weird about it, but Forky’s presence reflects current developmental research finding that more basic and open-ended toys are often better for kids because they allow kids to construct narratives themselves. DIY toys are, naturally, ideal in this regard. This is why blocks remain the favorite toy of many pediatricians and why Lego is never going out of business. Woody is great, but an empty cardboard box probably offered Andy more meaningful developmental opportunities.
Forky’s presence should also cause fans to rethink the first film’s misunderstood villain, Sid. Was he a bit of a bully? Sure. A thief? Kinda. But he was also deeply creative. Sid was portrayed as a monster maker, and his toy mashups were seen as tragic and disturbing. But the fact is, Sid was showing intellectual promise Andy wasn’t. He’s probably making big money working on user experience for Uber right now.
How is Forky different than Sid’s creations? His raw materials are slightly more conventional, but that’s about it. Bonnie, the toys’ new owner, has an imagination to rival Sids, but a sunnier outlook. She’s the light to his dark and her anti-consumerist creative rebellion is on point. Bonnie is the resistance.
Disney’s move away from purely manufactured toys is masterfully timed. There is a latent desire among many parents — including this one — for simplification and free play. Forky is basically the mascot for that desire. The funny thing is that, at the same time, he’ll become a marketable character. There will be Forkys (Forkies?) sold in toy stores. He will come off an assembly line. Still, when kids see him they will be inspired. And that’s a really great narrative, a happy toy story if you will.