Two years have passed since Andy passed over his assortment of childhood toys to a young girl named Bonnie. For most of the toys, life goes on as it always has. For Woody (Tom Hanks), however, Bonnie’s loss of interest has led to a miserable life in the bedroom closet. On her first day of kindergarten Bonnie uses a pipe cleaner, a popsicle stick and a spork to make “Forky” (Tony Hale), her own hand-made new toy. Woody finds himself obliged to step in when Forky – who believes he is garbage – desperately tries to run away from his own creator.
Pixar Animations Studio’s crown jewel returns for what one assumes is its final victory lap in Toy Story 4. The original Toy Story (1995) launched the studio into the mainstream 24 years ago, and was the first-ever computer-generated animated feature. Its 1999 sequel was one of Hollywood’s rare follow-ups that actually improved on its predecessor. Toy Story 3 (2010) wrapped up the franchise in a near-perfect fashion. In all honesty Pixar was never well-suited to sequels – their real creative strength was in the development of original ideas – and the Toy Story trilogy was the sole exception to the rule. As a movie trilogy they were one of the best ever produced, in animation or live-action. In all honesty, a fourth instalment felt like tempting fate: there was no narrative need for Toy Story 4, and all it seemed to represent was crass commercialism on the part of Pixar and its corporate owner Walt Disney Pictures.
In practice, Toy Story 4 feels like an epilogue: it smartly doesn’t crack open a story that was so effectively closed down in 2010, but rather quietly extends it by another 100 minutes. Toy Story 3 powerfully explored what happens to toys when childhood ends. Perhaps fittingly, Toy Story 4 is potentially the most adult film Pixar has ever made. Its emotions are complex. Its story does not make simple choices. Remember that a six-year-old child who saw Toy Story in the cinema is now hitting 30. Toy Story is old now, and appropriately Toy Story 4 winds up as a startlingly melancholy film about obsolesence. We still adore the characters, but popular cinema moves on. Children move on from their toys. Things do, ultimately, have to end. There is plenty of humour and action to the film, and absolutely most children will enjoy it, but there’s an overwhelming sense that this movie is aimed at those six-year-olds from 1995 and not the ones in 2019.
Director Josh Cooley has done a superb job of things, on both a creative and technical level. The animation is gorgeous, as one would assume with Pixar, and richly detailed. The setting – split up between a recreational vehicle, an antiques store, and a carnival – is distinct from the previous films, and offers the opportunity to introduce a range of new characters. The jokes and gags are tremendous, and the action sequences smartly developed and staged. Anybody concerned over quality issues can rest assured Toy Story 4 is on a par with the previous two sequels. The screenplay is the work of a staggering eight credited writers, but it is excellent throughout.
Forky is a fabulous character: neurotic, nervous, and hopelessly naive, he spends much of the film in a prolonged existential crisis. New characters fit seamlessly into place. Keanu Reeves is pitch-perfect as Duke Kaboom, a stunt daredevil toy abandoned by his owner for not doing what his television advertisement promised. Keegen-Michael Key and Jordan Peele are hilarious as a pair of ‘tough guy’ soft toys. Acting as secondary antagonists in the film are the Bensons: a trio of moaning, jerky ventriloquist dummies who guard and patrol the antiques store – and act as perfect nightmare fuel for kids. The Bensons work for Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), a pristine 1950s talking doll whose mechanised voice box never worked – and who now eyes taking Woody’s own voice box to replace it. She is the most effective antagonist the Toy Story films have ever had: deceptive and cruel, but also unexpectedly sympathetic. She has clear and understandable motivations, and a proper character arc that transforms her throughout the film.
The film’s most valuable asset is Bo Peep (Annie Potts). The character was a supporting but chaste love interest for Woody in the first two films, and was absent in the third; it is mentioned briefly that she had been given away to another child. This fourth film not only uses an emotional prologue to recount the night she was taken away, but reunites her with Woody nine years later in the small town carnival. Annie Potts was always great in the role, and she makes great use of a massively increased amount of screen time and character development. Her presence contributes enormously to the film’s central question: what happens when you lose purpose in life?
Bo helps ask the question; it is left to Woody to answer it. Answer it he does, in a manner that showcases the character’s tremendous dignity. Despite the years of jokes and humiliations, Woody has always been an honourable and immense noble protagonist. He makes his choices purely to the benefit of his child owner and, in the end, all children who play with toys. Could there be a Toy Story 5? Absolutely, should Disney and Pixar feel the commercial need, but really this feels like the perfect way to end.