Toy Story 4 (2019)
Directed by: Josh Cooley
Written by: Andrew Stanton, Stephany Folsom
Starring: Annie Potts, Christina Hendricks, Jordan Peele, Keanu Reeves, Keegan-Michael Key, Tim Allen, Tom Hanks
TOY STORY 4
Directed by Josh Cooley
This review contains very mild spoilers.
If you see two new films about a talking toy, that’s had an owner named Andy, make it this and Child’s Play. If you only see one, make it this. Toy Story 4 is (for now) the finale of the most consistently good animated series around. While other Disney properties like Cinderella, The Lion King and Mulan have gone down the straight to video route, this has been the prestige series. Now with four entries spanning three different decades, it promises to excite a whole new generation of kids whilst being a lovingly made nostalgia fest for those who grew up with Woody and co.
Interestingly, there’s little to set Toy Story 4 today given there isn’t a smartphone in sight (you could argue that because Bonnie has only aged a year it’s 2011 – but even in those prehistoric times we had iPhones). Instead, it’s a reality where kids still play with toys, and a little girl can love a little character she makes from a spork, some glue-on eyes and pipe-cleaners. This is Forky, a new favourite friend Bonnie literally makes. And whilst his newfound sentience is never really explained (not that it is for the others), his obsession with being trash instead of a toy makes him a handful. Therefore, the ever-loyal Woody has to watch over him to make sure he’s still there to get Bonnie through her difficult transition into kindergarten. However, when Forky makes a jump for it, during a family RV trip, the two of them get separated from the rest of the group. Then as they make their way back, Woody thinks he’s found an old friend.
Yes, the big news for long-term fans is the little porcelain shepherd Bo Peep is back! And this time with a modern makeover. She’s been living off the radar, with other “lost toys”, and is looking to travel America hitching a ride with the nearby carnival. For all the negative attention Disney has had in the past, over how it treats its female characters, it’s good to see her being so independent and frankly kick ass. How she speaks and acts is a welcome contrast to how fragile her body is and hopefully a sign of things to come from the house of mouse. And it’s a genuine joy to behold her and Woody sharing the screen again, as a series of missteps mean they have to tangle with Gabby Gabby. She’s a vintage doll, who rules the local antique store toy collection with her gang of creepy ventriloquist dummies (horror fans will delight in hearing music from The Shining play as she’s introduced). And she wants Woody’s voice-box.
As per the other movies in the series, there’s enough thematic depth and serious bits to make even those with an old inner child weep. As with how the first was really about status anxiety, when the flashy new guy joins one’s place of work, and second and third deal with ageing and retirement respectively, there’s a definite theme to the fourth. Mortality, and what happens after a good toy fulfils their shelf-life. It’s not exactly hard-hitting, as the focus is still on a frantic slapstick fun. But from the opening sequence, in which Bo Peep is taken away, the question of what happens next is always lingering. The toys and Woody, in particular, take on the part of proud parent figures watching the children they’ve helped raise grow up and make their own way in the world. All the time failing to confront what happens to them afterwards. It’s very touching at times, and despite its frantic pacing it manages to be the weightiest of all the films.
If there’s a problem with Toy Story 4, it’s that for much of its running time its treading old ground. The skewed, embittered toy that needed to be hugged more has been done before in numbers two and three. The ideas that even vintage toys are there to be played with, and not sat on a shelf, was also done in the second. And Woody coming to terms with no longer being the favourite has been there since the first. As gets alluded to at one point in the film, you can’t teach an old slinky-dog new tricks. But because the franchise has always been small-scale, with the premise meaning the characters don’t do much except evade being seen by people, then I should maybe be impressed they’ve managed four and repeated themselves this little. It’s not quite going through the motions since each familiar beat is given a fresh twist, though it does mean the movie feels less special than the last.
Much of the new stuff works though. You may find some new favourite toys. I never saw the appeal in Forky (which is maybe the point). However, Keanu Reeves is glorious as failed stunt rider Duke Caboom, who can’t jump like he can in the advert. Gabby Gabby is the best kind of villain in that she starts off as a threat, yet her tale is legitimately tragic enough that you start to feel for her. Some of the most moving scenes occur on her character journey and it’s a testament to the writing that by the end I gave as much of a darn about her as I did those I’ve known since I was nine. Then we’ve got Key and Peele as Ducky and Bunny respectively. Their scenes are hilarious with one in particular – where the hatch a plan – causing an audience member to laugh so hard one of her contact lenses fell out. Still, as good as the new characters are it’d have been nice to see the old ensemble given more to do. I know the series has, to some extent, always been the Woody and Buzz story. But at the same time, the supporting parts, including Rex, Slinky and (my top toy) Hamm have still always been a part of its success. Perhaps it’s an ironic piece of form underlining meaning, and I should be open to new favourites like Bonnie is. Yet sometimes it’s tough to move on.