After a prologue, set between the events of films two and three, in which Bo Peep (Annie Potts) is given away by Andy’s sister Molly, Toy Story 4 takes up seemingly within weeks of film three. Firmly settled with new owner Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw), the toys look to support her as she starts kindergarten.
Quietly accompanying her on her first day at school, Woody (Tom Hanks) encourages Bonnie to create a new toy, Forky (Tony Hale). Fashioned from waste items, Forky gains sentience, only to find himself in an immediate existential crisis – believing himself to belong amongst the garbage, and unable to accept his role as a plaything. As the family head off on a road trip in their motor home, the toys will need to recover an absconding Forky, while Woody reunites with Bo, forcing him to consider his role in the world.
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2018 probably represented Pixar Animation’s best year since the early 2000s. Coco (released in the US at the end of 2017) was a beautiful film, full of energy, yet musing thoughtfully on the transience of life. The Incredibles 2 was a pitch perfect action sequel that leaned, even more than the original, into its 1960s inspirations. Since Inside Out in 2015 (we’ll just ignore The Good Dinosaur – itself a troubled production), this has felt like a studio returning to form for the first time, arguably, since Toy Story 3 in 2010. That said, a fourth entry in this series was viewed by many as a gamble, particularly given part three had perhaps the most perfect ending of any Pixar film, and rounded off a series that may be amongst the very best trilogies Hollywood has ever produced.
Toy Story 4 is helmed by Josh Cooley, part of the Pixar firmament – having worked on shorts for the company. As a first timer, he attacks the material with enthusiasm. Once again, a Toy Story film arrives laden with fun action set pieces, and new characters that are instantly memorable. Keanu Reeves makes his bow as 1970s Canadian stuntman toy Duke Caboom – an in-universe Evil Knievel rip-off (an outstanding performance from a man generally not known for his vocal dexterity). Christina Hendricks excels as defective doll Gabby Gabby – the doll missing a voice box (though able to talk to other toys, of course). Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele (yes, that Jordan Peele) are terrific as cuddly toys Ducky and Bunny. To be clear, this is a film that meets, at very least, the average standard of Pixar’s canon. It is, however, the weakest Toy Story entry – by a distance – and does not meet the standard of either of the two previous entries from this studio, having neither the heart of Coco, nor the fun and propulsive pacing of the second Incredibles film.
There really isn’t a whole lot wrong with this film. It is a well told tale, Forky is a fun new character, and the filmmakers have attempted to do something new – or, at least, they haven’t rested on their laurels, by simply giving us only the legacy characters, in a familiar setting. This is not Pixar on autopilot. In some ways, this film picks up on the prologue from Toy Story 3, where we got to see what playtime means to the toys: where we saw the relationship with their kid from their point of view. This entry is about the role of a toy in a world where the child will age – as will the next child to which a toy may belong. There are allegories for organ donation, and genuinely thoughtful ideas about our inner voice, and being true to ourselves (filtered through comedic delivery of course, but light years ahead of the heavy-handed delivery of themes in The Good Dinosaur, for example). On that level, this film continues the work of Pixar in producing work laden with ideas, and stories that are layered in order to appeal to multiple sectors of the audience.
Whilst it is important to stress that Toy Story 4 film does not feel in any way like a cash-in, it does undermine the perfect ending of film three. It attempts to finish on an emotional moment for the toys, as it finishes an arc for Woody (Tom Hanks), and defines a new role for Buzz (Tim Allen – sadly severely underused in this film). It isn’t even as emotional as the tiny reminder, in the prologue, of that third film’s ending. For those of us who have followed this series since the mid-90s, the film will not need to work too hard to evoke a response. That said though, this provides none of the punch of the last entry, lacks the wonderful storytelling of film two, and has little of the inspiration of the original.
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Again, nothing is really wrong here. The film is funny – Forky alone eliciting three or four decent laughs. It is also smart enough to make several references to other works (including The Shining), but keeps them subtle enough that they do not require audiences to find them in order for the film to work. Looking at the best of this studio’s output though: it has less to say than a WALL-E; it has little of the heart of the extraordinary Up; and it cannot hope to match the emotional impact either of that film, or of the last Toy Story entry. Its set pieces are fun, but lack the inventiveness of last year’s Incredibles 2, itself a better paced film – hailing from a Mission: Impossible alumnus.
On that basis, this is the first Toy Story film that doesn’t belong in the top tier of the studio’s output. Were this any other series than Toy Story, this would present less of an issue. This set of characters, though, represent the foundation of this studio’s success, gave us one of the finest sequels ever made – in Toy Story 2 – and completed the trilogy with a beautiful musing on the passage of time. Merely “good” doesn’t justify going to the well one too many times. Please, Pixar, leave this series here.