SPOILER WARNING SPOILER WARNING: The spoiler warning below contains spoilers about this article.
SPOILER WARNING: This article contains spoilers about the Toy Story franchise.
A new Toy Story movie is in theaters this weekend, and as audiences all over the world emerge from another thrilling Pixar adventure with Buzz, Woody, and a newly-independent Bo Peep, one question is on everyone’s lips: “What does the introduction of ‘Forky,’ a homemade toy fashioned from pipe cleaners, googly eyes, and a spork, imply about the nature of consciousness in the sentient toys of the Toy Story universe?” Fortunately, the films offer enough evidence to reach a definitive conclusion. Unfortunately, that conclusion is too awful to contemplate. So let’s contemplate it!
First, meet Forky himself. Here’s how he’s introduced to the other toys of Toy Story 4, dragging himself out of a child’s backpack into the light in a grotesque parody of birth. He doesn’t seem too happy about it:
He’s a cute little guy, and Tony Hale’s performance is charming, but Forky’s existence in the Pixar universe throws its entire sentient-toys premise into disarray. Toy Story’s toys have always been mass-produced products, real, redesigned, or imagined; Forky, on the other hand, is hand-crafted. Casual fans might assume that Pixar has merely expanded the Toy Story franchise’s theory of ensoulment: A toy’s life begins at the moment it becomes a toy, and Forky shows that process can happen in a factory mold or a kindergarten class. But the Toy Story universe has always been more complicated than that. Consider Sid Philips, the toys’ neighbor in the first Toy Story movie. We first see this sadistic junior Mengele attempting to transplant the head of a pterodactyl toy onto a doll’s body. The operation appears fatal to both patients:
So far, so compatible with a simple theory of toy consciousness. But shortly afterward, Woody discovers that some of Sid’s experiments are successful:
Sid’s man-made monstrosities may not be talkative, but they’re definitely sentient, and they’re definitely made from the scraps of other toys, which raises the question of whose sentience, exactly, they’ve got. Toys don’t have brains, and these toys especially don’t have brains—you can see the hair plugs on the inside of the spider baby’s empty head through its eye socket—but they do have memories, even if it’s unclear where those memories are stored. So did that spider baby awaken with no recollection of its past lives when Sid attached a very dead doll’s head to a very dead Erector set, or does it remember its life as a doll (or its life as an Erector set), however vaguely? When the fishing pole with Barbie legs wakes from uneasy dreams, are they about trout or high heels? We don’t know, because whatever has happened to Sid’s toys has made it impossible for them to tell us, but Woody ultimately uses these surgical horrors as mute, slow-moving muscle, which suggests a Gregor “The Mountain” Clegane type deal: toys artificially Frankensteined into a shambling parody of life, easily manipulated, yearning only for death or vengeance.
That gels pretty well with the rest of the Toy Story universe: We know toys can be injured or killed, and it stands to reason that anything coming off Sid’s operating table would be grievously wounded. And the mutant toys’ anger at Sid suggests a continuity: They have some idea, however vague, of what has been taken from them. It seems safe to assume, then, that whatever the subjective experience of being a mutant toy is, it is diminished and it is unpleasant. It’s also not incompatible with the idea that a toy gains consciousness at the point of manufacture, whether that means only one toy’s mind survives Sid’s grafting operations or there’s a Being John Malkovich situation going on inside the spider baby’s head. And that’s where Toy Story left things, theory-of-ensoulment-wise, until Toy Story 3 suggested that our understanding of the Toy Story universe was incomplete all along. As with most metaphysical breakthroughs, Mr. Potato Head was the key to unlocking the mystery.
The first two movies would have us believe that “Mr. Potato Head,” the discrete set of plastic objects sold in a box labeled “Mr. Potato Head” is a single toy with a single mind, presumably housed inside the plastic potato. But that simply cannot be reconciled with his Mr.-Potato-Head-of-Theseus escape from a day care sandbox in Toy Story 3:
Wherever Mr. Potato Head’s consciousness resides, it is clearly not in the potato, or the tortilla, or the cucumber. But if this is “Mr. Potato Head”:
… then we are talking about some sort of colony or composite organism like a lichen, not a discrete entity. That’s not a hard leap to make, since the original “Mr. Potato Head Funny-Face Kits” from 1952 didn’t come with a potato, plastic or otherwise. But then we have to deal with the question of what, exactly, Mr. Potato Head is doing when he plunges his limbs and mustache and googly eyes into a tortilla and begins walking it around like a puppet. The only logical conclusion is that “Mr. Potato Head” is analogous to a colony of behavior-altering parasites, infecting a series of disposable intermediate hosts in a quest to return to their definitive host, the plastic potato it was shipped with. As seen in the clip, this can have catastrophic results for the intermediate hosts: Like a lancet liver fluke forcing an ant to climb a blade of grass in hopes of getting host and parasite alike devoured by a grazing animal, the Mr. Potato Head infection causes the tortilla to pick a fight with a pigeon, a predator well-known for tearing tortillas apart. Bad news for the tortilla, but the carnage allows Mr. Potato Head to move on and infect a cucumber, which he then uses to re-infect the plastic potato and locate a Mrs. Potato Head to mate with: Life cycle complete.
But what differentiates Toy Story’s Mr. Potato Head from a run-of-the-mill zombie ant parasite is that he seems to take on some of the characteristics of his host. He clearly experiences pain when the pigeon attacks the tortilla—although it’s cold comfort to the tortilla, which does not survive the encounter—and infecting a cucumber makes him feel healthier. (Interestingly enough, he does not appear to be in pain when the tortilla rips into thirds, which suggests either that Mr. Potato Head has a shock-like adaptation that limits the amount of pain the host can pass along or, more likely, that the tortilla was already dead by that point.) In other words, the traffic between Mr. Potato Head’s nervous system and the nervous system of his host goes both ways, allowing a colony of Potato Heads to convincingly imitate a single fully-sentient toy no matter what host they have infected.
Which brings us back to Forky. Here’s what we know about Forky:
1. He “came to life” sometime after a kid attached pipe cleaner arms, googly eyes, and Play-Doh to an ordinary plastic spork.
2. But he was already alive in some sense, because the spork seems to have a dim memory of its past existence, in that it knows it had a purpose, that purpose has been fulfilled, and it is ready for the trash. If Forky remembers being a googly eye or a pipe cleaner or a popsicle stick, he doesn’t talk about it.
3. In the early stage of Forky’s life as a toy, he exhibits extreme confusion and compulsive behavior, as though experiencing some sort of neurological trauma.
4. In his early scenes, Forky’s alarming new organs and appendages seem temporary at best: his pipe cleaner isn’t securely tied and he’s got a loose googly eye. But over the course of the movie, they latch on more firmly, until removing them would clearly be fatal to spork and pipe cleaner alike.
5. Simultaneously, Forky gradually stops behaving the way a sentient plastic spork would, and adopts a new set of toy-like behaviors, befriending the other toys. Eventually, he even seems to enjoy this new life—or at least the Play-Doh attached to his face forms the shape of a smile.
6. At the end, we see a similarly confused and miserable plastic knife, festooned with the same distinctive Play-Doh, googly eyes and red pipe cleaners. It is strongly implied that Forky will now mate.
Toy Story 4 doesn’t spend as much time on Forky’s life cycle as Toy Story 3 did on Mr. Potato Head’s, but it’s not hard to fill in the gaps: the entity presented as “Forky” in Toy Story 4 is, in fact, two things: a composite, parasitic organism consisting of googly eyes, pipe cleaners, and Play-Doh, which we’ll call “Mr. Forky”; and “Mr. Spork,” a sentient object with its own goals, hopes, and dreams, all spork-related, all thwarted. In the early stages of the Mr. Forky infection, Mr. Spork still has limited control of his new limbs and some understanding of what’s happening to him—witness his repeated suicide attempts—but as Mr. Forky’s glue dries, Mr. Spork sinks into the sunken place, a helpless, miserable passenger in his own spork as “Forky” goes on an adventure with other toys, only some of whom appear to be parasites. The only hope “Mr. Spork” has is that Forky and Knifey hit it off: When the fruiting bodies emerge from Forky’s tines and what’s left of “Mr. Spork” is finally allowed to die, it will undoubtedly be a mercy. Not that that’ll be much consolation to Buzz Lightyear and the rest of the gang when they breathe in the spores and the googly eyes start sprouting.