Fred Rogers, the host of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," liked to pose a question to children and adults alike: "What is essential about you?" In Pixar movies, though, that question often becomes a technicolor riddle that characters pose to one another. First, there were the early "Toy Story" movies, in which astronaut action figure Buzz Lightyear has an identity crisis after being told he's just an earthbound toy. In a new description for next year's "Soul," Pixar asks fans directly: "What is it that makes you ... YOU?"
And then there's Forky, a new star of "Toy Story 4," which opened Friday.
Forky, like Buzz before him, is struggling with the idea of being just a toy -- not because he thinks he's a lofty action hero, but because he sees himself as trash ... literally. What is essential about Forky is that he is a small piece of disposable cutlery.
Or so he believes. Bonnie, the human child at the center of "Toy Story 4," envisions him as something else. At kindergarten orientation day, she constructs Forky out of a spork and some pipe cleaners, Popsicle sticks and a pair of mismatched googly eyes. Sheriff Woody, the "Toy Story" mainstay voiced by Tom Hanks, tries to convince Forky that Bonnie's love has changed his identity and given him a purpose beyond that of an eating utensil.
The frenetic Forky is voiced by Tony Hale, the "Veep" and "Arrested Development" alumnus who is accustomed to playing characters who are seen as disposable by others. But in "Toy Story 4," Hale's character embraces the idea of being tomorrow's garbage.
"It's not even in a depressed way," Hale says in an interview. "That's all he knows or has been told."
At least until Woody tells Forky that he has value as a child's plaything -- as an object of affection and a source of joy. "Who doesn't need to hear that?" the 48-year-old actor says by phone from Florida. "What a beautiful thing to come out of this."
But Forky's reaction to Woody, Hale says, is basically to say: "Don't call me a toy! I'm made to help people eat chili! I'm made to go back to the trash."
Woody, who himself must adapt to his new role as a toy who is not his new child's favorite, realizes he must help Forky to serve Bonnie. But how do you tell an anthropomorphic spork that his form is not his function? Forky is kind of like a plastic Pinocchio, except he's the one who needs to be convinced that he's a real toy.
"He's not aware of what that means," Hale says.
Identity is in the eye of the beholder, not the manufacturer, and as it happens Forky's creators did not initially intend for him to have such philosophical depth.
"I wish we could say we sat down and wrote a beautiful character with an existential crisis, but he started off as a joke," director Josh Cooley says.
"We were talking about what our kids would play with, like a rock," Cooley says in an interview, "but what if that rock could come to life?"
The filmmakers ultimately decided it would be interesting to introduce a character who has the mind of someone who has never seen a "Toy Story" movie. "He doesn't understand the rules of this world," the director says of Forky, "and that became so much fun to play with."
Hale was their first choice as a voice actor.
Hale mulled the character's traits. "Forky's nervous? Check," the actor says. "He asks a lot of questions, to a fault. Bingo, that's me."
For the past seven years, Hale's primary on-screen identity has been that of Gary Walsh, the personal attendant/whipping boy of former president Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), on the just-concluded HBO series "Veep." He said his pivot from "Veep" to "Peep" (the studio's code name for "Toy Story 4" during production -- it's a reference to Little Bo Peep) was marked by a distinct difference.
"Gary wasn't allowed to speak," Hale says, whereas Forky "is just a voice with a kind of neuroses." As Forky, Hale was constantly speaking up, asking questions. "He was the opposite of Gary," Hale says.
The arrival of Forky, and Woody's relegation to tertiary status in Bonnie's eyes, is just enough to make you wonder whether this might be Woody's last rodeo. Could Forky find himself not in the garbage but rather at the center of the "Toy Story" world? That change in identity -- change in purpose -- probably cannot happen if viewers do not adopt him as their toy.
And so, as Forky makes his debut, perhaps this is the essential question: Will the rest of us love him as much as Bonnie does?