Toy Story 4Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 06/20/19 11:14:15
When the original “Toy Story” came out in 1995, few people had great expectations for it—even Disney, normally a company cheerfully willing to oversell even the most meager examples of their output, was so unsure of how it would do that it did not have many toys and tie-ins available at the time of its holiday season debut. After all, a film speculating on the after-hours life of the denizens of a young boy’s toy collection when not in use might make for an amusing short but how could it possibly stretch to fill a feature-length running time? Therefore, it was a shock to discover that the film would prove to be a triple threat—it was a massive hit with audiences, it was adored by critics across the board and it single-handedly ushered in a new age in feature animation that shifted its focus from the traditional hand-drawn format to the new world of CGI technology. For their debut feature, the Pixar production company set a high water mark that few would have dreamed of coming close to duplicating but when they came up with “Toy Story 2” in 1999, they managed to somehow top themselves with the rare sequel that was actually better than the original—funnier and more exciting, to be sure, but with an unexpected emotional edge to the proceedings that found unexpected resonance with viewers and which put most adult-oriented films to shame. When “Toy Story 3” came out nine years later, it faced the twin challenges of not only living up to the insanely high expectations set by its predecessors but also bringing the entire saga to a satisfying conclusion. Once again, the film defied expectations by creating another funny, touching and wholly original work that expanded on the story and the characters rather than simply calling back on past glories and even stuck the landing by finding an absolutely perfect grace note to bow out on. Fans of the franchise (not to mention the accounting department at Disney) probably would have loved to see the saga continue on but even they had to admit that if the saga had to come to an end, it could not have done it better than it did with “Toy Story 3.”“Toy Story 3” accomplished its mission so well, in fact, that when word came out a couple of years ago that “Toy Story 4” was on the horizon, even fans of the earlier films looked upon the notion of such a thing with no small amount of consternation. For one thing, the return of the popular franchise suggested a certain desperation on the part of Pixar, whose recent output had been a bit on the uneven side as the occasional gems like “Inside Out” and “Coco” found themselves rubbing shoulders with misfires like “Brave” and “The Good Dinosaur” and a seemingly endless string of sequels to their previous triumphs that suggested that they were now more inclined to chase the easy bucks instead of challenging themselves artistically as they had in the past. More importantly, considering just how beautifully “Toy Story 3” concluded, any further extension, no matter how well-intentioned, was almost doomed to suffer by comparison and ran the risk of tarnishing the legacy of that previous conclusion. These are legitimate apprehensions to have but for most viewers, it will only take a few minutes for such concerns to be eradicated. While the film may lack the expansion of its visual, dramatic and emotional ambitions of its predecessors, it more than lives up to the high bar of quality that those films set while also scoring as a fantastically entertaining and sometimes quite moving work in its own right.
At the end of “Toy Story 3,” you will recall, the now-grown Andy gifted his precious toys—Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) and the rest—to preschooler Bonnie (Madeline McGraw) so that they could continue to be played with and loved. For most of the toys, that is the case but former alpha toy Woody now finds himself more often relegated to the closet than being played with—to be fair, it is hard to imagine what interest a typical girl that age might rightfully have in a cowboy doll. Still yearning to forge the type of connection that he once shared with Andy, Woody stows away in Bonnie’s backpack as she heads off to her first day of kindergarten orientation—solely for her potential benefit, of course. As it turns out, not only does he watch as she adjusts perfectly well to her new surroundings (at least until the end of the day when her parents have to explain that she has to keep going back), he bears witness as she creates, using her own hands and imagination, what will quickly become her most cherished toy—a spork adorned with google eyes, pipe cleaner arms and popsicle stick feet that she names Forky (Tony Hale).
There is one little hitch to this. Forky neither sees himself as a toy nor even quite grasps what it even means to be such a thing. Instead, he is hardwired to think of himself as a thing to be used once before being discarded and in a very funny running bit, Forky gives in to this existential crisis by attempting to fling himself into any available trash receptacle. Seizing the opportunity to both fulfill his obligations as a do-gooder and to maintain some kind of connection to Bonnie, Woody takes Forky under his wing, so to speak, by retrieving him from said trash receptacles and, more importantly, trying to get Forky to understand that he is no longer trash but a beloved and cherished toy. Alas, before Woody can fully accomplish this, Forky has flung himself out the window of the RV that Bonnie, her parents and her toys are driving in for a brief vacation. Knowing how this loss would devastate Bonnie, he goes out the window as well to find Forky and bring him back alive, so to speak.
To reveal the details of the adventures that Woody and Forky undergo to make that happen—not to mention the attempts by the other toys to lend assistance and, when needed, delay the eventual departure in order to buy a little more time—would be grossly unfair to anyone planning on going to see the film. Instead, I will briefly mention some of the other new toys that are introduced along the way. There is Gaby (Christina Hendricks), a seemingly friendly talking baby doll residing in an antique store whose overtures would seem friendly enough if it weren’t for the group of super-creepy ventriloquist dummies that are at her constant beck and call and her particular interest in a certain feature of Woody’s. There is Bo-Peep (Annie Potts), who is not precisely a new character, per se—she was in the first two films but absent from third—who, aside from her feelings towards Woody, has changed considerably since we last saw her. There are Bunny and Ducky (Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele), a pair or carnival prize dolls who yearn to be free of the wall and find a child of their own. The most inspired of the bunch is Duke Caboom, a Canadian daredevil action figure who has both the action skills to help save the day and the hefty emotional baggage to put his abilities into question. I probably do not even have to add that Duke is voiced by Keanu Reeves, do I?
There are some aspects to “Toy Story 4” that might keep some from considering it to be worthy of comparison of its predecessors. A number of the plot points—ranging from the toys venturing out into the real world to rescue a lost comrade to them contemplating the existential notion of what it means to be a toy—are ones that were dealt with to some degree in the earlier films. There is also no single sequence that stands out from a visual standpoint in the manner of the conveyor belt scene in “Toy Story 2” or the furnace climax in “Toy Story 3.” Additionally, the story this time devotes most of its focus to Woody and his interactions with the new set of characters and winds up leaving the old gang—even Buzz Lightyear—playing second fiddle. However, there are plenty of strong elements on hand to balance out these slight missteps. Debuting director Josh Cooley does a very good job of maintaining the pace and tone set by the previous scenes, adroitly mixing together scenes of high energy and comedy with the quieter and more wistful moments in which the characters are given time to contemplate their feelings. And while the lower profile given to the majority of the older characters may be a bit difficult to accept for those who have been watching their adventures since the beginning. the new characters fit in effortlessly—Tony Hale is wonderful as the common spork who gradually begins to understand that there is more for him in life than the bottom of a trash can, Christina Hendricks is very good as the alternately adorable and malevolent (though not without her reasons) Gaby and Keanu Reeves more or less steals every scene that he participates in as Duke Caboom. (Author’s Note: Without giving anything away, this is one of those movies where you do want stick around through all of the end credits.)
Perhaps “Toy Story 4” does not exactly expand on what has come before it in the broad strokes but in its defense, it never seems especially interested in doing anything like that. Instead, this installment seems more interested in getting further and deeper into the character of Woody and that is where it shines the most. In lesser hands, Woody might have been little more than a one-joke character with enough personality for a single film but in the years since the release of the first “Toy Story,” he has grown into not just one of the most complex and nuanced animated characters of all time but one of the most striking and well-developed characters to grace the big screen in that time, animated or otherwise. On the surface, he may seem to be the ideal heroic type, albeit one from a different era, but over the course of the series, this toy has demonstrated any number of achingly relatable and completely human traits—constant anxiety about how he is doing with others both personally and professionally, struggles with own sense of self-identity and a nagging streak of self-absorption that occasionally compels him to butt in where he is not needed and often inspires big trouble—and mined them in intriguing ways, thanks in no small part to the vocal contributions of one of the few actors who could convincingly relate all of those powerful emotions and still get big laughs at just the right moment. Here, the filmmakers and Hanks have managed to find new shadings for Woody as he slowly but surely begins to embrace the place where life has now taken him and contemplate the pros and cons of a complacent existence versus an uncertain but potentially exciting future, building to an emotional climax more moving and convincing than any to be found in many of the more ostensibly serious-minded movies made of late.“Toy Story 4” is a wonderful film and proof positive that a sequel—a third sequel, no less—can be just as strong and smart and surprising as the work that it sprang from, provided that it has been made with the same degree of care and ambition that went into the previous installments. It mixes together humorous moments ranging from quiet little in-jokes to elaborate gags with the kind of sentimental one that may have some viewers speculating on the dust content in the theater and earns every single one of them. It is so effective, in fact, that when it comes to its lovely final moments, most viewers will find themselves torn between wanting to see more adventures with Woody and the others and wanting the franchise to go out on the same kind of high note that it came in on. Either way, the film is a delight from start to finish (and again, I implore you to stay through the end credits) and after watching it, you will almost certainly never look at a spork the same way again.
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