I have been beating the drum on the fact that Toy Story 4 shouldn’t exist ever since the project got announced all the way back in November 2014. Toy Story 3 just wrapped up the saga of Woody, Buzz and company so well, was there any need for a fourth one? Having now seen Toy Story 4, I can’t say this new entry in the saga is an essential beat, but it does work well as an epilogue to Toy Story 3’s conclusion as well as a satisfying movie on its own standalone terms. Plus, instead of just serving up a bunch of nostalgic callbacks to prior films, it primary focuses turns out to be on exploring larger ideas about how to define one’s self-worth as a person, a theme covered by most summertime animated kids movies.
Picking up a year or two after the ending of Toy Story 3 that saw Woody (Tom Hanks) and the other toys handed off to a little girl named Bonnie, Woody is now determined to make sure everything in Bonnie’s life is a perfect with a capital P to a sometimes obsessive degree. While on her first day of Kindergarten, Bonnie makes a brand new toy out of a spork, a popsicle stick and some fuzzy wire named Forky (Tony Hale) that immediately becomes her new favorite toy. This means Woody is determined to protect Forky at all costs, a much more difficult task than expected because Forky doesn’t want to be played with, he just wants to go into the trashcan and reside among the trash.
While on a road trip, Woody and Forky get separated from Bonnie and, while trying to get back to their kid, run into Woody’s former friend Bo Peep (Annie Hall), who has made a life for herself as a toy without an owner. Bo Peep soon join Woody and Forky on an adventure that sees PIXAR continuing their admirable streak of constantly trying to make sure their sequels (save for Incredibles 2) are slightly different movies from their predecessors. This approach has had varying degrees of success, with Cars 2 turning the whole Cars series into a James Bond riff being the big misfire, but relying on predominately new characters and shifting the focus onto new characters does tend to work well for PIXAR sequels, particularly Toy Story 4.
This go-around, Toy Story 4 separates itself from its predecessors in a number of ways, chiefly in having Woody and Buzz primarily interact with newly introduced characters like Canadian stuntman Duke Kaboom (Keanu Reeves) or the stuffed animal duo Ducky (Keegan Michael-Key) & Bunny (Jordan Peele). I wouldn’t have minded a greater presence of classic characters like Rex or Mr. Pricklepants, but the new characters, including a revamped version of Bo Peep, are pretty much delightful from top-to-bottom, particularly a new adversary named Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) who at first emerges as a new toy villain in the vein of previous baddies Lotso or Stinky Pete (i.e. a cuddly toy that’s actually vicious) before gradually becoming something much more fascinating.
Relying heavily on new characters is not the only way Toy Story 4 ends up deviating from its predecessors, tohugh, there’s also an unexpected streak of strange humor throughout the film, whether it’s in Forky’s self-destructive tendencies, Bo Peep’s casual attitude towards losing body parts or in the fantasy digressions of Ducky & Bunny that takes the inherent bizarreness of this whole set-up of toys coming to life and just runs with it. These recurring bits of comedy certainly feel unlike any of the comedy seen in prior installments (save for that Toy Story 3 gag where Mr. Potato Head put his body parts on a cucumber) and going so boldly against the grain of Toy Story franchise comedy conventions is an admirable move, especially since these strains of comedy end up being so hilarious. Any of the sight gags centered on Forky trying to throw himself away, as well as Tony Hale’s line deliveries of Forky proudly proclaiming himself to be trash, had me in stitches.
Of course, not everything is wholly new in Toy Story 4. Woody is still voiced wonderfully by Tom Hanks, and the fourth movie in a row, it still impresses me how an actor so widely well-known as Hanks is able to vanish into this role so effortlessly, his vocal performance as Woody always reminds me of this toy cowboy rather than evoking the real-life Hanks. Tim Allen remains solid as Buzz Lightyear, even if his plotline about learning to listen to his “inner voice” feels like an odd direction to take the character in. Though this subplot is clearly meant to serve as an extension of Toy Story 4’s overall thematic exploration of how we define our own personality and behavior, Buzz’s storyline, unfortunately, feels like one of the more strained parts of Toy Story 4’s script penned by Stephany Folsom and Andrew Stanton.
Far more successful is the attempts at poignancy. After all, this is a PIXAR movie and more often than not these darn things will stimulate your tear ducts like the cinematic version of a bowl of onions. Toy Story 4 may not have a massive tearjerker moment like the big Remember Me scene from Coco or When Somebody Loved Me from Toy Story 4, but there are plenty of contemplative moments that got me misty-eyed. Most notable among these emotional sequences (at least, most notable among the ones I can discuss in a spoiler-free review) are an impressively directed (first-time director Josh Cooley does remarkable work here) opening scene depicting the initial farewell between Woody and Bo Peep and a roadside conversation between Woody and Forky that sees Woody talking about what it’s like to have your kid move on from needing a toy. These two scenes, as well as the best emotional moments of Toy Story 4, rely impressively on a sense of restraint, as dialogue is thankfully eschewed when just a glance or a nod of a head will do to communicate what the characters are feeling. Maybe Toy Story 4 wasn’t essential, but these memorably poignant scenes do make me, the fellow who spent so long decrying its existence, mighty glad it’s around just the same.