Note: I don’t spoil any major plot points in this review, but I hint at aspects of Toy Story 4 that could be construed as spoilers. So let’s just call this a spoiler review.
Walking into Pixar’s Toy Story 4, I thought the pertinent question would be: was a fourth installment necessary? Given how most Pixar sequels have not lived up to their predecessors (Toy Story 2 being the most notable exception) and how Toy Story 3 presents an adequate ending to the then trilogy, it made little sense for a fourth film to exist beyond the want for money.
Sitting through the first act of Josh Cooley’s film, however, this questioning starts to disappear. Toy Story 4 may not wind up being a pivotal work of animation that propels this franchise forward in groundbreaking ways, but it stays in the Toy Story thematic lane of existential growth. And that is certainly something worth noting.
Much has already been said about Forky, the new character introduced in Toy Story 4 voice by Tony Hale, whose existence is pulled out of thin air by a lonely Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw) looking for a friend at kindergarten orientation. Forky does not want to a be a toy, something that he was made to be when Bonnie took pipe cleaners, googly eyes, and a spork that were originally in the trash. No, Forky wants to be the trash that a plastic spork is destined to be.
From this existential crisis comes one of the best montages in this series (that is to say, it is perhaps the best montage in the Toy Story franchise played entirely for laughs). But Forky introduces concepts of theology and existential panic that are fascinating and, more importantly, themes for Toy Story 4 that fit the overarching thematic arc of the series and lead to a satisfying conclusion to the series’ central character.
Forky is the realization of all of Woody’s (Tom Hanks) fears. From when we first meet him in Toy Story, his main goals have been leading toys and serving his kid, and his biggest fear has been becoming useless. In short, Woody doesn’t want to be trash.
Forky may not ultimately have much to do in the film, aside from being someone who’s knack for getting into trouble is a nuisance to Woody, but Hale is perfectly cast as the newborn toy. And being a nuisance to Woody is all the role Forky needs to be, really.
Whether this is the final Toy Story film or not, this film provides a satisfying conclusion to Woody’s arc. The character takes center stage in this film (sorry Buzz) so that he can realize his full potential.
No longer in a position of leadership in Bonnie’s room, Woody loses a sense of purpose. With the entrance of Forky, he not only finds a newfound purpose, but he becomes a father. When Forky flings himself off of a moving RV, Woody may become deluded by his one-track mind motivation of getting Forky back to Bonnie at all costs, but throughout the rescue narrative (every Toy Story has a rescue narrative. For better and worse, this one covers the entire second and third acts.) Woody learns that there is so much more outside of his insular life where his blind determination can be beneficial.
The upside of having the resolution of Woody’s arc is that it creates a satisfying resolution to the film itself. It also brings about an elegant theme in the idea that your inner voice can only lead you so far. At a certain point, you must look outside your own ideas of the world and your role in it in order to progress as a person. The physical manifestation of this theme may be a bit on the nose, but otherwise it is a lovely and complex idea for a children’s film to boast.
There’s a downside to the Woody show, of course. As one might expect, focusing so much on Woody’s story sidelines other characters. But this is dealt with in a clunky way. Most of the characters you may have come to know and love in the previous three films are left in the backseat, quite literally. Buzz jumps out for a bit to follow his own “inner voice,” but that doesn’t yield much fruit.
The film is populated instead by plenty of new figures, including two carnival prizes voiced by Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele and an Evel Knievel-style Canadian toy voiced by Keanu Reeves. The additions add color to the action, but it is strange to be continually introduced to new characters throughout the film when roughly two dozen characters are sitting in an RV twiddling their thumbs.
The exception to this is the re-introduction of Bo Peep (Annie Potts), who is presented as a type of toy character we haven’t really seen in the series before. Her lifestyle is radically different from what Woody and the other toys have known, and it is an interesting addition. It is ultimately an addition in service of Woody’s arc, but Bo is nevertheless the most engaging character in the film.
It is worth noting how far animation has progressed throughout the course of the Toy Story series. Some are taking the release of Toy Story 4 to retroactively put down the original film for “not holding up.” While it is inevitable that a computer-animated film from the mid-90s is going to have rough edges, the nascent technology on display in Toy Story is nevertheless amazing and groundbreaking. The original Toy Story may not entirely hold up, but most of the animation in that film is still quite good.
Toy Story 4 has instances of animation that are gorgeous. One moment in particular comes to mind, a rare moment where the action pauses and the characters take a quiet moment. In this case, they pause to take in the beauty of a series of light fixtures in a store. A simple image, but it is rendered in a lovely manner.
Toy Story 4 does not have the cleanest plot. That most characters are left on the backburner and the majority of the story involves going in and out of a single building leaves something to be desired. Most of the substance comes in the subtext. There are strong thematic concepts in the film, to be sure. The question becomes, though, whether or not those themes provide enough substance to overcome the shortcomings.
Toy Story 4: B
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)