Synopsis: Aaaaaaaaaand they’re back! Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz (Tim Allen), and the gang return for a fourth instalment, this time as the property of new kid Bonnie. When Bonnie’s nerves act up during kindergarten orientation, she creates new ‘toy’ Forky (Tony Hale), who ends up creating trouble for the rest of the toys as they go on an impromptu road trip. Mayhem ensues in various locations, including an antique store, a carnival, and an RV.
1. Toy Story 4 is a vexing film. On the one hand, it is a very well-made film, filled with the usual Pixar elements that make their films such fantastic pop art. The set pieces are exciting and immaculately crafted, the jokes land every single time, and there is no shortage of the heartfelt emotional moments that have characterised the work of Pixar studios (and this franchise in particular). The Toy Story series has always been odd as children’s entertainment, being as obsessed as it is with existential themes such as the meaning of life and encroaching mortality. In this regard, Toy Story 4 is no different, expanding these existential concerns to include a parenthood metaphor and the theme of desire vs. duty. It’s funny, entertaining, and tear-jerking in equal measure, and is another strong entrant into the Pixar canon.
On the other hand, Toy Story 4 is wholly, entirely, completely, totally unnecessary.
2. Before we discuss Toy Story 4 in earnest, there is an important bit of context I must provide. I believe the Toy Story trilogy is, top to bottom, the best film trilogy of all time. Yes, better than Star Wars. And LOTR. And The Dark Knight trilogy. And the Before … no, scratch that, the Before trilogy is the best of all time, but Toy Story is a hair’s breadth from it. And part of the Toy Story trilogy’s perfection is in how satisfyingly it ends. As a matter of fact, I would say that Toy Story 3 (2010) has two perfect endings – the absolutely gut-wrenching shot of all the toys holding hands as they gaze into the fiery abyss and that absolutely wonderful final scene of Andy giving his toys away to Bonnie. As such, in a filmic ecosystem where ‘franchises’ seem to rumble on indefinitely, the very existence of Toy Story 4 spoils the finality that the previous three films had managed to achieve. There is a Chinese proverb loosely translated to ‘adding legs to a drawing of a snake’, which is entirely appropriate for this film – an unnecessary appendage that ruins the perfection of what came before.
3. As such, in order for Toy Story 4 to even justify its own existence, it would have to be nothing short of exemplary. It is not. Perhaps due to the fact that its lifespan has been artificially lengthened, this is the first Toy Story film that really shows its age. So many of the narrative elements in this movie feel like a rehash of the previous three. Woody struggles with obsolescence, just as he did in the first film (1995). The villain (Christina Hendricks’ Gabby Gabby) is a toy suffering from abandonment issues and never being picked by a child, much like Stinky Pete in Toy Story 2 (1999) or Lotso in Toy Story 3. The plot involves having to break out a toy from a specific location and to get said toy to another location by a certain time, because that’s the way it always is. Above all, the cardinal sin of Toy Story 4 is just how little it does in terms of world-building as compared to the first three films. The first obviously sets up the entire premise of ‘toys come to life’, the second delved deep into Woody’s origins and the third set up not one, but two brilliantly conceived and elaborated new settings (the daycare and Bonnie’s room). In contrast, the new settings of Toy Story 4 feel awfully generic, with little depth to the inner workings of the carnival or the antique store*.
4. One other reason why the new settings seem less detailed is that the plot is unrelenting to the point of breathlessness. Not only did previous Toy Story films not only include slower, more reflective moments, said moments were often some of the best scenes of their respective films** as they served a purpose of deepening the emotional and thematic architecture, which grounded the character actions and plot developments. Toy Story 4, however, never stops running, both in the literal (no seriously, the characters are in constant motion) and figurative sense. We need to get to this place to do the thing so that we can get the guy so that he can do the other thing so that we can get to the other place and yadda yadda. Don’t get me wrong – all this momentum is still plenty of fun, but it just never seems to add up to anything more resonant. Even the big emotional moment where Woody admits his true motivation feels rushed and noisy (he literally shouts it in another character’s face), when it really should have been a slower, quieter scene.
5. Oh yes, another huge problem. Toy Story works best as an ensemble film when the characters are allowed to bounce off each other, not as the Woody show. Bullseye, Slink, Rex, Ham, and the Potato Heads have next to no screen time, Jessie does one thing worth of note before disappearing from the plot, and even Buzz (Buzz!) spends most of the film isolated from both Woody and the rest of the toys. This creative decision stings even harder because it leeches so much of the poignancy away from the final scene, meaning the emotional weight of the ending has to be borne by the first three films rather than this one. The only reason I cared about a character’s departure because I had seen (many, many times) said character interact with the rest of the cast throughout the first three movies. If it was based only this one, I would find it very hard to give a damn.
6. Look, I really do not want to sound too negative about this movie because, once again, it is very good! So many things about it work! The new characters are fun – Keegan Michael Key and Oscar-winning-screenwriter Jordan Peele steal the show as a conjoined plush duck and rabbit, the Internet’s boyfriend Keanu Reeves has a hilarious role as Canada’s greatest stunt rider Duke Caboom, and Christina Hendricks uses that breathy voice both for menace and pathos as antagonist Gabby Gabby***. Annie Potts’ Bo Peep is a welcome return to the ensemble, providing sass and heart. All manner of existential questions (which the film completely avoids) are raised by the presence of Tony Hale’s Forky, but at least the character is a reliable source of comedy. The action set-pieces are cleverly staged. And as crass and manipulative it may be, those echoes of the other films cannot but tug on my emotions. Those clouds. ‘You Got A Friend In Me’. “There’s A Snake In My Boot”. “To Infinity And Beyond”. The tremor in Tom Hanks’ voice when he says ‘Andy’****. I mean, I’m only human, and the Disney corporation knows this.
7. Which brings us to the flying elephant in the room. Why does this movie exist? Look, I’m no wide-eyed idealist. Most (if not all) movies exist to make money, and the ones that don’t have probably never been seen by a wide audience. The Disney Corporation is no bastion of artistic integrity, but a multinational media conglomerate that serves to churn as high a profit for its shareholders as it possibly can. Toy Story is one of its most recognisable (and ergo, most profitable) IPs. How long could they possibly allow it to lie fallow? And yet, maybe due to my uniquely millennial relationship with Toy Story (I have essentially been the same age as Andy throughout the original trilogy), the stench of capitalist cynicism is not something I can bear to associate with this series. And yet, here we are, talking about another one, almost a full decade after the ‘story’ component of Toy Story ended as perfectly as it possibly could have. I hold out some hope that the series is done, especially since it would take some very creative narrative twisting to reverse the ending of Toy Story 4, but I know better than to stake anything on it, and I would not be surprised if in another 5-10 years (assuming this blog survives to that point), I’m back here complaining about Toy Story 5 after already having forked out money to see it like the good little consumer I am. Perhaps then, it is apt that so much of Toy Story 4‘s marketing surrounds Forky, because I cannot think of a more appropriate symbol for the film – cobbled together to serve a specific purpose and perennially questioning its own existence, but not without charm and heart.
Let this then be my pithy pull quote and my final thoughts on the film. Toy Story 4 is a very good movie that should not exist. Let’s just hope this is the first and last time I will have to say this about a Toy Story movie.
* Fine, the scene with all the toys hanging out in the pinball machine was pretty cool, but once again, we’ve seen a better version of that in Toy Story 3’s vending machine.
** ‘I Will Go Sailing No More’ in Toy Story, ‘When Somebody Loved Me’ in Toy Story 2, the aforementioned scene of our intrepid heroes accepting their death by immolation (how the hell was this a children’s movie?) in Toy Story 3.
*** Credit where credit is due – the one truly original idea this film has (aside from its ending) is in giving the villain a redemption arc.
**** He is hardly unheralded for it, but it is always worth stressing just how much of the reason Toy Story works lies in Tom Hanks’ uncanny ability to convey both nobility and vulnerability in his voice.