Toy Story 4 (2019)
On The Road Of Life, There Are Old Friends, New Friends, And Stories That Change You.
Almost a decade after Toy Story 3 (2010) put a pretty definitive cap on Pixar’s saga of talking toys and the children they love, here comes Toy Story 4 to remind us that there’s life in the concept yet, even if it’s not as vibrant and impressive as it used to be. Perhaps new cast addition Forky (Tony Hale) is a metaphor for the whole thing.
Forky, a freakish figure cobbled together out of a plastic spork, pipe-cleaner, and a couple of googly eyes, is what young Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw) brings home from her first day of pre-school. He thinks he’s trash and keeps trying to hurl himself into the nearest bin (the cosmology underpinning the Toy Story films is still pretty horrifying), but to Bonnie, he’s her new best friend.
This is something of a blow to goodhearted cowboy doll Woody (Tom Hanks), who is still grappling with the fact that he’s a bit further down the totem pole being owned by Bonnie than he was when he was Andy’s number one toy. Things come to a head when, while on a family road trip, Woody encounters Bo Peep (Annie Potts), a porcelain nightlight that used to belong to Andy’s sister Molly but was given away years ago. Bo now lives out in the world by herself, doing her own thing as a permanently lost toy, with no kid to tie her down — is this a life that Woody could embrace?
So, yeah, that’s pretty complicated on a thematic level and adds new possibilities to the Toy Story cosmology (look, you may mock, but there are rules and systems at work here — if there weren’t, this would be Shrek). The problem is that Toy Story 3 closed things off perfectly, allowing for a self-perpetuating ongoing cycle of adventures for Woody and Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen, who picks up a cheque for doing very little this time out) while acknowledging that we don’t actually need to see them — the story, in every really meaningful way, has been told.
So, Toy Story 4 is a kind of Further Adventures of … and it very much feels like it. I’m reminded of how 1999’s Toy Story 2 started life as a direct-to-video sequel and was bumped up to a theatrical release; Toy Story 4 feels, at least a little bit, like it should have traveled in the opposite direction. It’s an unnecessary elaboration, a side adventure that doesn’t feel like a holistic part of the main journey. The reasons for its existence feel, frankly, financial.
Which doesn’t, it should be noted, make it a bad movie. You’re going to have a good time with it if you’re predisposed to enjoy these flicks, and we are a couple of generations deep, audience-wise, into Toy Story being pretty integral to a lot of childhoods. It’s fun to spend time with Woody and … well, mainly Woody, come to think of it — the supporting cast barely gets a look-in this time around, which adds to the episodic feel, so voices like Wallace Shawn (Rex), Timothy Dalton (Mr. Pricklepants), John Ratzenberger (Hamm), Joan Cusack (Jessie), Kristen Schaal (Trixie), Don Rickles (Mr. Potato Head), and Estelle Harris (Mrs. Potato Head) bounce lightly off our timpani without leaving much of a mark.
Nevertheless, there are plenty of new friends with familiar vocals to meet. The film gets more mileage out of Canadian stunt cyclist toy Duke Caboom (man of the minute Keanu Reeves) than you might ever think possible. Comedy duo Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key, Keanu (2016), crop up to do their thing as a plush pair of tearaways named Bunny and Ducky, and those guys are never not a blast.
We also get a new villain, the rather delightfully creepy Gabby Gabby, voiced by Christina Hendricks, Mad Men (2007-15), a pull-string doll with a broken voice box relegated to life in an antique store, who is accompanied by a small army of silent, synchronized ventriloquist’s dolls. Gabby’s goal is to steal Woody’s own voice box and then find herself a kid to adopt her, which has echoes of Disney’s earlier The Little Mermaid (1989).
As directed by storyboard artist and Inside Out (2015) co-screenwriter Josh Cooley, here making his feature-directing debut, it’s all well-polished, well-performed stuff (and beautiful to look at — the odds of Pixar falling back from the bleeding edge of computer animation any time soon are slim to none). The pace never flags, the jokes come thick and fast, and there are Easter eggs a-plenty if that’s your thing — classic comedy fans will appreciate voice cameos from Mel Brooks, Carol Burnett, Betty White, and Carl Reiner, even if the reference might fly over the heads of not only the target audience, but their Pixar-raised parents, too (although we must allow for the weird pop-cultural fixation on Betty White).
Still, why? It’s unarguable now that we’re past Pixar’s golden age, and every trip back to the well of previous titles, especially to their original flagship film, has a whiff of desperation to it. Toy Story 4 isn’t the blown shot that Monsters University (2013) and the Cars (2006-17) franchise as a whole so obviously are — the conceit and the cast make that all but impossible — but it’s undeniably inessential, and certainly doesn’t come near the high-water mark left by its predecessors. The presence of big ol’ dangling sequel hook doesn’t bode well for the future of the series, either.
We are, after all, deep into the Age of the Franchise now, and the idea that screen stories will be expanded and lengthened well beyond their natural or even functional life in service to the terrible gravity of brand name recognition is something we need to get used to, like a newly-minted allergy or the loss of an extremity — it’s regrettable, but regret is not going to change the situation.
Toy Story 4 is an enjoyable enough children’s film that doesn’t do anything obviously or unarguably objectionable — except be a symptom of far-reaching, systematic, creative malaise. It certainly drags the series median score down a notch or two even if it’s not a complete fumble, and judging by what’s going on here, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see a Disney+ series in the not too distant future. After all, it’s the name that counts, right?
3.5 / 5 – Great
Reviewed by Travis Johnson