It’s difficult to review Toy Story 4, the latest installment of “the house that built Pixar”, without addressing the fact that the film comes with some level of skepticism attached. When you boil it all down, just how many good fourth installments are there really? Mad Max: Fury Road certainly, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home perhaps, and if you knock out the ongoing superhero sagas that list gets even thinner. When Toy Story 4 was announced, many were gobsmacked…what else was there to do after the seemingly perfect send-off in the previous outing? Woody, Buzz and the gang literally faced annihilation and came out not only victorious, but also in the arms of a new generation. A sweet little film that ended up getting a Best Picture nomination (a first for the studio). How can you top that?
Well, it turns out, they do it by not only digging into the series’ past, but also by bringing to the fore one of the themes that has run in the background of the series from its inception – the age and shelf-life of the toys themselves.
Toy Story 4 kicks off with a flashback taking place nine years prior to the events of the third film, addressing a mystery that was left hanging by that previous adventure: what happened to Little Bo Peep (Annie Potts), the long-time love interest of Woody’s (Tom Hanks) from the first two films? It turns out, she was given away as part of a box of toys to another family, leaving Woody with the most grueling decision of his life. Does he get “lost” and run away with Bo Peep or does his loyalty to Andy (his kid) keep him in place? The story of Toy Story 3 was ever so minorly informed by this choice, and now Woody, living with (his new kid) Bonnie, along with all his other friends, Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), Jessie (Joan Cusack), Rex (Wallace Shawn), Hamm (John Ratzenberger), Trixie (Kristen Schall), and the whole lot is finding that he’s the toy that’s always left in the closet when it comes time to play. This every day occurrence, rather than leaving Woody feeling abandoned, actually strengthens his resolve and pushes him to overcompensate in his protectiveness of Bonnie, even accompanying her to the first day of kindergarten – hitching a ride in her backpack.
It’s there that the shy Bonnie, in a fit of inspiration, creates a new friend out of some crafting supplies and a plastic fork. This new “toy”, Forky (Tony Hale) becomes her new joyful obsession and one that Woody feels like he must protect at all costs, no matter how often this jittering, confused former disposable utensil keeps trying to jump into the trash. When the news comes that Bonnie’s family is going on a roadtrip, it becomes an opportunity for Woody to be by Bonnie’s side at all times, keeping Forky in tow. The adventure that follows tosses this unlikely pair into an antique shop full of terrifying old marionettes, Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), a doll that makes for one of the more fascinating antagonists in the series canon, and a Canadian stuntman action figure named Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves), while also finally reuniting Woody with his long lost love.
There’s a lot of fun to be had with Toy Story 4. It’s a road trip film, with its share of laughs and action spectacle, and the toys get into all the kind of shenanigans you’d expect them to and will keep your children (or you children at heart), easily entertained for 100 minutes. It’s even got Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele playing a couple of hilarious standouts. In terms of its enjoyment factor, it’s right there with some of the highlights of the Pixar canon, a few notches below the original and works of art like Inside Out and Ratatouille, but a tremendous bit of fun and proves that this series continues to just fit like a warm hug.
What perhaps sets director Josh Cooley‘s effort apart is where some of the weirder elements come into play. So much of the film seems to ruminate, in ways both subtle and not, on the the lasting utility of a toy as a metaphor for mortality. The script plays within some surprising existentialist territory – where previous entries have focused mostly on the idea of our own relationship with toys, Toy Story 4 is pitched firmly within the boundaries of a conflict internalized within the toys themselves as a reflection of the human condition. Woody and Buzz have a discussion about “inner voices” and following your conscience, which Buzz struggles to understand but becomes the driving arc of his place within the film. Little Bo Peep now lives an existence that is based around her own freedom as a now “lost toy”, and the evolution that this engenders within her is one of the most fascinating transformations in the series. The relationship between Gabby Gabby and Woody opens the question of just what happens to toys when they really do reach the end of their lifespan and have entered into a place where they’re completely unwanted. And that doesn’t even touch on the organ transplant subplot. Much like the studio’s richest output, Toy Story 4 is imbued with the kind of resonant thematic storytelling that so often sets them apart from all the competition.
Toy Story 4 is the only good movie to come out this month in wide release thus far and unlike something that’s coming out this weekend, it underscores that a fourth installment can still strive to be something special.