Toy Story 4 is a lot like its newest character, Forky. It should not be. It is an affront to the rules of its own storytelling and, by its own admission, should not exist. And yet, also like Forky, it is a creation made of love, filled with joy and memories and heart, and it will have you leaving the theatre moved, in all the right ways. While Toy Story 4 never manages to justify its existence beyond the perfect capstone that was Toy Story 3, it has just the right amount of heart and invention to make this 25-year old cultural capstone a can’t-miss event.
It’s been two years since Andy Davis gave his beloved childhood toys to young Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw). Now Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), Jessie (Joan Cusack), Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head (the late Don Rickles and Estelle Harris), Rex (Wallace Shawn) and the rest are never in want of playtime. Unfortunately, however, Bonnie finds herself less and less enamored each day with her once-favorite toy Woody (Tom Hanks), who finds himself collecting dust bunnies in the closet. Growing older every day, and realizing his time pleasing children is just about up, Woody sets out to make sure nothing happens to Bonnie’s new favorite toy, a sentient spork named Forky (Tony Hale) who does not understand why he is alive and longs for the sweet release of the trash can. When Forky flings himself from the family’s RV during a road trip, Woody leaps after him to prevent his demise and reunite Bonnie with her best friend. On their journey to the rest stop, Woody comes along an old friend – Bo Peep (Annie Potts), the beloved lamp of Andy’s sister, Woody’s old flame, and now a leader of an elite toy rescue operation. As they journey to reunite a girl with her spork, Woody grapples with his own mortality, and is challenged by a rival toy gathering dust in an antique shop, Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks).
Now, the biggest question that faces Toy Story 4 as you walk in is, “Does this movie justify its own existence in the face of the perfect ending Toy Story 3 provided?” And the answer, quite simply, is no. Of course it doesn’t. How can it? The Toy Story franchise has dazzled kids with a magic trick to grapple with the fears and anxieties of adulthood – the first film deals with the anxiety of losing your job to someone younger and sleeker (a prettier, funnier Death of a Salesman, if you will) and Toy Story 2 dealt with the challenging choice between love and fame. Toy Story 3 is the perfect ending to this series as it asked one of the darkest questions ever posed in an animated children’s film not directed by Hayao Miyazaki: as we face the void of our own mortality, how can we prepare for the afterlife even if it feels God has abandoned us (I will go to my grave arguing that Toy Story 3 is the greatest religious film ever made). Once you make a movie about finding your faith restored even on your death bed, nothing you make afterwards will ever have the same resonance. However, just because the answer is “No” doesn’t make this film any less entertaining. The filmmakers understand that the film won’t be able to match that ending, and instead try to fill in some of the details that we may have about the what-comes-next. Particularly, the way the film handles Woody’s arc, having been alive since the 50s and been passed down between two children who once loved him and have since outgrown him, is of intellectual merit. Director Josh Cooley and Tom Hanks work together to portray Woody the way one would approach a character who has seen his time past, witnessed the loss of love, and who can’t get over his glory days. You can see the first glimpses of this when Woody first loses Bo – as he puts on his fake face to please Andy in toy form, there are strong allusions to the way a parent may put on a fake face for their children so the weight of a divorce/breakup/dead spouse won’t traumatize those they love.
Similarly, when Woody finds himself ignored by Bonnie, Buzz and Jessie interact with him the same way a couple tries to comfort their lonely friend after the end of a relationship (“How ya doin’ there, champ?”). Woody laments his ever-growing age, and fears that he is past his prime, as well as his usefulness. He tells Buzz, “I know you weren’t around when Andy was little, but I don’t remember it being this hard,” and it is a moment that feels loaded with resonance. These are emotionally rich questions that have been grappled with by the greatest writers of our time, from Miller to Ozu to Melville. And Woody’s quest for usefulness is deepened by his complex relationship with Gabby Gabby. While originally posited as a two-dimensional villain, akin to Prospector Pete from Toy Story 2 and Lotso Huggins Bear in Toy Story 3, Gabby is deepened by her motivations and background – she is made by the same company as Woody, with similar technology, but was born with a defect in her voice box, therefore preventing children from ever loving her. Essentially, she has the same benefits as Woody, but different backgrounds have morphed and separated her, exploring the way our different backgrounds can determine what type of adults we grow up to be. Not only does this allow the film to transform Gabby from a villain to a more complex antagonist, but it teaches children that no one is all good or all evil, and even those who have taken the wrong path can be saved. In fact, the film’s most cathartic, tear-inducing moment actually involves Gabby – how many other films can boast that the most emotional moment is given to their villain? While not as thematically rich as its predecessors, there’s still a lot to grapple with inside the Toy Story franchise.
However, the evil demon inside me cannot continue on without discussing the thematic ramifications of the hilarious new addition to the Toy Story franchise, Forky. If you remember my first write-up about this film when the teaser trailer dropped, I was very negative about Hale’s new character – I thought the spork hybrid was some sort of demonic affront to God that raised dark questions about the rules of this universe. As it turns out, that was entirely the point, and we are all the better for it. Forky serves little purpose to Toy Story 4 other than to raise questions about mankind’s attempts to play God, and the inherent unhappiness with being born into a cruel and unfeeling world. For much of the first half of this film, Forky’s entire life motto is “I Am Trash,” and he continuously tries to fling himself into the dumpster to embrace the sweet release of death. Forky’s abhorred sentience is a hilarious allusion to Mary Shelley’s original Frankenstein, a creature that should not be, and whose entire existence is pain; it’s basically a child’s version of the Butter-Passing Robot from Rick and Morty. And what’s best about Forky’s dark desires is that it serves two distinct purposes. If you’re a cynic like me, you’ll enjoy the darkness of a creature born in terror who wants nothing more than to end his own suffering in the wake of his own sentience – a reverse Myth of The Cave, if you will. It warns us of the terrors of immortality in stark detail: if you want to live forever, then you must grapple with the fact that you will never stop aging and will feel nothing but pain. However, if you’re more of an optimist (and I’ll admit I like much of this reading too), then you’ll enjoy Woody’s attempts to give hope to a creature that has none – his efforts to save Forky’s life and end his suicidal tendencies subtly slide an “It gets better, we all feel this way” moral into this children’s film, necessary in a time when suicide rates – especially amongst youths – are on the rise. Either way you read into it, it’s a deliciously dark story snuck into a children’s film, and I am all for it.
Of course, none of this matters to you. If you’re interested in Toy Story, you don’t care about weighty philosophical messages. You want to know if it’s going to be pretty and if it’ll shut your kid up for an hour and forty minutes. Well good news: it’s both! This is a delightful children’s film, full of whimsy and wonder and joy – and it’s technologically innovative to boot! From the very beginning, it is clear that this is one of Pixar’s most stunning, visually breathtaking films to date. An opening rainstorm is rendered lusciously, and the world is given just enough of a heightened sense of reality to dazzle us without ever losing its real-world setting. One of the most extraordinary details about this film is the way the animators manage to create physical performances on the faces of not just drawings, but drawings of inanimate objects. These toys have real emotions, providing facial tics and cues that many human actors struggle to fully realize. Meanwhile, the film is full of little action beats that will enthrall children (and adults) of all ages. It is always a joy to see Buzz Lightyear take flight, there’s a new character named Duke Caboom who serves as a cross between first movie-Buzz and a failed 90s action hero (for good reason I’ll get to in a second), and the opening sequence, surrounding a rescue attempt known as Operation Pull String, is amongst the most thrilling and dazzling of the series. Meanwhile, Gabby Gabby serves as an adequate “villain,” based on the clear influence of The Twilight Zone’s Talky Tina (still the scariest TV moment of all time), and her army of Ventriloquist dummies are a wise reminder to audiences that dolls are, in fact, truly terrifying abominations. The film even takes a few small moments to take a victory lap for the series. There is a brief cameo from Tin Toy, the lead of the animated short that inspired the original Toy Story, and Combat Carl, a briefly mentioned (and executed) toy from the original film, is finally given justice in the form of a hilarious cameo from Carl Weathers. Hooray for Combat Carl! Oh, and I can’t forget to talk about the score and songs by Randy Newman, for while there’s not much new material inside this score, it is still a pleasant reminder that Newman’s pleasant, nostalgic instrumentals are a driving force for this series. And the film’s new original song, “I Can’t Let You Throw Yourself Away,” is a wacky, upbeat Randy Newman song that is both quite literal and a weird PSA about suicide. If you don’t think that a comical Randy Newman children’s song about suicide prevention is something you want, trust me: you are sadly mistaken. This is a silly, fun, gorgeous film that is well worth the price of admission.
As is normally the case with Pixar films – and especially the perfectly cast Toy Story franchise – everyone present is at the top of their game. Incidentally, while each toy is given one last chance to shine before the conclusion, most of the original cast of toys (and even some new faces) are sidelined for the core group. This means that Cusack, Shawn, Harris, Ratzenberger, Jeff Garlin, Timothy Dalton, Bonnie Hunt, Blake Clark and Kristen Schaal are relegated to supporting roles, or even cameos. Even Tim Allen finds himself in more of a supporting role than he has in the past. Because at the end of the day, this is Woody and Bo’s story, from beginning to end. And thankfully, this means the film places us firmly in the hands of the ever-talented Tom Hanks and Annie Potts. Hanks brings more pathos and emotion to this series than he has in a long time – every line is on the same emotional level as that final, “So Long, Partner!” that should have been the series’ capstone. However, as great as Hanks is, I do think he is outshone by Potts, who is top-notch in the role of Bo Peep. Potts has always been a valued member of the ensemble, providing humorous voice readings and blatant undertones to her relationship with the drawstring sheriff, but she gives it her all here, filling each line with mournful nostalgia and energetic enthusiasm about the future. She is every bit Woody’s equal, and that is because Potts is every bit Hanks’ equal. In terms of the new characters, Hale is truly hilarious as Forky, bringing his Buster Bluth energy to the role, while Ally Maki blends in perfectly as the likable Giggle McDimples. Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele mostly show up to do their usual Key and Peele-shtick, but no one has ever insinuated that this is a bad thing – indeed, both adults and children alike, for different reasons, left my theatre discussing how much they loved Ducky and Bunny. Christina Hendricks brings a richness to her performance as Gabby Gabby, underplaying her sinister intentions perfectly, yet wearing her heart on her sleeve for her emotional moments. I don’t want to forget June Squibb’s minor, yet loving, role as Margaret, the owner of the Antique Store. And I can’t forget to mention the magic of Keanu Reeves as Duke Caboom, Canada’s #1 failed stuntman. Reeves brings his energetic underacting to the role, stealing every scene he’s in with comical glee, and it may very well be one of his best performances of the year (in case you haven’t noticed, this is The Year Of Reeves). Oh, and in case four aging toys near the beginning sound familiar to you, here’s a hint: their names (and performers) are Melephant Brooks, Chairol Burnett, Bitey White, and Carl Reineroceros. And they are all as great as they sound.
Toy Story 4 is a quality film, a decent coda to a remarkable story. Is it a story that needed to be told? Maybe not. But as much as I would prefer studios focus on original works that take risks (much like the original Toy Story back in 1995), I’m not going to complain. This is a marvelous film of innovative animation, thrilling storytelling, and emotional catharsis. It made me laugh, cry, cheer, and feel. That’s all movies are supposed to do. And when a film does it so well, all we can do is smile, applaud, and support it – to infinity and beyond.