Director: Josh Cooley
Writer: Stephany Folsom, Andrew Stanton
Starring: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Annie Potts, Tony Hale, Keegan-Michael Key, Jordan Peele, Madeleine McGraw, Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves, Ally Maki, Jay Hernandez, Lori Alan, Joan Cusack
I feel like this is a movie I should be complaining about. Recently, Pixar’s tendency to make wholly unnecessary and largely unsatisfactory sequels to their beloved classics has been a streak of nearly all misses and no hits. In fact, outside of Toy Story itself, sequels seem to be the weakest link in their chain. Monster’s University was charming but perfunctory. Finding Dory was a weak and largely forgettable add-on to a nearly flawless film. Incredibles 2 could probably be best summarized as “too little; too late.” Cars 2 was oppressively bad to the point that I still don’t think I’ve made it through to the end on any viewing.
The Toy Story sequels, by contrast, showcase some of the studio’s finest work in what has been argued by many to be the greatest film trilogy of all time. Jessie’s song in Toy Story 2 alone renders the whole film a veritable masterpiece by mere association. Toy Story 3 managed to leave everyone a blubbering mess at least on the inside as well as make a near-literal example of deus ex machina ACTUALLY WORKING.
Both individually and collectively, these tales of children’s playthings make for a narrative that is complete, fulfilling, insightful, and carried out by easily loveable characters. “Complete” is the key word here. Once Tom Hanks delivered the gut-wrenching line “so long, partner”, this whole franchise became to my mind something like Pandora’s Box. You reopen at your own peril. The announcement of Toy Story 4 was one that filled me with the sort of dread that would come of seeing such a wonderfully ended story arc resurrected and trotted about like some grotesque meat puppet. Then again, even when Pixar fails, they do so with legitimate reverence behind the ill-advised choices for their beloved franchises. Here’s hoping.
Violence/Scary Images: Plenty of peril and tense moments during rescues and escapes (big jumps, chases, falls, near misses, etc.).Creepy ventriloquist dummies act as Gabby Gabby’s henchmen: They take toys hostage, keep them locked up, etc. Bunny and Ducky consider physically attacking an elderly antique store owner (their plans are visualized) and imagine shooting deadly lasers from their eyes (also shown). Much later they actually jump on a character’s face and also brawl with other toys (jumping on Buzz, etc.). Gabby Gabby is initially portrayed as sinister. A store cat is known to demolish toys, even leaving a stuffed toy that’s been severed at the waist. In a disturbing moment, the cat swallows a tiny toy (but later spits her out). Bo Peep has a broken arm she keeps bandaged together. Early scenes show a storm with thunder. Sad separations between close friends and hurtful rejections.
Language/Crude Humor: None.
Sexual Content: Flirting and longing looks between toy characters that culminate in a lingering embrace. Quick joke about a toy’s previous fling with He-Man.
Drug/Alcohol Use: In an imagined scenario, an older woman is shown relaxing in a bubble bath with a glass of red wine.
Spiritual Content: None.
Other Negative Themes: A moment in which the toys hijack an RV involves child endangerment.
Positive Content: Toy Story movies are all about friendship, loyalty, “being there” to care for and comfort kids–plus teamwork, courage, perseverance, empathy, and listening to your conscience/”inner voice.” Toys work together to overcome obstacles and disagreements. This installment deals with being open-minded (one person’s trash can be another person’s toy), inclusive, generous (Woody helps Forky because Forky is the favored toy), and learning to find purpose in life. Encourages striking out for new adventure and having an independent spirit. A subplot touches on the potentially iffy notion that if you fix what’s “wrong” with you, you’ll be more likely to be accepted/find love.
Woody is one of the most loyal characters ever–his dedication to Andy and now Bonnie is admirable (albeit frustrating for friends and possibly viewers); he has unshakable devotion to fellow toys, not leaving toys behind; he works hard to protect Forky, who is Bonnie’s favorite new toy. Forky transforms from confused to determined. Buzz learns to listen to his “inner voice” to help guide him and lead the others. Bo Peep is clever, brave, and a fabulous problem-solver. She helps Woody and Forky at her own risk. Bunny and Ducky work with their new friends to reunite Bonnie with her lost toys. Even initially sinister Gabby is ultimately revealed to have much more complexity.
Of all Pixar’s achievements over the years (and there are several), Toy Story 4 is one of the most astounding. In one stroke consisting of numerous sub-strokes, the fourth installment to the studio’s flagship title managed to remind me both of all the reasons why the previous three films hold such a special place in our collective heart and all the reasons why it’s best to leave that greatness where it lay. Such a reaction would typically be reserved for a movie devoid of any redeeming qualities, but adding to my astounded state, I can’t lay that charge against Toy Story 4. It is a surprisingly good movie in and of itself; good enough for me to honestly say that I’m glad it was made. This ambivalence is going to take quite some time to parse out, so I’d better get started.
Continuing after the tearjerker of an ending from Toy Story 3 in which the ongoing arc between Woody and Andy was finally brought to a close, we find our friends under new management with the effervescent Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw), and thankfully, all the maturation that we’ve seen them go through remains intact. Woody himself (naturally reassumed by Tom Hanks) gracefully accepts that since he is no longer Andy’s toy, he shouldn’t expect to always be the favorite. In fact, he finds himself usually relegated to the closet during playtime and is taking this demotion in stride. What hasn’t lessened over the years is his loyalty. He has come to wholly embody the principle he uttered during the staff meeting in the first film:
“It doesn’t matter how much we’re played with. What matters is that we’re here for Andy (Bonnie) when he (she) needs us. That’s what we’re made for, right?”
But there’s another hard lesson that Woody learned from his past experiences, particularly in Toy Story 2: being a toy means that his time with any owner is finite. One topic that hasn’t been explored to any degree as far as I can tell in these films is what exactly happens to a toy who doesn’t find an owner after being left behind. What kind of life awaits them outside the love and care of a home and child? Is it one worth living for a toy? Such questions of nature and purpose come up at a surprising level of importance in Toy Story 4, though for most, such questions will most likely be dismissed in jest.
A major development for Bonnie is her orientation for kindergarten, an experience that leaves her anxious and uneasy, especially without her toys to keep her company. Woody manages to steal away in Bonnie’s backpack and surreptitiously encourages her to cope with the situation by exercising her creativity. In a fit of inspiration, Bonnie fashions a makeshift toy from a Spork, pipe cleaner, and a Popsicle stick that she affectionately names “Forky.” Mission accomplished as far as Woody is concerned, until the surreal moment when Forky (Tony Hale) attains the same life that Woody and the rest of the toys have.
How is it that Forky is alive? He doesn’t even know, and the film places a lampshade on that in a mid-credits scene. Even in the world of these films, none of the component parts of Forky have a life of their own, but he lives in spite of that. Forky is more troubled by this new arrangement than anybody else, somehow knowing that his true purpose in design as an eating utensil is to be used once and then thrown away (“I was meant for soup, salad, MAYBE chili, and then, THE TRASH!”). He spends a great deal of time in his new life trying to reach any nearby receptacle he can find. His state of cognitive dissonance about his own nature and purpose is frustrating, to say the least. Regardless, he is Bonnie’s favorite new toy, and Woody is determined to ensure that his desire to be discarded is not fulfilled.
In training up Forky as Bonnie’s new favorite toy, Woody comes to terms with his own past and position to an even greater extent. It’s quite charming to see him still taking command of keeping all the other toys safe and level-headed even though he has no claim to any position of “leadership” in Bonnie’s room. If keeping Forky safe from self-inflicted disposal wasn’t trying enough, Bonnie and her family are due for a trip to a carnival where the risk of lost toys is significantly increased. The writers engage every risk and let seemingly no opportunity for a side plot go untried.
There is a lot going on in this movie, dear reader. So much that at times the whole delivery can register as rather slapdash. As one plotline involving a major character is carrying on, others threads may feel as though they’re just in waiting to be restarted. With that said, none of it managed to take me out of the experience. The film may seem packed to overflowing with stories on top of stories, but there’s never a point at which I honestly thought “I really wish I weren’t here right now.” That’s really more of a testimony to the strength of the characters than anything. Even after all this time and all this development, simply seeing friends like Woody, Buzz, Jessie, and the rest in action again is worth the time.
It cannot be said that Toy Story 4 is without fault. Far from it. As stated before, this served as both a positive and a negative reminder. As satisfied as I was to see one more adventure with our plastic and plush friends, I also left with the conviction that we should never do this again. It’s a strange reaction. It’s like I’m saying “I’m glad you did the thing because your doing the thing is the reason why I know now that you shouldn’t do the thing. By the way, the thing you did was good.” Bizarre. What are some reasons for this?
First off, once the story proper gets going at the carnival, we get something like a trip through all the major story beats of the original Toy Story trilogy. There’s a central character who wrestles with the unclear identity of being a toy. Other toys outgrow their worth to their owners and are at risk of being put into “storage”, never to be played with again. There’s a nefarious villain toy with separation anxiety and a gaggle of cronies to carry out wicked schemes. Everything here is familiar, but not so much so that it seems like a thoughtless retread. It is largely a retread, yes, but not a thoughtless one. Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) has clearly been developed to the point that he needed no real arc here, but his conflict with his “inner voice” (a running gag based on his misunderstanding Woody’s talk about a “conscience”) made his presence more than welcome.
A major development revealed in the trailers and established in a prologue is the return of Bo Peep (Annie Potts) in a more gritty full-bodied action heroine form. Now a “lost toy” with no house, room, or owner, Bo makes do for herself bearing more than a passing resemblance to Rey of recent Star Wars fame. While the reunification of Toy Story’s One True Pairing had all the charm and quiet unease that one should expect, it also served as a point of conflict of interests between the two. In Woody’s philosophy of toy identity, their entire raison d’être is to make a kid happy. Without a kid to love and be loved by, there is nothing for a toy except to go where Forky wants so desperately to go: in the trash.
Bo’s new life challenges Woody’s entire perspective on things. He’s baffled as to how any toy can find fulfillment outside of the place of playtime, and he’s right in thinking this to an extent that I don’t think the film appreciates. Toys are designed for children. Without a child their purpose is unfulfilled. But Bo seems to be perfectly at peace with her vanguard lifestyle, even going as far as to chide Woody for his “need” to be near a child.
Sadly, it is Bo’s perspective that is almost completely vindicated by the film and Woody’s that is undermined to an extent. Siri and I had a similar issue with Disney’s recent sequel to Wreck-It Ralph, in which there was a similar conflict of interests between two characters who share an intimate bond, but only one of them was validated by the plot. I could excuse such a fault in one of Disney’s works since they seem to be mostly in their training wheels in the sophistication department in recent years, but Pixar has a long history of giving due diligence to all characters’ motivations and angles.
In fact, the handling of Bo’s character, while a welcome return, was one of the more baffling elements in Toy Story 4’s execution. Rewriting Bo from the demure and passive character she was in the first two films to a full-bodied Strong Independent Womantm archetype isn’t a bad idea in principle, but leaving her as only an archetype with no depth, flaws, or any other angle besides being hard as nails (despite being made of highly fragile porcelain as opposed Woody’s more durable plastic exterior, by the way) is a great disservice.
It’s not as though Pixar has no experience with such characters. Brave’s Merida was treated as the studio’s greatest icon of feminine strength and resolve but was still given doubts, weaknesses, and even damning character flaws to flesh her out as a person. Even The Incredibles’ Helen Parr (who is a literal superhero) was allowed more multidimensionality to her heroic nature than this take on Bo.
There is a significant thread running through the film that comes in the form of an old 50’s style vintage pull-string doll named Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks). She reminded me in many ways of the strawberry-scented Lots-O’-Huggin’ Bear from the last film, operating a pit stop for neglected toys by way of a gang of mindless cohorts and initially giving off a charming and inviting aura. It’s difficult to avoid spoilers in describing and criticizing her arc, but suffice it to say that her aims are far more direct, invasive, and sinister than anything Lotso had in mind.
What’s more is that the film never really holds her accountable for her atrocities, allowing her a transitory moment of rejection only to be almost immediately redeemed without ever being taken to task for what can best be explained as an extreme form of ransom and hostage-taking. On first viewing, I can’t say that I saw many issues with this. I suspect that subsequent viewings will unsettle me further where this element is concerned.
With that weighty beat out of the way, there are laughs aplenty to be had here. Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key deliver major comedy beats as two stuffed animals sewn together at the hands. Buzz Lightyear’s “inner voice” gag may not afford the same side-splitting hysteria that Spanish Buzz did in Toy Story 3, but it was both comically and narratively serviceable. Keanu Reeves does some impressive work as the guilt-ridden Canadian daredevil toy Duke Caboom, delivering both wacky psychological antics and impressive set pieces oftentimes in the same sequence.
Yes, it was good to open up the toy box one more time. Yes, it was good to know that the toys still work after all these years. Yes, it’s great that we got to see them cut loose and that it’s largely just as fun as we remember. With all that said, it’s time to move on. They’ve had their time in the sun, and they’ve run their course as fully as they possibly could. I’m quite glad that Pixar has announced a focus on more original work in the coming years. While the Starlord/Spider-Man buddy comedy that is Onward looks underwhelming and misplaced, I really had to contain myself at the sight of Pete Doctor’s Soul project. So long, partner.
+ Genuine character arcs with real payoffs + Outrageously funny + Excellently executed set pieces + Doesn’t end where it begins
- Plot can be overstuffed at times - Some characters are misdirected
The Bottom Line
I did not ask for a Toy Story 4. I did not want a Toy Story 4. I’m still really glad that I got a Toy Story 4. But no more, please. Can’t wait for what Pixar has in store for us next.