Toy Story 4 delivers laughs, and tugs at the heartstrings, bringing back the old toys we know and love with a bit of reflective self awareness while it asks “What is the purpose of old toys?”
It’s hard to believe that the first Toy Story is almost 25 years old. And the third film was all the way back in 2010. While this is numerically the fourth installment in the series, the franchise has an array of TV specials, short films, video games, ice shows, and its own musical. So perhaps Toy Story hasn’t ever really gone away, despite its previous big screen appearance being all the way back in 2010.
This one is definitely Woody’s (Tom Hanks) show, and it comes at the cost of pretty minor roles for the rest of the toys. Realistically, the last “kids” who watched a Toy Story film at the theater are probably teenagers now, and the original kids are in their thirties. So maybe it’s only us “old folks” who will even notice that most of the other characters are conspicuously absent for much of the film, even Buzz, relegated to doing little more than sitting around wondering where Woody is. The principle plot of the film revolves around Woody caring for the latest toy, a spork-turned-toy assembled during arts and crafts by the Toy Gang’s new Kid, an adorable but fairly bland kindergartener named Bonnie. The B Plot is Woody reuniting with his lost love, the porcelain doll Bo Peep (Annie Potts) last seen in Toy Story 2 and how she has adjusted to life as a Lost Toy as she emerges as the leader of community of toys who live in a park with no Kids to call their own. And while everyone loves Tom Hanks as Woody, if you were hoping for more of Buzz, Jessie, Hamm, Rex, et al., you might be a bit disappointed to find their roles surprisingly small, and largely sedentary. Woody spends most of the film outside in the real world, braving the dangers of a traveling carnival and the eerie house of horrors of an antique store. The rest of the toys are left to languish in the back of an RV camper, with little to do other than converse about Woody’s dilemma until the climax of the film.
The replacement characters, are a bit of a mixed bag. Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele appear as a pair of carnival game prizes (Ducky and Bunny) sewn together at the hand. They’re fairly entertaining, though some of their schtick feels like a stunt casting. Keanu Reeves as Duke Caboom is definitely a stunt casting, though the film winks back at this pretty directly, with Duke Caboom being an actual toy stunt cyclist. Think of a Canadian Evel Knievel, assuming you are old enough to remember who that was. Caboom works pretty well. The real delight is Christina Hendricks as Gabby Gabby, who slips gracefully between completely creepy and endearingly sympathetic as the film’s main antagonist. And then there’s Forky.
Forky is good for some laughs, but he’s pretty one-note, and serves more as a plot device than as a character. His cheerful nihilism is superficially amusing, but the gag only works for so long. There are some pretty dark undertones to this character that kids may miss, but some adults may cock an eyebrow at. On the lighter shade of dark, he’s not given a lot of agency. The plot of the film revolves around Woody attempting to force Forky to be a toy against his will. More often than not, violently so. In an age where questions of consent and free will and individual rights are so commonplace, it was interesting to see such a tone deaf plotline where one of the toys doesn’t want to be a toy, and the other toys gang up to make him conform. On the darkest shade, there is the realization that Forky is basically trying to commit suicide. After all, where does trash go? And since before he was assembled, Forky was just a collection of inanimate objects, does returning to the trash mean returning to nothingness? Yikes. Hopefully your youngest kids aren’t asking this question. Maybe you weren’t going to until I said something. Sorry about that.
I guess the real question is, was it fun? Yeah, it’s actually surprisingly good. For a franchise in its 4th installment, it manages to feel reasonably fresh. In a lot of ways, Toy Story 4 might be the Toy Story 3 that many people wanted. In some ways, it’s more of a sequel to Toy Story 2, than the 2010 third installment was, returning to show the audience the heart-wrenching goodbye for Woody and Bo Peep that was just hinted at before, and directly addressing the question of “What happens to old toys?” that Toy Story 3 sort of sidestepped.
I don’t know if this is truly the “end” for this cast in Toy Story. Tom Hanks says it is. The producers, obviously, have the door cracked open for a film that generated almost $200M in ticket presales alone. A lot of people thought that the third movie was going to be the end. After all, this cast is getting pretty old. The late Don Rickles who provided the voice of Mr Potato Head passed away in 2017 (R. Lee Emery who voiced Sarge passed last year, and Jim Varney, the original Slinky Dog, died in 2000 from lung cancer). So if we really have reached the animated curtain call for Woody, Buzz and the rest, I think this film did a great job providing a satisfying conclusion for the audience. Despite the hit and miss plotline with Forky, we get a pretty touching, and surprisingly deep story about getting older and finding our own happiness. I won’t lie, the last exchange between Buzz and Woody drew a bit of a tear to my eye.
Four stars out of five. Toy Story 4 is showing now at theaters in the US.
Look (listen?) for brief cameos by Mel Brooks, Betty White, Carol Burnett and Carl Reiner as some “old toys.”