“I don’t have anything else.”
Back in 2010, Toy Story 3 proved that the third time really is the charm. It was an animated delight, full of earnest and nostalgia, emotional callbacks to previous entries and, in my opinion, went out on a graceful swan song of a note, perfectly sealing off one of the most widely beloved trilogies of our time. Now 9 years later, Disney has decided to open the vault once more and dust off the old family-friendly blueprint, and while Toy Story 4 isn’t without its merits – new characters add depth, the script searches for existential meaning and the visuals are superb – the film still doesn’t quite live up to the unfair high expectations established by its predecessors. It’s expectedly satisfying and oddly disappointing all in a sprite 90 minutes.
From the jump, it’s clear that Toy Story 4 doesn’t have the substance or the individuality to operate as a stand-alone film; it’s wholly dependent on the past entries in order to make a broad point, and should you go in having not seen the previous films at all (or in quite some time), you’ll likely feel a little lost. That’s okay, and as a matter of fact, ends up as one of the more soothing aspects of this movie experience. It’s a lot like getting on a bicycle as an adult for the first time in a decade; the bike veers left and right early on but quickly finds the correct sense of balance. You still get where you’re wanting to go even if you’re riding at a slower pace, palms firmly gripped on the handles rather than ready to show-off with no hands. It’s older and wiser and less brave.
Toy Story 4 has a very heartfelt story that’s been tucked away inside of a rather drib and drab plot. The gang’s all back, living in Bonnie’s (Madeleine McGraw) closest, and the cowboy sheriff Woody (Tom Hanks) typically gets picked over during playtime. She’s off to Kindergarten, scared for her life, and because Woody cares to a fault, he stows himself away in her backpack to ensure the safety of his kid. It’s a good thing, too. The shy Bonnie ends up alone at an arts and crafts table and Woody lassos her the tools to make herself a new best friend in the most terrifying moment of her life to date. He’s Forky (Tony Hale), a spork sporting mismatched and glued googly eyes, red pipe cleaner arms, popsicle stick legs, and a penchant for the warmth of a trash bin. Bonnie, Forky’s maker, loves him unconditionally (The Toy Story series has always been a secular dive into Creationist beliefs). Woody’s duty is to play teacher and to teach his new pupil some proper self appreciation. He’s the parent and Forky is the infant being ever so gently being nudged from the nest.
How the movie gets to its climax is questionable, as well as a bit repetitive. Woody and Forky get lost during a family RV trip, Bonnie frantically searches for her newest friend, and the final send-off cloyingly pulls on old heartstrings rather than playing them from a new and inspired light. The antagonists in the film are conflicted in their motivations and are underwritten. The new characters, including the hilarious vocal performance by Keanu Reeves as Duke Caboom, are more after thoughts than they are mainstays. And because the film is so interested in revisiting the past whilst exploring the future, the main characters we’ve come to love and adore rarely factor into the film. Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) gets plenty of screen time, but not enough back and forth banter with Woody, making the final sequence as honest and authentic as an unsigned Hallmark farewell card.
Some of the direction from Josh Cooley and the editing by Alex Geddes is inspired, especially early on, and other moments come across as clumsy, gaudy set pieces bum rushed by sentimentality. And while the execution of Toy Story 4 falls into the middle of Pixar’s pack of knockouts, the lofty ideas of the story rank among their most ambitious. This is a film about appreciating value in the lost and found section, about the evolution and the passing on of traditions from one generation to the next, and an out-of-box experience with an adventurous ode to the age old idiom that one man’s trash really can be another man’s treasure. Toy Story 4 has plenty to say, but this somewhat scant and unnecessary entry isn’t the way to go about it either. These toys had their time, and braver executives behind the scenes might have gambled on a spin-off than a slight continuation and a retread of better days, greener pastures, and an infinity that truly felt like it could reach the beyond.
“It’s time for the next kid.”
Rating: 3.5 out of 5