Movie Review: Toy Story 4
By Matthew Huntley
July 3, 2019
Given its reliable MO, “Toy Story” is a series that could conceivably go on for all time. Every installment in this inaugural and much beloved Pixar franchise has the same basic plot: among a group of toy regulars enters a new one, an outlier with a unique point of view, a complicated past, a special skill set or handicap, an eccentric personality, etc. This new toy is initially a threat or challenge to the others and inevitably jumpstarts a series of misadventures that usually involve the toys getting lost, having to rescue one another, and racing against time to make it back to their kid’s room safe and sound, all without letting the unsuspecting human characters know these toys are, in fact, alive and have personalities of their own.
This structure is so formidable it would seem the storytellers only need to think up a new character and plug him or her into the trusted formula, and with so many toy options out there, the possibilities are endless.
But this suggests any of what I just described is easy, and it’s not, not for the directors, the screenwriters, the computer animation artists—practically everyone involved in these lofty, ambitious enterprises. If it were, there would be a lot more sequels and they wouldn’t be as high caliber as they continue to be after nearly 25 years.
“Toy Story 4” joins its brethren as another imaginative, multi-incident (yet perfectly coherent) family adventure, as well as a marvelous visual treat, with its crisp, highly detailed computer imagery. Once again, the Pixar folks have spared no expense in rendering each frame perfectly while still prioritizing the characters and story, which is often laugh-out-loud funny, sometimes mildly scary, consistently action-packed, and cheerfully heartwarming. The “Toy Story” movies are ones that warrant such superlatives because they always manage to imprint a smile on whoever is watching them. They offer something for everyone.
But, if you’ve followed the franchise since the beginning, you’ll likely notice, just as I did, that “Toy Story 4” also carries with it an air of finalization. For all the great qualities it exhibits, I must admit the series as a whole has lost some of its luster. This isn’t a criticism so much as an observation. Simply, “Toy Story” has run its course.
Luckily, if this is the last installment, it will end the series on the same high (if not higher) note as it began. We leave “Toy Story 4” feeling jubilated and pleased rather than thinking the franchise must hurry up and end, lest it run out its welcome. The filmmakers do such a wonderful job of keeping the narrative and characters intact that we never suspect the storytelling is on the fritz. Rather, it’s just a matter of fact it’s gone about as far as it can go. There are no hard feelings to speak of, only good ones.
And of the good feelings the movie generates, many of them come courtesy of Andrew Stanton and Stephanie Folsom’s inventive screenplay, which they forged from a story that included six other writers. It once again presents a roll of the dice in terms of “what’s next?!” hurdles the characters must overcome in order to re-establish equilibrium in their mini-universe, where their prime objective is to ensure the happiness of their beloved “kid.”
The entire original gang is here, including Woody (voice of Tom Hanks), Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), Jessie (Joan Cusack), Dolly (Bonnie Hunt), Rex (Wallace Shawn), Hamm (John Ratzenberger), Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head (the late Don Rickles and Estelle Harris), Slinky Dog (Blake Clark). You know ‘em, you love ‘em.
Their kid, five-year-old Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw), is about to enter kindergarten, and to combat loneliness on orientation day, Bonnie takes it upon herself to make a new toy using a spork, an ice cream paddle spoon, some Play-Doh, a pair of unequal wiggly googly eyes, and a pipe cleaner. She names it Forky (Tony Hale), and when he comes to life, he innately thinks that because his original parts were taken out of the trash, he must be trash too, so he makes every effort to throw himself away.
But Woody and the others try to convince their new friend otherwise, and because it’s now Forky’s job as Bonnie’s new favorite toy to make her happy, Woody makes it his personal mission to see that Forky fulfill his inherent sacred duty. In actuality, it’s because Woody has nothing better to do. Ever since Bonnie stopped picking him out of the bunch during play time, he’s started questioning his purpose. He doesn’t feel too good getting left behind in the closet with the other rejects. “Aw, you’ve got your first dust bunny,” one of the other castoffs says to him.
The plot thickens when Bonnie and her parents take a road trip and Forky is so determined to discard himself, he jumps out the back of the family RV. Woody chases after him, and before you know it, they’re separated from the rest of the pack.
From this point on, rather than list all the details of the incident-heavy plot, not to mention the slew of new toy characters, I’ll just say summarize them by letting you know the story features a dusty, cobweb-laden antique story; an old-fashioned doll from the 1950s with a broken voice box named Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), along with her eerie, Howdy-Doody look-alike minions; Ducky (Keegan-Michael Key) and Bunny (Jordan Peele), a sewn together, stuffed animal pair who eagerly await a kid to win them from their carnival game habitat; and a daredevil motorcycle stuntman with a ‘70s-style goatee named Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves).
They all contribute to the film’s zippy action scenes and slapstick hijinks, but a deeper, more romantic side of the story develops when Woody reunites with Bo Peep (Annie Potts), who, along with her three feisty lambs, was donated to charity years ago and subsequently given up. She’s since chosen the life of a “lost toy,” meaning she’s out in the world on her own, and she flirts this idea of a “kid-free” lifestyle to Woody.
While the story is essentially safe and crowd-pleasing, it also possesses a consistently high energy level and entertainment value, replete with unexpectedly funny dialogue and sight gags. Any viewer would be hard-pressed to find a single scene that didn’t flow smoothly and generate some instance of laughter, emotion, insight, or combination thereof.
In fact, “Toy Story 4” is so rich and well-rounded that I struggle to find a legitimate flaw with it, but if I had to name one, it would be that the movie lacks bite. As jolly, amusing and fun as it is, it also stays well within the lines of an assured, inoffensive Disney movie. Given how popular and successful the franchise is, it would have been nice if the filmmakers had taken greater chances by infusing the story with more commentary and/or bold statements. About what, I’m not sure, but they certainly had the platform and audience to relay something piercing and thoughtful bit instead chose not to ruffle any feathers or incite viewers to think too hard about any one thing. We know, thanks to endeavors like “WALL-E” and “Inside Out,” that Disney/Pixar movies can serve as more than just escapist entertainment, but “Toy Story 4” doesn’t seem too interested in making us even slightly uncomfortable. We walk away from it feeling springy and joyous but not exactly challenged.
Maybe if “Toy Story 4” had mixed up its formula a bit, I would be less inclined to think the series has gone about as far as it can go. Then again, maybe changing the formula would have made it another series altogether, and so this latest installment is as it should be. After all, some movies should simply make us feel light and blissful, nothing more. It’s okay to be consistent, especially when the makers of “Toy Story” prove that consistency and high quality can go hand in hand. Now, however, I say they dedicate their efforts and resources to a different idea, and if it ends up being anything like “Toy Story,” I’m sure we’ll only have good things to say about it.