Directed by Josh Cooley
Starring Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Annie Potts
Laying into a Pixar movie is like dissing the Beatles. The Steve Jobs-financed studio-turned-Disney subsidiary has knocked all its entries out of the park so consistently, their brand is practically synonymous with home runs. Add Toy Story to the discussion—the inaugural Pixar movie which ushered in the era of the modern animated feature film—and any criticism becomes even more fraught. But it needs to be said: Even though Toy Story 4 is well-written, deeply emotional, and unbelievably gorgeous to look at, it is repeating itself.
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We look back fondly on the Toy Story movies, but its sequels start from basically the same premise: Sheriff Woody (Tom Hanks), the loyal, pull-string cowboy starts to question his status as surrogate parent to “his kid”—well, the kid who owns him—and is then offered a seemingly perfect alternative, only to discover that the alternative isn’t as perfect as it seems. In Toy Story 2, that alternative is embracing his status as a precious collectible; in Toy Story 3, the temptation is staying at a daycare center after his kid Andy moves away to college.
After an opener that establishes a previously hinted but unexplored backstory that Woody has with another character, Toy Story 4 has Woody once again confronting the specter of obsolescence and questioning his role in the life of his new kid Bonnie (the child that college-bound Andy bequeathed his toys to at the end of Toy Story 3). In an effort to bolster his “parent” role, Woody stows away in Bonnie’s backpack during her kindergarten orientation and witnesses her cobbling together the most radical and invigorating character in this installment: Forky (Veep’s Tony Hale), a spork with a sink snake for arms, broken popsicle sticks for feet, and a compulsion to seek out garbage bins in a nod to his ultimate destiny as trash.
Bonnie’s family goes on a road trip the week before her classes start, and during an interlude where Woody drags an absconding Forky to an RV rest stop, Woody meets Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), a doll who wants his voice box so she can be made perfect for a little girl who visits the antique store where she languishes forgotten in a glass cabinet, and reunites with Bo Peep (Annie Potts), now a bad-ass commander of her small corner of an outdoor carnival who extols the freedom of being a “lost toy” to Woody.
If there is a much-anticipated fringe benefit to these adventures, it is the promise of meeting new toy characters, and in this respect Toy Story 4 does not disappoint: Apart from Forky, Woody’s new accomplices in his objective to get Forky back to Bonnie include Ducky and Bunny (erstwhile comedy partners Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele), plush carnival prizes with hilariously violent fantasies, and Duke Kaboom (once-and-current Hollywood darling Keanu Reeves), a daredevil action figure who still loves the tween who callously junked him for not completing a stunt. Not many franchises can do what the Toy Story movies do so well, opening its arms to include an ever-expanding array of well-conceived and indelibly portrayed characters.
That being the case, Toy Story 4 will inevitably—still—be Woody’s story, and that is where the series displays indications of wear-and-tear (even though the toys themselves don’t: these playthings look as pristine and well-maintained as they did when they debuted onscreen nearly 25 years ago). It strains to find stuff for its plethora of supporting characters to do, stranding Jessie the Cowgirl (Joan Cusack) in bystander mode and preoccupying Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) in a strenuous C-plot. And perhaps the story team (which includes actress Rashida Jones) did their jobs too well: Forky is such a delightfully angst-ridden creation, such a neurotic marvel, that the film almost sags when the narrative hastily revolves his issues so it can focus on Woody’s. Toy Story 4 is energetic, proving that there is enough play left in these toys, but the ending—still a tearjerker, even if it doesn’t reach the emotional highs of Toy Story 3–seems to point to the idea that it is time to let these toys go. And not a moment too soon.
Photographs by Pixar