Beloved Characters Return
Bad news: Toy Story 4 is Pixar’s biggest money grab to date. Good news: This is Pixar, so it never feels like one. It is not a stretch to say that the company couldn’t make a bad movie if it tried. After all, none of its films have failed to pull in less than $300 million at the worldwide box office and even its least popular film, 2015’s The Good Dinosaur remained in the top ten for a month. The Pixar folks are some of the best filmmakers in the industry and the Toy Story characters are simply too beloved by everyone to slight with an inferior product. And though Toy Story 4 never quite achieves the emotional highs of any of its predecessors, there are enough great moments to strongly recommend.
The film opens with a flashback to nine years ago where we are reminded of what happened in the previous installment before coming back to present day, where we see that Woody (Tom Hanks) is having a tough time adapting to his new life as a supporting character to his new kid, Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw).
The pull-string cowboy was always confident with his lofty place in the toy box, and that was taking care of his kid… at all costs However, with Andy now off to college, his loyalty has shifted to Bonnie. But she has many more important things in her life to worry about: things like gearing up for the stress of kindergarten, and not being able to bring her favorite toys to class.
But Woody finds a new purpose when Bonnie fashions a toy friend out of a plastic spork, pipe-cleaner and other discarded arts and crafts items. She calls her new friend Forky (Tony Hale) and it soon becomes Woody’s job to not only protect the googly-eyed contraption at all costs, but to also explain to Forky why he no longer belongs in the rubbish bin. There’s a funny recurring gag that has Forky not understanding why he can walk and talk and continually trying to throw himself in a trash can.
This is a fairly poignant moment and one that ties heavily into the film’s over-arching themes of transition and passage as Woody learns to accept his back-up role -- a situation we’ve never seen him in before -- and explain to Forky that he is now the most important thing in Bonnie’s life.
Woody’s biggest test of his new role comes when Forky makes a run for it as Bonnie’s family is heading out for vacation in an RV camper. Toy Story 4 now becomes a road trip movie as Woody takes it upon himself to leave everyone behind and search for Forky.
Woody and Forky eventually meet back up with everyone in an antique shop where Woody spies a lamp that once belonged to his old friend Bo Peep (Annie Potts). If you recall, the two shared a few heartfelt moments way back in Toy Story 2. During their reunion we get an enlightening backstory to Bo Peep who was given up by her kid long ago. But rather than sit around, Bo made the best of her situation and is now a strong and independent character capable of standing on her own two porcelain feet. We know that Disney/Pixar has become a standard-bearer for inclusion and acceptance, so it’s nice to see Bo’s character handled the way it is. Other similar hot-button issues -- body image, for one -- are often taken on as well. Especially appreciated is a child who is illustrated wearing cochlear implants.
There’s a fairly dark and frightening sequence that takes place inside the antique shop as Woody’s rescue efforts are constantly thwarted by the kidnapping of Forky by a Gabby Gabby doll (Christina Hendricks) and her crew of creepy ventriloquist’s dummies.
Toy Story 4 director Josh Cooley and screenwriters Andrew Stanton and Stephany Folsom have managed to capture the same big heart and small charm that we’ve enjoyed in these stories for the last 24 years. But it is becoming evident that the idea has begun to run its course. It now takes bolder reaches -- including some that don’t hit -- and a bigger scope to keep the magic alive. But in doing so, we lose some of the original magic that made the idea of what our toys do when we are not around so unique. There’s a heartfelt “saying goodbye” sequence in Toy Story 4 that, while quite emotionally hefty, fails to even compare to Toy Story 3’s final scene.
That’s not to say that the film isn’t good. It is. In fact, it is much better than half of the stuff coming out of Hollywood these days -- live action or animated. It’s just that these revisits are now beginning to feel a bit unnecessary and even self-indulgent at times.
(Released by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures and rated “G” for general audiences.)
Review also posted at www.franksreelreviews.com.