Directed by Josh Cooley
Written by Andrew Stanton & Stephany Folsom
Starring: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Annie Potts, Tony Hale, Keegan-Michael Key, Jordan Peele, Madeline McGraw, Christina Hendricks and Keanu Reeves
Runtime: 100 minutes
The Toy Story franchise is an impressive one. Over 24 years, the series has never flagged in quality or failed to entertain and has been the cause of countless tears (there must be something about these films that make movie theaters and living rooms really dusty every time they play) and Toy Story 4 is no exception. If all of Pixar’s sequels were as good as the three Tory Story sequels and Incredibles 2, there would be no reason to complain about Cars 2/3 or Monsters University. How they can pour so much quality into one series and drop the ball on their others is quite mystifying. Toy Story 4 delivers on all the levels each of the others in the series have and adds a wonderful new dimension to Tom Hanks’s Woody.
The story picks up some time after Toy Story 3 and the various shorts and TV specials that have run since 2010, seeing Woody, Buzz (Allen) and the whole gang well settled at Bonnie’s (Madeline McGraw) house. Well, everyone except Woody. He’s being excluded from play and he’s not used to not being the favorite for very long. Woody gets frustrated that he’s not in charge of the room anymore either, that’s Dolly’s (Bonnie Hunt) job and Woody feels lost and displaced. Then comes Bonnie’s first day of kindergarten and Woody slips into her backpack (after being told not to by Dolly). Bonnie is not doing well at first and Woody helps her by giving her crafting supplies while no one is looking. Bonnie creates a friend out of a spork, some pipe cleaner, googly eyes and a broken popsicle stick and names him Forky (Tony Hale). Woody is proud of himself until Forky comes to life, since Bonnie considers him a toy. Woody then takes it upon himself to keep Forky out of trouble (he thinks he’s trash and keeps trying to get back into any garbage can). This of course leads Woody on an adventure because of course Forky gets taken into the clutches of Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) and Woody has to save him both for Bonnie and himself.
The script for this is just marvelous. Woody’s existential crisis makes up the emotional center of the film, as does the plight of Gabby Gabby. Unlike Woody’s identity crisis in Toy Story 2 where he was willing to leave Andy and his friends so that he didn’t let the other Woody’s Round Up Gang toys down, here it’s more about who he is and where he belongs. Added to his crisis is Forky’s own inability to adjust to his new circumstances. Woody comes to his realizations through helping Forky through his problems. Woody’s long been the leader, ready to sacrifice himself for another toy, and he’s doing the same thing in this film, but he’s more alone than ever because his friends are being played with and all he can do is watch. Woody eventually must come to grips that Bonnie isn’t Andy and each child is different for every toy. The layered screenplay, by Finding Nemo and Wall-E director Andrew Stanton and first-time feature screenwriter Stephany Folsom, is full of life choices and personal understanding moments but is also very funny and introduces some interesting questions to the Toy Story world, like: what constitutes a toy? and how does something new come to life and interact?. That balance is what Pixar’s greatest films are known for and will hopefully be what they go back to striving for as they move on from sequels to focus back on original stories.
The cast is as fun as always and it was nice to have Annie Potts back as Bo Peep. Though she had only not been in the previous film, her absence was noticed and noted by the characters. Bo has changed considerably and it was fun to have Bo and Woody have opposing viewpoints. Tony Hale is hilarious as Forky, likewise Keanu Reeves as Duke Caboom.
What it all comes down to is that Toy Story 4 delivers. It wraps up a 24-year-old story neatly and beautifully, with the unlikely possibility of more adventures down the line. Unlikely because there is significant closure concerning Woody, Bo and the gang, so we probably won’t ever see these beloved characters again. And that’s really a good thing. A sequel to the first one was a shot in the dark, originally intended to be a direct-to-video sequel that got released into theaters and was as good as the first. A third one 11 years later was a real gamble and it paid off. This fourth one, 9 years after the third one and 24 years after the original, was anything but a sure bet and must have been a terrible amount of pressure on first-time feature director Josh Cooley (much like 3 did for/to Lee Unkrich).
Cooley handles this pressure wonderfully and none of it comes through on the screen. Cooley has a clear vision of what he wants and, with the help of a great screenplay, he gets it. He fills the film with incredible visuals and details that make everything pop. The only bothersome thing is some of the pacing in the middle. The constant fishing Forky out of the garbage gets a little tiresome, but that is really only a minor quibble.
In addition to that, the animation is incredible. When there is a flashback to when Woody was with Andy, it doesn’t even look like the same kid, the looks and abilities have evolved so much. He looks more real than he ever did in the first and second installments. It’s a marvel to watch them all in order because it’s a guided tour into the evolution of computer animation starting with the first feature-length computer animated film.
Toy Story 4 is what you’ve hoped for. Everything falls neatly into place and it rarely faulters. The emotional impacts are just a little less than Toy Story 3, but how do you top beloved characters almost burning up in a trash incinerator and then seeing them be played with one last time with Andy while he introduces them to Bonnie? It would have been impossible to top, so they don’t really try to and what they get is still heartbreaking and hopeful, which is what we’ve come to expect from Pixar in general and the Toy Story series specifically.