At The Movies - Toy Story 4 Remains Delightful And Proud
By Jordan Bosch
A sequel to Toy Story 3 always felt like a remarkably bad idea. There are only a few perfect movie trilogies: The Lord of the Rings, the Apu trilogy, the Before trilogy, possibly the original Star Wars trilogy, and the Toy Story trilogy.
Despite being made years apart (eleven between the second and third), they really felt like one story tied together through an increasingly evolving theme about growing up, which meant something so powerful for those of us who grew up with the series, being roughly the same the age as the kid Andy in each instalment. Toy Story 3 was the perfect conclusion, ending with one of the most beautifully bittersweet closures of a movie series in recent memory.
Nine years later though, Toy Story 4 comes to cinemas, directed by up-and-coming Pixar animator Josh Cooley, attempting to continue the story. It’s a monumental task to match up, and the movie doesn’t.
But it is a very worthy addendum to the series, and specifically for the character of Woody.
Two years after Andy donated his toys to the little girl Bonnie, Woody (Tom Hanks) is a bit forlorn that Bonnie hasn’t been playing with him much in the lead-up to starting kindergarten, but still does all he can to ensure her happiness. When she becomes enamoured with a toy she made out of a spork called Forky (Tony Hale) who believes he’s just trash, Woody tries to convince him of his worth while on a road trip with Bonnie’s family.
When Woody and Forky are separated from the other toys, they run afoul of an antique doll called Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) and reunite with Woody’s lost love interest Bo Peep (Annie Potts), while Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) mounts a search for them.
This movie has a big and impressive cast. In addition to Hanks and Allen, mainstays Joan Cusack, Wallace Shawn, John Ratzenberger, Blake Clark, and Estelle Harris are back, as well as Kristen Schaal, Jeff Garlin, Timothy Dalton, and Bonnie Hunt as Bonnie’s toys introduced in the last film. Hale (who’s essentially just playing Buster Bluth) is a welcome addition, as is Hendricks, who plays her character with a surprising amount of pathos. Key and Peele reunite as a pair of comic relief carnival toys, and Keanu Reeves is absolutely awesome as a Canadian Evel Knievel style action figure called Duke Caboom.
And keep an open ear for cameos from Carol Burnett, Carl Reiner, Betty White, and Mel Brooks.
But with so many characters, some are bound to be neglected, which is sadly the case for the secondary toys. Especially after the prominent theme of family togetherness in Toy Story 3, it’s rather disappointing that most of the long-running characters don’t get much of anything to do -and in the case of Mr. Potato Head, one of the most colourful personalities of the series is noticeably relegated to the background due to the death of Don Rickles, and Pixar deciding not to replace him as they did Jim Varney.
Cusack’s Jessie as well, the heart of Toy Story 2 and one of the series’ best characters, is vastly underutilized when there’s little reason she couldn’t have been a bigger part of the story.
In fact the appropriate phrase for most of the problems with this movie is “missed opportunity”.
The premise is that Bonnie’s family is on a road trip, yet the only real setting is a small-town fair, giving the movie a scale that feels more like one of the Toy Story TV specials. Forky’s existential crisis could have been explored in greater detail, possibly as a mirror to Buzz’s in the first movie; the question of what makes a toy is right there, but little is done with it.
However among these disappointments, the film succeeds exponentially in other areas. It deals with its villain in a wholly different way than any of the other movies by really honing in on their point of view and feelings.
It maturely tackles the notion of purpose in life, with Woody at a crossroads as an old toy well aware that nothing lasts forever -speaking to older audiences perhaps better than any Toy Story movie yet.
And most importantly the movie does justice by a character the series has largely ignored since 1999.
After having been a significant supporting character in Toy Story, Bo Peep was moved to the margin of Toy Story 2, and written out entirely from Toy Story 3, which I’ve always felt was unfair to a likeable, funny character who was one of the few female voices in the series.
But Toy Story 4 not only fills in the gap of her story, it gives her a major role in the narrative that completely redeems all of that. Bo’s adventurous, sharp, and resourceful personality is almost as much fun as Potts’ enthusiastic performance, clearly relishing the chance to play a starring role for a change. And it’s her exuberant presence that facilitates the ultimate arc for Woody, not just of this movie but the whole series.
The story of of these films is more or less the story of Woody (Buzz has been the star of the subplots since the second film). He’s grown a lot as a character -where once he was extremely jealous and petty at being replaced as a kids’ favourite toy, now he openly advocates and encourages Forky in that status.
The movies have been his journey through accepting change, coming to terms with his mortality, and learning to move on. And this movie addresses what comes after moving on. Can he face a future of just watching another child grow up? What is his role as a toy? This movie brings up a
lot of the same themes as Toy Story 2 but it comes to a different conclusion, and one that really feels appropriate and earned.
If it is indeed the final Toy Story film, it brings Woody’s story to a satisfying end.
And though it’s not as emotionally wrought as the whole last act of Toy Story 3, it is rather touching, especially to everyone who first met this cowboy decades ago.
It should be said too, that Hanks is doing some of the best work he’s ever done as this character here.
Francis Ford Coppola called The Godfather Part III an epilogue to the story told in the first two films, and that’s what Toy Story 4 is (though a better movie than The Godfather Part III). It’s not of the same calibre as its predecessors; it doesn’t know what to do with most of its returning characters (even Buzz feels unusually dumb and useless), and some of the comedy fails in that same wild, swinging-for-the-fences way as Finding Dory.
But its’ strengths are such that it works as a nice afterthought, like a more interesting version of the final chapter of the last Harry Potter book. If the Toy Story trilogy is about growing up, Toy Story 4 is about being grown up, rediscovering oneself, and making the difficult choices that come from that. Don’t let it be said Pixar doesn’t know their audience.