Toy Story 4 (2019) Review
Dir. Josh Cooley; Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Annie Potts
3.5 out of 4 stars
The Toy Story films have always been excellent, so it’s unsurprising that the latest iteration, director Josh Cooley’s Toy Story 4 (2019), turned out to be a funny, delightful, and altogether impressive film. Still, what is surprising is just how good it was. The first Toy Story was released in 1995, nearly two-and-a-half decades ago (and before I was born), to overwhelming critical acclaim and the adoration of children and adults alike. It was Pixar’s first full-length feature film, a sort of make-it-or-break-it effort to prove the company’s worth to its (future) parent company, Disney. That history, as well as the film’s treatment of growing childhood, lends an air of comfortable nostalgia to Toy Story 4.
The first three Toy Story films followed the relationship between a growing boy named Andy (voiced by John Morris) and his favorite toys. As Andy grew from a grinning young boy who ran through the house bedecked in a cowboy hat to a college-bound young man, we watched as his toys’ significance waned (although never extinguishing completely). Andy’s favorite toy, the fast-talkin’, often sardonic, Western sheriff, Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks, in one of his finest and least prosaic roles), was always there, introducing the audience to a world where toys live and breathe and have lives of their own. But Toy Story 4 takes up a new task: in a heartrending moment in Toy Story 3 (2010), Andy hesitantly passed on his beloved toys to a new owner, the young Bonnie (voiced by Madeleine McGraw, previously Emily Hahn), and the burgeoning friendship between Bonnie and her new toys marks the beginning of the most recent film.
At Bonnie’s, Woody is having a difficult time adjusting to his new career. Although Bonnie enjoys her new toys, she routinely picks out her favorites, including the lovably obtuse space ranger, Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) and the exuberant cowgirl Jessie (Joan Cusack), while passing over Woody, who lies in the closet. The other novitiates, more used to their wavering statuses, assure Woody that he’ll be chosen next time. Bonnie’s family then goes on a cross-country road trip, taking them to a small village. After wandering into an antique shop and meeting the main villain of the film, a terrifying talking doll named Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) and her subordinate ventriloquist’s dummies, Woody discovers his long-lost love, Bo Peep (Annie Potts), who has been a “lost toy” for seven years. The two reconnect through a series of harrowing events in the antique shop and the traveling fair outside, ultimately leaving Woody uncertain of his place in the world, whether his duty is to stay with Bonnie, or to find a new place with Bo.
Toy Story 4 is genuinely hilarious. It is one of the only films I’ve seen in recent years that has made me laugh out loud, multiple times. It’s also one of those rare sequels that not only fits with the previous films, but actually expands on them in a fresh way. My only real complaint is that the film sort of rehashes the same general storyline as the past three films: (1) a new toy takes attention away from Woody, (2) the cowboy begins to feel insecure about his place in life, thus (3) turning to some sort of adventure where he can (4) reassert his (newfound, but ultimately rather similar) place as the authoritative sheriff and paterfamilias of the toy group. Toy Story 4 follows through with that line until (4). I won’t spoil the end, but it’s safe to say that Woody’s emotional development has reached new heights here. And at 1 hour and 40 minutes, the film is the perfect length: long enough to effectively develop plot and characters and leave audiences satisfied, but not quite lengthy enough to feel drawn-out or boring. In other words, Toy Story 4 is a real cinematic feat; a funny, emotional, and captivating addition to an already fantastic series.
The humor of the Toy Story franchise has always rested in the juxtaposition of attitudes. As in the real world, the toy world is made up of myriad character types. Much of the film’s unceasing humor is engendered by the vocal performances of the earlier casts, including Hanks and Allen. Woody’s cynical demeanor brilliantly pairs with and plays off of Buzz’s straightforward, literal interpretations. In a particularly amusing scene, Woody tries to explain to Buzz that he makes his decisions by listening to his “inner voice.” Buzz, stoically obedient as usual, follows suit by clicking his plastic buttons to hear the preprogrammed voice there, which tells him things like: “Return to base.”
Fortunately, however, the screenwriters (a long list of credits including Andrew Stanton, Stephany Folsom, and Rashida Jones) did not merely fall back on the verve of the aforementioned vocal performers, nor the jokes of previous films. Many of the original toys, including Jessie, Mr Potato Head (Don Rickles), Rex (Wallace Shawn), and Slinky Dog (Blake Clark), have significantly smaller roles than before, and are primarily ensemble figures. Instead, Toy Story 4 makes room for other stories (something I found positive). Bo Peep’s character is developed greatly here; in the time since we last saw her, she has become a back-flipping, renegade badass, leading the other “lost toys” to new purposes. Additionally, several new characters make their debuts. One of the film’s central comedic thrusts is the Frankensteinean creation of “Forky.” Woody, steeped in denial and the memory of his halcyon days, determines that what Bonnie really needs is a friend to go with her to her first day of kindergarten orientation. After returning, Woody explains to the other toys that in her loneliness, Bonnie has “made a new friend.” The others don’t realize that he means this literally: Bonnie has created a new toy from the disparate contents of a classroom waste bin. From popsicle sticks, putty, googly eyes, and a spork, Bonnie has erected a walking existential crisis. Forky (voiced by Tony Hale), as we soon find out, doesn’t view himself as a toy. Whenever Woody isn’t watching, Forky makes a beeline for the garbage bin, yelling “I’m trash!” and diving headfirst into the collection of waste. These moments (and there are many of them), are utterly, side-splittingly hilarious. Hale’s voice, which you may recognize as Buster’s from Arrested Development (2003-2019), has something positively laugher-inducing about it, and it honestly doesn’t get old.
Other new characters add other brands of comedy. At the fair, Buzz meets two plush toys, who are instantly recognizable as genius comedy duo, Key & Peele. Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key lend their fast-talking, quick-witted sense of humor to the film in the form of two interconnected and rather sadistic plush toys, Bunny and Ducky, respectively. The two are responsible for a series of impetuous plans, each more elaborate than the last, which always seem to end with them unnecessarily terrorizing little old ladies (remember that the humans are unaware that their toys can talk, let alone jump out from closet shelves). Other new additions include Duke Caboom (voiced by Keanu Reeves), a downcast Evel Knievel-like figure, who attempted implausible motorcycle stunt jumps before his owner realized he was just a toy. Any of these characters would be funny on their own. Together, they’re riotous.
Like several of Pixar’s animated masterpieces, Toy Story 4 isn’t all about the comedy. Beyond the jokes is a level of emotional pith. Bonnie’s experiences in kindergarten – the overwhelming loneliness and anxiety – are deeply affecting, and capture something many viewers will probably relate to. Watching Toy Story 4 now, in my 20s, I can appreciate some of the deeper level at work behind these kinds of scenes; by placing Woody as the spectator of Bonnie’s worries, the film plays to both the younger and older audiences (something Disney and Pixar films have always done well). These kinds of films change as I do. Toy Story used to be a funny, yet terrifying film for me (for many years, Sid’s toy dungeon was the essence of nightmares). Now, I approach the films far more nostalgic than afraid, and I find myself more in the position of Andy than Bonnie: some of the toy animals I once promised I would never remove from my bed have remained in their cardboard boxes in my closet, untouched for longer than I ever played with them. And it doesn’t get any more nostalgic than when Randy Newman’s ballad to friendship, “You’ve Got a Friend in Me,” kicks in.
Adding to this more introspective level is Toy Story 4’s theme of the “lost toys.” Although previous films have dealt with the more disquieting aspects of the toy world – who could forget Jessie’s story in Toy Story 2 (2004), accompanied by Sarah McLachlan’s tragic “When She Loved Me”? – Toy Story 4 approaches such matters from multiple angles. As Woody explains to Forky, a toy’s main purpose is to be played with; this is why it hurt Woody so much when he was passed over in Bonnie’s playroom. In addition to Bo Peep, who was given away by Andy’s sister nine years earlier, there’s Gabby Gabby, who was relegated to an antique shop when her electric voice box was discovered kaput. Although she’s framed as the main villain for much of the film, as she is intent on acquiring Woody’s voice box at any cost, she’s also somewhat sympathetic. In more touching moments, we see her true feelings come out: like everyone else, she’s always searched for a sense of belonging. Perhaps most poignant was the developments between Woody and Bo Peep. In a sort of it’s-okay-to-be-different moment, the “lost toys” (toys that have been left behind or forgotten by their owners), led by Bo, are allowed to show that there are multiple ways to achieve their purpose in life. One can start to think of parallels here to the human world: not everyone has the same kind of relationships and friendships, and although that sense of belonging and emotional intimacy is invariably important, it can be found by different means.
One of Toy Story 1-4’s successes for me has been its ability to weave together distinct, unique characters without feeling commercialistic. I know I’m in the minority here, but I was honestly bored stupid by How to Train Your Dragon (2010), another film often cited for its prowess in animation. To me, How to Train Your Dragon felt like a never-ending advertisement for trading cards or action figures: the introduction of each character (i.e., wide-eyed baby dragon) seemed like a mere enumeration of qualities and skills designed for younger audiences to remember when they battle it out with the toys (water power quenches fire, mine has more health, and so on). Toy Story, despite its frank product placement (Barbies and Mr Potato Heads probably sell slightly better immediately following the films’ releases), doesn’t feel like it’s trying to sell me something. Maybe that’s just better marketing – some have argued that commercials and content have grown less and less distinctive over time – but I’d take Toy Story over How to Train Your Dragon any day.
It’s possible that Toy Story 4 may be the last film in the series. I find this a little unlikely, given the facts that (1) Hollywood will always capitalize on any film it thinks already has a market, and (2) the film ends with several possibilities for spin-offs. With almost any other series, I would be screaming at this point: Stop now before you ruin a good thing! But Toy Story 4 did the unthinkable in creating a sequel that is so good I may like it better than the original. So for now, I will have to admit that if they made a fifth Toy Story, I’d pay to see it.