Toy Story 4 and all the images you see in this review are owned by Pixar and Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Directed by Josh Cooley
Sigh… I THOUGHT I WAS DONE!! I thought that after the third film we’d reached the perfect end point for this series, but instead of coming up with a new idea or even rebooting the franchise entirely, here we are again with the same cast, the same toys, and even more Randy Newman. I’ve been pretty down on Pixar recently with Incredibles 2 being a HUGE disappointment for me and being rather lukewarm on Inside Out, but they can still do great films like Coco when they put their mind to it and that fact only makes me even more tired that we’re dipping into the same well one more time. Who knows though, right? I mean, they managed to make Toy Story 2 one of the best sequels of all time and even made the third film a perfect closure for these characters and this world! Can they somehow pull it off a third time by making this beating of a dead horse not nearly as horrific as that metaphor implies? Let’s find out!!
Following the events of the third film, Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz (Tim Allen), and all their pals (Joan Cusack, Wallace Shawn, John Ratzenberger, Blake Clark, Don Rickles and Estelle Harris) are living with Bonnie and her toys (Kristen Schaal, Timothy Dalton, and Jeff Garlin); enjoying their new lease on life having avoided both the garbage dump and the day care of infinite horrors. Still, Woody isn’t quite as happy as the ending of the last movie would have indicated because he is no longer the top toy in the room which is led up by Dolly (Bonnie Hunt) instead. Feeling out of place and probably more than a little bored, he sneaks into Bonnie’s backpack for her first day of kindergarten orientation where he slyly helps Bonnie through the emotionally turmoil and even gets her to make a new toy out of trash and craft materials. The new toy named Forky (Tony Hale) does indeed come to life which comes to a surprise to Woody and everyone else, and what’s even MORE surprising for a kids movie is that this little bugger is determined to throw himself in the garbage because he’s aware he’s an unholy abomination unto the world and needs to return to the trash from whence he came! So the good news for Woody is that he now has a new lease on life being Bonnie’s protector by way of protecting Forky, but the bad news is that Forky turns out to be a HUGE handful and he manages to escape out the window during the family road trip. Woody goes after him, slowly trudges to the town the family is staying at, but as it would JUST SO HAPPEN, Bo Peep (Annie Potts) who went missing between Toy Story 2 and 3 is in this town as a lost toy; helping other lost toys find kids to play with in the park and living her life to the fullest as a STRONG INDEPENDENT badass! Seems like a perfect little reunion if it wasn’t for the fact that Forky is kidnapped by the EVIL Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) who is a doll in an antique store looking to replace her broken voice box and wants the one embedded in Woody’s toy guts. Can Woody and Bo save Forky from whatever maniacal machinations Gabby has in store for him? Will the rest of the toys be able to distract the family long enough so that Woody and Forky can return in one piece? Seriously, how has a porcelain doll managed to last this long out in the wilderness? Is she ACTUALLY made out of Adamantium!?
Maybe I’ve just been kind of crabby lately but this did not do it for me. It’s… maybe the most bland and forgettable version of a GOOD movie, in that it hits a lot of the right notes and has a few solid beats to it, but there’s something MISSING that keeps it from being genuinely good instead of just forgettable but pleasant. The easy answer of course is that it doesn’t have much heart to it, i.e. whatever the “IT” factor that made the other films so successful, but we need to get more specific than that to truly understand what went wrong here, at least for me. It just feels unnecessary to reopen the franchise THIS long after a perfect ending to try and wring out ANOTHER perfect ending for these characters. Admittedly that can sometimes work if you approach it the right way (I’m thinking of YOU, Logan!), but the one thing to NOT do is simply rehash the material of the previous films which this movie is very much guilty of. Does it work? Sure, I guess. The “No really, THIS is the ending” mission statement does manage to find at least a new avenue for Woody to essentially deal with his ongoing issues, and Pixar is just as good as ever at making beautiful looking movies and even throwing in a few funny jokes which makes this perfectly fine to sit through which is a lot more than other films can manage. In the end though, no matter how many times it managed to wring a speck of emotion out of my three sizes too small heart, it just felt superfluous and I don’t know how much I can appreciate Pixar for trying to squeeze a bit more blood out of this stone. I’ll admit that there are plenty of things I’d like to see one more time for the first time and I can’t begrudge anyone for sincerely connecting with this movie’s themes and characters, but in the end I just didn’t feel the need to go on this once again for old time’s sake.
So as I said, the movie looks good and is pretty funny for the most part. Pixar may not be at the height of their game recently, but they’ve never slouched on the way their films look. The only real drawback if you can even call it that is that there’s not much NEW here in terms of animation or technique on display, but considering how well they’ve captured the look, feel, and movement of these characters in the past, it’s more than fine that they just up the polygon count a bit and leave it that. On top of that, while I’m not too happy that we’re doing this in the first place, at least they find a good angle to talk about Woody’s abandonment issues once again. I think the ending of three where he let go of Andy and realized he and his friends would be happier elsewhere was the best possible way to close the book on that character and this franchise, but if we’re gonna milk this cow for all its worth, they did give him a new dimension that feels natural enough of an extension even if somewhat repetitive of the last film. He’s got a much stronger martyr complex in this which is an intriguing idea compared to where he started and how it relates to everything he’s experienced. In the first film, Woody was rather selfish and got jealous quite easily over no longer being the favorite toy. He got over that in the first film where he no longer tied his worth to whether or not he was Andy’s favorite, but this is the first time since then that he’s genuinely not at the top of the food chain and has to deal with it in a different way. Instead of getting jealous that Bonnie doesn’t consider him the favorite toy, he throws himself into the role of her protector and by extension the protector of Forky which leads to some interesting dilemmas throughout that I don’t want to spoil here. It’s the most interesting thematic through line of the movie, especially when Bo Peep enters the picture to challenge his self-styled role as the one to keep everything and everyone together at the expense of his own happiness and well being.
Unfortunately, while that IS a really good thread in this movie, it’s basically the only one that worked at more than a baseline adequate level. The overall approach of this, while still producing a few bright moments I’ve already mentioned, feels like a shotgun blast of ideas rather than a carefully crafted narrative. EVERYTHING in this movie feels like they’re being mined for some sort of dramatic climax and so none of it outside of Woody really stands out as particularly impactful. This happens a lot with sequels where the first one (or at least in this case the first TWO) are fairly straightforward stories but over time with more and more characters to incorporate things start to branch out further and further until it feels more like an anthology than anything else. The third one started to fall into this camp but had the PERFECT third act to tie everything back together while this one doesn’t feel as tight. We’re basically wrapping things up one at a time, having to stop the action at points just to make sure a character gets their closure before ramping things up once again, and it feels scattershot and herky jerky. Even the new characters which are usually a high point in these sequels don’t feel up to snuff. Forky is really annoying, Gabby is wishy washy as a villain (again suffering from the film’s constant attempts to mine this material for emotional resonance), and while I did really like what they did with Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele as stuffed animals, some of the shtick didn’t quite work for me; particularly one joke that had some rather unfortunate implications behind it. The only ones who stand out are the new Bo Peep and Keanu Reeves as Duke Caboom; a toy based on a French stuntman that didn’t work as well as the commercial advertised and has to live with the crushing disappointment his kid felt when he realized that. He’s a fun little character who doesn’t overstay his welcome, but other than that nothing new about this particularly stands out.
On top of that, what’s PROBABLY the actual low point of this movie (though your mileage will vary) is how little everyone else from the original cast has to do. Sure, Don Rickles died two years ago and I’m guessing the one or two lines he has here was dredged up from old recordings, but most everyone else is still with us so why did they bother having any of them in this if they didn’t have them DO anything? The answer of course is that the last movie was supposed to be the last one so they wanted everyone to live happily ever after. Also, it feels like a rather cynical move from Pixar because so many of them are iconic that they wanted them filling up the background even if they didn’t have a reason for them to be there (seriously, what parent lets their kid take THE ENTIRE toy collection on a road trip?) or anything worth doing. Heck, even for characters who you could argue are at the top of the food chain with Woody, such as Buzz and Jessie, are barely in this. Jessie FEELS like she was meant to be in this a lot more considering the ending, and Buzz has completely regressed as a character; almost feeling like the clueless version he was in the first Toy Story. It’s ultimately Woody and Bo’s story in the end, but the fact that no one else had anything to do here just feels like a further indictment on how unnecessary and tacked on this all was.
Sometimes when I get down on a movie like this, I worry I’m being too negative or even worse… acting like a fan boy. I don’t know, the fact that we have the same cast after twenty five years and even bringing back a beloved character from the nineties certainly FEELS like it’s targeted at my generation, but kids may still find it enjoyable despite my reluctance to revisit the series after all this time. Completely divorced from its place in the Toy Story cannon, it’s a perfectly fine and somewhat profound emotional journey with a few ups and very few downs, but I can’t really judge it in that way because it’s got that big ol’ FOUR at the end of it and it still feels like a product of its time. A really GOOD product to be sure, but because the film is relying so much on nostalgia and the previous movies, I can’t separate the two and in the end this comes up short of all the other movies. I mean Pixar, I know that scene with the critic in Ratatouille was basically your mission statement writ large, but MAYBE tone it down a bit? Not everyone wants the same the same reheated bowl of microwave mac-and-cheese they had when they were seven, and frankly neither do the kids either.