Film Critic Sam Denyer checks out Pixar’s Toy Story 4, finding that the studio have yet another hit on their hands
Images by Disney
Everyone’s favourite Toy Story film is different. You can hardly blame them: each is hilarious and heartbreaking in their own way. These consistent highs have made the prospect of another chapter worrying, but Pixar and first-time director Josh Cooley have made a successful fourth entry in the series by deciding to forge a new path. Toy Story 4 does not undercut the sublime ending of its predecessor by forcing its story into a dramatic but artificial direction. Instead, it follows a natural course, one which rhymes beautifully with the themes of the trilogy and acts as a poignant coda to a story we thought was complete.
The toys have now settled into life with Bonnie – mostly. Jessie has begun to displace Woody during playtime, sometimes taking his sheriff badge too. A lesser film would fashion half-baked conflict out of this dynamic, but Cooley knows that Woody is not that petty. He is sad to be left in the closet, but this has not undermined his unerring loyalty. If Bonnie wants to play with Jessie, then he will have to deal with it. Yet this loyalty is the reason why he cannot sit in the closet forever: Bonnie is anxious about starting kindergarten, so Woody slips into her bag to help ease her into this novel experience. This opening is pleasant enough (being back in this world is a thrill), but nothing feels new until he inadvertently assists in the creation of something which is exactly that. Bonnie crafts Forky (an endlessly precious Tony Hale) out of a spork and pipe cleaners, which makes it somewhat understandable that he cannot work out why he has gained sentience – or what his purpose should be now he has. All Woody knows is that Bonnie’s love has endowed this Frankenstein’s monster with a soul and that she will be distraught if they are separated.
This might sound heavy for a family film but, realistically, it is surprising that it took them so long to ask these existential questions. Such was subtext to Buzz’s identity crisis in the first film, but Forky brings these questions to the foreground in his own fraught, wholesome way. After an admittedly slow start, his quest for purpose separates him and Woody from the rest of the gang. Woody finds himself reunited with Bo Peep, herself hardened by experiences outside of the privileged life Woody has led. Both she and Forky challenge Woody’s narrow worldview.
Hopefully, the layers the film has are becoming clear. Its execution is not as perfect as its predecessors, but it is admirable for its scope and sincerity nonetheless. Its villain is not really a villain at all, instead seeming so because they are framed by the black-and-white perspective that Woody eventually learns is holding him back as well as those around him. These new characters help keep the film fresh, but one cannot help but miss the supporting cast we already know and love (especially the Potato Heads). Fortunately, the new players are charming. Keanu Reeves (as Canada’s greatest stuntman, Duke Caboom) and Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele (two anarchic fairground plushies) bring enough laughs to keep the action ticking over, if not quite reaching the heights that Toy Story 3‘s prison escape sequence offered.
The emotional heavy lifting is mostly left to Tom Hanks, who, being Tom Hanks, handles it with aplomb. Woody has always been central to the series, but Toy Story 4 is truly his epilogue; three films in and the other characters have little space to grow, but Woody still has to contend with his estrangement from Bo (an equally game Annie Potts), and his lingering attachment to Andy, even as the other toys have moved on. His dissatisfaction, he comes to realise, is a symptom of his shifting purpose in life. He thinks he can change the way Bo and Forky think, failing to realise the greater influence they are exerting on him. If Toy Story 3 represents what he thought was a perfect bow on his past, Toy Story 4 argues that difficult goodbyes should not be a barrier to pursuing what fulfils us instead of what we feel obligated to do. A new cycle may never be far away.
As has become Pixar’s signature move, these themes coalesce in a heartbreaker of a scene towards the film’s climax. It is a bittersweet moment of courage and decision, buoyed by the twenty years of emotional history that we have with these characters and that these characters have with each other. It is here, 100 minutes in, that Cooley’s film justifies its existence. Suddenly, everything makes sense – for the audience and the characters. No wonder we are so attached to them.