Dir: Josh Cooley
There is an unwillingness in Hollywood to let stories end. It’s not hard to see why; if you can find another story to tell with characters you know audiences already love, you can mitigate some of the risk inherent in films that can cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Sometimes, though, it’s not a bad thing to know when to let something go.
When Toy Story 3 came out nine years ago, I wasn’t sure, even as a fan of the two previous films, that I needed it to exist. It turned out to be the perfect capper to the themes of the series, wrapping things up satisfyingly, implying that Woody, Buzz and the gang would continue to live offscreen, while providing a sense of closure for both audience and characters. So, we come to Toy Story 4; it’s a genuinely lovely film, it hits the funny bone repeatedly, pricks at the tear ducts on occasion, reunites us with old friends and lets us meet new ones… and yet, this entry, while building in even greater finality, never manages to hit the same emotional register as the previous film did in its tearjerking mix of endings and beginnings.
Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz (Tim Allen) and the other toys are still living with Bonnie, the little girl Andy gave them to at the end of the last film (a moment revisited in a beautiful dissolve that, for me, was the most emotional part of the film). On her first day at kindergarten, Bonnie makes a new toy, Forky (Tony Hale), who becomes her favourite toy. Initially, Forky thinks he’s trash, and Woody has to keep him from escaping, but when Bonnie’s family take a road trip, Forky takes his chance at escape and Woody chases after him, running into old friends as he tries to reunite Bonnie with Forky.
The Toy Story films have always been about more than what toys get up to when humans aren’t watching. To some degree, all of them are about the function and importance of a toy in a child’s life, and the effect that has on the toys themselves. Here we see all sorts of versions of that. Woody is going through the experience of no longer being the favourite. Bo Peep (Annie Potts) has become willingly lost, finding a new kid to play with her most days and collecting items to fix other lost toys. The most substantial take on the need of toys to be played with comes from a vintage doll, Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), whose broken pull string voice box has meant that she’s never had a kid. The development of Gabby - something of a twist on Toy Story 3’s Lotso - is one of the best aspects of the film, with Hendricks playing the two sides of the character beautifully, finding both sinister and moving registers.
It’s also interesting to see a different take on the idea of the lost toy, previously seen by the series as the worst possible fate that could befall a toy (Woody’s anguished “I’m a lost toy” from the first film still resonates). Bo has chosen to be lost, and it’s clearly a choice that has empowered her. The character was a relatively minor (if well liked) figure in the previous films, here she’s elevated to co-lead and woman of action, with Annie Potts making her recognisably the same character but also bringing new nuances to the table. Of the new characters, Keanu Reeves’ Duke Kaboom scores plenty of laughs, but it’s Tony Hale as Forky who has the most to do and delivers the most laughs and emotion. His lack of understanding he’s a toy is reminiscent of Buzz in the first film, but with an added tragic dimension because his repeated attempts to throw himself in the trash look - and from a toy’s point of view probably feel - like suicide attempts. Watching him come to an understanding of what being a toy means, and the readiness with which he accepts it, is one of the film’s sweetest touches.
There are many strengths here (Pixar’s typically dazzling animation among them), but that’s not to say that Toy Story 4 is perfect. The main issue for me here is that there isn’t much that is unique to this Toy Story. Director Josh Cooley and the writers do find different angles on some ideas, but many of the themes and even the ways the film engages with them have been dealt with in the series’ previous films. The many new characters are also a challenge, meaning that the pacing sometimes feels off as the extended gang are shunted off to the sidelines for long swathes of the film. This is especially problematic when it comes to Buzz, who is largely a one joke character here. Woody tells him to listen to his ‘inner voice’ and Buzz, misunderstanding, uses his voice buttons as a source of advice throughout the film. It’s a cute enough bit, and Tim Allen sells it hard, but it’s disappointing that this is most of what Buzz has to do, and for me it rings false with a Buzz who has been accustomed to being a toy for the better part of 15 years in movie time. Jessie (Joan Cusack) is given even shorter shrift, with nothing of import to do and only a handful of lines. Overall, for many of the characters, this is a disappointing send off with little of the sense of them as a close-knit group of friends that the previous films had, especially in the incinerator scene.
All that said, and for all its imperfections, it would be churlish to go too hard on Toy Story 4, its major mistake is the hubris of attempting to follow a genuinely perfect franchise capper, but it’s seldom, if ever, less than fun. It’s packed with gags, most of which work and if it doesn’t punch you in the gut emotionally the way its predecessor did it certainly has moments that resonate in a similar way. In a largely dreadful summer for mainstream movies, Toy Story 4 deserves the tag of crowd pleaser.★★★