Although it certainly seemed like a franchise that reached a natural, heartwarming conclusion a few years ago, Toy Story 4 genially and entertainingly proves that its titular playthings still have some mileage left in them. Sure, it’s the weakest of the installments in the series that turned Pixar into a household name, but Toy Story 4 is so entertaining, thoughtful, and soulful – three hallmarks that have made the franchise withstand the test of time for almost a quarter century now – that one can forgive its slightness on the whole. If anything, that slightness benefits the material rather well. Now that all of these characters are well loved and established, they can relax and offer up something unforced and fun by showing off some new tricks and reviving old stand-bys without dwelling on nostalgia. It sounds funny to say that a film about the things we leave behind as adults doesn’t play on nostalgic feelings of being young, but that’s precisely what makes Toy Story 4 so resonant.
Andy’s old group of toys have nicely settled in with their new owner, Bonnie, a tyke who’s about to start kindergarten. Everyone is getting a chance to join in on playtime once again and fulfill their purpose as toys, except for Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks), who finds himself relegated to the closet; his place as sheriff naturally usurped by his female counterpart, Jessie (Joan Cusack). Directionless and searching for some sort of newfound purpose, Woody tries everything to get Bonnie to notice him, even tagging along in her backpack when she goes off to kindergarten orientation. While there, Bonnie becomes sad, lonely, and overwhelmed, and in a bid to cheer her up, Woody aids in the creation of an arts and crafts project made out of some googly-eyes, pipe cleaners, and a spork. The creation, dubbed Forky (Tony Hale), becomes Bonnie’s new best friend, but the newly birthed and extremely neurotic plaything can’t shake the feeling that he’s trash and should be in the garbage. Seeing how much Forky means to Bonnie, Woody does everything in his power to convince Forky that he has worth.
That’s just one of the storylines and side quests within Toy Story 4, but that’s the narrative backbone. Once Bonnie and her family head out for an end-of-summer road trip, Toy Story 4 finds Woody and (mostly) reformed delusional toy Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) going off and doing different things. Woody and Forky are forced to contend with an unhinged and creepy talking girl doll from an antique shop (Christina Hendricks, nicely settling into the film’s predominantly villainous role) and her army of mute ventriloquist dummies, while Buzz tries to find his “conscience” in a bid to rescue them. Woody has the A-story, but it’s Buzz who gets to play around with the franchise’s other high profile additions: Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele as ornery duck and bunny plushies attached at the wrist and Keanu Reeves as Duke Caboom, who’s heralded as Canada’s greatest stuntman, but is better known for not living up to how he’s been advertised. Buzz’s adventures are geared towards a younger crowd, and Woody’s journey with Forky and the film’s chief antagonist are somewhat more adult, but viewers of all ages will find plenty of amusement in both threads.
While the previous entry added a lot of new toys to Buzz and Woody’s gang of misfits, none of those characters get much of a chance to shine in expanded roles here, with a lot of the focus placed on the newbies. It’s a little disappointing that Bonnie Hunt, Kirsten Schaal, and Timothy Dalton are all back for basically no reason at all, but the new arrivals provide plenty of character, and the return of Annie Potts as the porcelain Bo Peep in an expanded role almost evens things out perfectly.
Toy Story 4, like its predecessors, is an adventure movie about finding one’s place in the universe. The toys will confront questions of their usefulness, and they’ll find themselves in tough scrapes with villains not too different from them, which are also staring down obsolescence. It has been the same story for four movies now, but what sets this franchise apart from other sequel spawners – outside of its dazzling visual ingenuity – is that the scripts (credited this time to Andrew Stanton and Stephany Folsom, with a whopping eight people credited for the story itself) are constantly able to rephrase these questions and provide new answers.
Through Forky – voiced brilliantly by Hale, in a role he was practically born to play – Toy Story 4 asks what actually makes a toy, and how anything can be one provided that it’s loved. Through Duke Caboom – with Reeves giving a hilariously self-aware turn that could rival his recent appearance in Always Be My Maybe – the film looks at the weight of expectations that can be placed on a new plaything, and how we all overcome disappointment in different ways. Through a band of community toys hanging out in a local playground, Woody is shown that he could still have usefulness by bringing many kids joy instead of tying himself to just one that relegates him to the closet.
Granted, the existential questions that the franchise normally trafficks in are a lot more obvious and shallower than those in the previous films, and the plot is a lot more overstuffed and episodic than the previous entries, but it’s still a story that’s about something bigger and greater than the characters themselves. Toy Story 4, like the ones that came before it, finds grace and pathos in moments and situations that the human characters of the world often take for granted. And just when it seems like Toy Story 4 doesn’t quite justify its claims to forward the franchise, it saves the best for last and delivers an emotional wallop to send things out on a high note. It’s a blast to spend time with these characters again, but it’s also food for thought for viewers young and old.
It’s also worth noting that Toy Story 4 is director Josh Cooley’s first feature length effort as a director, and he’s created the most visually dazzling entry in the franchise to date. The opening sequence – which takes place during a torrential downpour – is jaw-droppingly photorealistic in ways that most animated films could only previously dream of achieving. Every brightly lit carnival light, scratch on a toy, and speck of dust is lovingly chronicled by Cooley’s eye with painstaking detail that would make most live action filmmakers jealous. Toy Story 4 is a fun story to sit down with, but it’s also a genuine work of cinematic art from start to finish. Pixar has always been able to outdo themselves with the technology the create for their films, but Toy Story 4 might be the first time since the franchise’s first entry where I almost audibly wondered in the theatre how they were able to pull all of this off. You can certainly come and enjoy the hijinks, but as the film’s character might be quick to tell you if they talked to humans, be sure to never lose sight of the beauty around it.
Toy Story 4 opens in theatres everywhere on Thursday, June 20, 2019.
Check out the trailer for Toy Story 4:
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