Different characters but same old story
The number 4 typically doesn’t bode well for film franchises, which understandably has quite a few “Toy Story” fans feeling nervous. When it comes to constructing dramatic arcs across multiple movies, trilogies seem to offer a natural cycle, after which creatives must decide whether to reinvent (see “Fast & Furious”, “Mad Max: Fury Road”) or carry on toward Episodes 5, 6 and 7, hoping not to derail things in the process (a la “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace” and “Jaws: The Revenge”).
Those are the stakes facing “Toy Story 4”, but this is Pixar we’re talking about — a place where followups level up — and this series’ quaternary installment adds so much that audiences will find it hard to imagine the saga without it. After all, Pixar is the kind of studio that so believes in doing right by its properties, it scrapped Disney’s slapdash direct-to-video plans for “Toy Story 2” in order to make a theatrical sequel that surpassed the original. A decade later, “Toy Story 3” further expanded on the fundamental questions of what it means to be a toy, ending with an unforgettably emotional scene in which college-bound Andy passed his playthings on to a new child, Bonnie.
For many, the exploits of Woody (Tom Hanks) and Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) ought to have ended there. This is no cash-grab continuation, however, but an organic and intuitive new chapter that enriches our understanding of the characters, offering a different and more satisfying kind of closure for their collective journeys — which involve Bonnie’s first day of kindergarten, a family road trip and the discovery of an antiques shop where sad old toys hope for a second chance.
Meanwhile, for those of us who had misgivings about the previous film, director Josh Cooley (taking over for John Lasseter after he left Pixar amid sexual harassment charges) has delivered the movie “Toy Story 3” should have been. Narratively speaking, that film ended where it should have begun, wasting too much of its running time on comedic shenanigans in an unnecessarily sinister daycare. As in Margery Williams’ classic “The Velveteen Rabbit” — or that one gray night it happened, in “Puff the Magic Dragon”, when Jackie Paper came no more — it was inevitable that Buzz and Woody’s owner would eventually outgrow them, and yet Andy’s farewell felt like a cheat, considering the toys had been accidentally thrown away (and nearly incinerated) in that film.
Simultaneously deeper and more artistic, “Toy Story 4” opens with the concept of how such plush and plastic companions adjust to the idea that their duty to their original child might be done. That’s a lesson Bo Peep (Annie Potts) — the porcelain lamp belonging to Andy’s sister, Molly, who was donated nine years earlier — seems to comprehend during a flashback in which she tells Woody by way of farewell, “It’s time for the next kid.” The third film (from which Bo was missing) skipped over this wrenching separation, which is included here as dramatic setup for an unexpected reunion, wherein Woody stumbles on his old love interest and must decide which way his conscience will point him from here.
The brilliance of all the “Toy Story” films lies in the characters’ repeated demonstrations of loyalty and responsibility — to their owners and to one another — and the way they juggle that with their almost-human emotions. Woody has a “Leave no toy behind” policy (fitting for the actor who saved Private Ryan), reiterated early on via a daring nighttime rescue in which the pull-string cowboy saves RC when the car is left in the yard during a storm.
Kids lose toys all the time, we’re reminded, and yet Woody’s above-and-beyond impulse is an extension of the trait that led him to save Buzz from vicious neighbor Sid all those years ago. Now it extends to a new addition: Forky, a plastic spork that Bonnie transforms into an original plaything. On her first day of kindergarten, Bonnie literally “makes” a friend with the addition of pipe-cleaner arms, popsicle-stick feet and googly eyes, all ingredients re-purposed from the trash bin and held together with clay.
A nearly brainless noob voiced with just the right mixture of naivete and awe by “Arrested Development” star Tony Hale, Forky is fundamentally different from the new toys we’ve met before (remember how Buzz, who thought he was the real Space Ranger, had to be convinced, “You are a toy!”): This Frankensteined ex-eating utensil has no interest in Bonnie’s happiness but instead longs to return to the trash — which makes for a delightful montage, set to a Randy Newman ditty, “I Can’t Let You Throw Yourself Away”, wherein Woody repeatedly intercepts Forky’s tireless suicide attempts. (Who better than a spork to suffer an identity crisis: Is he a fork, or is he a spoon?) But what this control-freak cowboy’s really doing, Forky eventually realizes, is refusing to admit that he, too, might be trash.
And so “Toy Story 4” revisits the existential questions that arise when a toy outlives its usefulness, or when its utility changes — as in the second film, when Woody is coveted by an adult collector. Screenwriters Andrew Stanton and Stephany Folsom imagine a variation on that situation here, when Forky and Woody, who break away from the gang during a road trip to Grand Basin National Park, take an ill-advised detour through an antiques store displaying Bo Peep’s lamp stand in the window.
This strange wonderland, crowded with cobwebs and bric-a-brac of all kinds, is overseen by Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), a vintage pull-string doll obsessed with finding a replacement for her broken voice box … just like the one sewn into Woody’s torso. Here, once again, Pixar gives us the idea of malicious toys — an idea that, in theory, might be better left to the “Annabelle” movies but works in this context because it offers fresh angles on the experience Woody has taken for granted: being treated as one child’s favorite for so long. (RTRS)
By Peter Debruge