The Toy Story trilogy remains an unparalleled cinematic achievement in animation with its track record of consistent excellence through every chapter. The original put Pixar on the map and legitimized three-dimensional computer animation as a feature film-making medium. The follow-up was loaded with at least as much humor and heart, and arguably topped the original for some viewers. The grand finale may have been a hairbreadth beneath its predecessors in quality, but it brought the series full circle, gave us fully satisfactory closure on the saga of Andy’s room, and remains the only animated sequel ever nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. All three remain shining jewels in Pixar’s crown, a fixture in millions of childhoods, and an object lesson for anyone who wants to teach kids what grade-A movies look like so that they can judge the hollow offerings of other Hollywood studios all the more harshly.
It’s therefore with a sigh that we now give a round of polite, lukewarm applause for the arrival of Toy Story 4, the Zeppo of the series. That doesn’t have to be a bad thing, mind you.
Short version for the unfamiliar: Years after Andy bequeathed all his best old toys to li’l Bonnie at the tear-jerking end of Toy Story 3, the ol’ gang is still together in her room, loved and treated kindly and cast in her imaginary playtime productions. Well, most of them — left in the closet are her baby toys and a few former favorites that her attention now drifts past…including our pal Sheriff Woody. Four films into this series, Woody is still stressing about his relevance in a world that’s not so easily wowed by sixty-year-old remnants of other generations’ childhoods. As if that hadn’t made him despondent enough, Woody is aghast when Bonnie, in a moment of inspired recasting, divests him of his badge and pins it on his female coworker Jessie instead. Perhaps it was best for his mental health that no one let him near a TV in the ’80s when Suzanne Somers was starring in She’s the Sheriff.
Desperate to stave off obsolescence, Woody thinks he’s found himself a mission when Bonnie freaks out about her first day of kindergarten. He stows away in her bag to keep her company, tags along to class, and, in a moment of environmentally friendly reuse, provides her with extra crafting materials from the trash after some dumb boy appropriates her assigned media. A few moments later, cute li’l Bonnie Frankenstein kludges together a new, special companion. Hence the birth of Forky the living spork, named by the kindergartener who has no use for your semantics complaint and who deems Forky her new bestest toy ever.
Slowly consciousness comes to Forky as it mystically does to any such objects endowed with the power of toy identity, but his greatest struggle throughout the film is fighting his compulsion to toss himself in the trash, the indwelt destiny of every disposable utensil. Thus does Woody find a new calling: protecting Bonnie’s new favorite toy, shepherding Forky, teaching him the ways of toyetic culture, and dragging him away from every garbage can in sight. If Woody is important to Forky, then he’s important to Bonnie by extension.
As the days go on, Woody refuses to leave Forky’s side, teaching him vocabulary and toy history and how to resist his urges to self-dispose. Trials and tribulations come when Bonnie’s parents take her on an RV road trip and let her bring along all the toys she wants. Our Heroes’ journey takes them to a tourist-trap town called Grand Basin, where points of interest include a traveling carnival, one very familiar face from Toy Stories past, new faces bringing new jokes, and one of those dusty antique stores your grandparents love but never have anything that today’s kids want to buy. It isn’t a happy place for happy toys…much like the preschool dominion, Big Al’s glass-display prisons, or Sid’s backyard torture chamber.
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: All our old friends are back: Tom Hanks! Tim Allen! Joan Cusack as Jessie! John Ratzenberger as Hamm! Wallace Shawn as Rex! Blake Clark, the comedian who replaced Jim Varney as Slinky Dog! Don Rickles and Estelle Parsons as the Potato-Heads! (Rickles passed away before the script was completed, but the filmmakers managed to cobble together one last performance from archival footage, unused takes from the previous films, and dialogue recorded for video games and other ancillary products.)
Some of the new recruits from Toy Story 3 stuck around as well — Timothy Dalton’s Mr. Pricklepants, Bonnie Hunt’s Dolly the doll, Kristen Schaal’s Trixie the triceratops, and The Goldbergs‘ Jeff Garlin, whose Buttercup the unicorn has gone seriously dark. Former child actor John Morris and the amazing colossal Laurie Metcalf return for a brief flashback as Andy and his mom. Woody and his old pal Buzz Lightyear are shocked at the return of Annie Potts as Little Bo Peep, whose absence from Toy Story 3 is given an in-story explanation that spins the Toy Story mythology in a logical yet bizarre new direction.
In the center spotlight is Forky, voiced by Tony Hale from Arrested Development and TV’s Chuck. Hale is the perfect choice for a character who’s frightened and confused by the entire world around him, who slowly begins to catch on, and who then begins running his mouth at the worst possible times. Budget-minded families can encourage kids to make their own Tony Hale toy at home for just a few pennies. Dursley-esque parents who wouldn’t be caught dead with plasticware at home can buy a pre-assembled thirty-dollar version from their nearest big-box store that comes with a Tony Hale sound chip.
As our chief antagonist, Mad Men‘s Christina Hendricks is Gabby Gabby, a stand-in for Chatty Cathy who should be able to “talk” the same as Woody, but whose voice box was marred by factory defect. With her key selling point broken, she’s languished unloved and shelved in all the decades since her unboxing. Her minions, the creepiest ventriloquist dolls this side of The Twilight Zone, have the knowhow to perform the necessary surgery that would make her whole and possibly salable if they can find transplant parts…which is why she gets a chilly gleam in her eye when Woody stumbles into her path.
Other newcomers include the comedy stylings of Keegan-Michael Key and writer/director Jordan Peele as Ducky and Bunny, carnival prizes desperate to be won, or at least freed. Inside Out‘s Bill Hader is Ducky and Bunny’s carny jailer. Carl Weathers (Rocky, Predator) is gung-ho action figure Combat Carl. Ally Maki from Cloak and Dagger is basically Police Officer Polly Pocket. The internet especially loves special guest Keanu Reeves as Duke Caboom, a Canadian ripoff of Evel Knievel who does motorcycle stunts and super awesome manly acrobatic poses.
An early scene dumps a depressed Woody in the middle of all-star cameos from Mel Brooks, Carol Burnett, Carl Reiner, Betty White, and ’80s animation voice-actor Alan Oppenheimer. It’s a sort of travesty to see that quintet share a room and yet Woody doesn’t laugh once.
This list may appear a bit crowded. I left out a few. Not everyone gets a lot of lines, but at least they’re there. As Duke Caboom once told us in another life, one of the most important things in life is showing up.
Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? Morals of the story include but aren’t limited to:
- You got a friend in me! You got a friend in me!
- Living in constant fear of forced retirement is no way to live, especially if your insecurities begin to make Rex look like John Wick.
- Existential angst: still a struggle for many toys.
- Organ donation should be voluntary, given freely of the possessor’s will and not stolen like the old urban legend about the ice bath and the missing kidney.
- Sometimes we’re wrong about what we think will make us more attractive.
- Some old toys still got it. Some don’t.
- There’s no shame in realizing when it’s quitting time.
- When someone is sitting at a table alone and looking really lonely, and you walk over just to take something away from their table — one of their chairs, the salt shaker, their art supplies, whatever — you’re contributing to ruining their day and you need to repent for your cruelty. Not that I’m bitter from multiple past experiences and wishing Bonnie had slugged a certain tiny jerk in the face in this movie.
Nitpicking? Closure can be a lovely thing. Finality is an endangered species in an entertainment world ruled by corporations that need you to keep buying endless new chapters until you’re dead or they’re bankrupt. Happy endings are anathema to serialized storytelling and don’t feed the coffers nearly as greedily as never-ending stories do. For all its (relatively minor) flaws, we thought Toy Story 3 gave us exactly that. Closure undone is an inconsiderate aggravation — a knife through a healed wound, a heart attack after a year-long diet, a lawsuit from an ex-spouse after the divorce has been finalized. Ruining closure is not cool on principle.
That was our take before we saw the new sequel. Once again there are things that invoke laughs and tears and a sense of thrill at individual action scenes, but once the road trip commences, a preponderance of TS4 is all about toys running back and forth, from the RV to the antique store to the carnival to the RV to the antique store and back again in different combinations. It’s like one long Benny Hill hallway chase, but with Randy Newman’s score replacing “Yakety Sax”.
Most of the emotional conflicts are variations on the same old themes — toys being all they can be, doubting themselves, drawing encouragement from their friends, fighting back against peers gone wrong, putting their singular gimmicks to one perfect use while the score swells up in their honor, and so on. A few flourishes are thrown in to distract from the formulaic pieces. Some are even more distracting in their own way. If you loved the climax of Finding Dory, which involved an octopus driving a semi off a cliff, then you’ll bust a gut over TS4’s finale, which culminates in a confrontation that — in another, less G-rated film — could’ve ended with Bonnie’s dad in a frighteningly awful state or, worst-case scenario, killed in front of his family. Certain toys get far too carried away with taking advantage of their secret sentience, and it’s only through a slickly paced, heaping helping of yadda-yadda-ing that saves them from a fast plunge into the Dark Side.
When the dust settles and it’s time to head into the sunset, the ending purports to deliver closure again, but in a different fashion and for a limited number of characters. This closure is a lie. We know that now. The emergence of a Toy Story 5 is not hard to imagine. On a totally unrelated note: show of hands, anyone who’s made weekend plans to catch the fifth Pirates of the Caribbeans on Netflix before it’s yanked at the end of the month? Anyone?
So what’s to like? While you’re sitting there engrossed in the spectacle and before you have time to brainstorm questions and think things through too hard, Toy Story 4 has its bright spots. Funny jokes and visual gags abound, of course. Though aspects of the ending brought back the ol’ tears, the Key-and-Peele reunion had me crying from mirth overdose (in the best way, I mean). Easter eggs are all around for the analytical geeks out there. There’s also the charm of hearing familiar, aging actors still getting paid gigs, enjoying themselves immensely, and not being tossed in the back of Hollywood’s closet like Fisher-Price remnants.
The animation itself still aims for cutting-edge and pushes Pixar’s programming limits, as they’re wont to do with finesse. The carnival setting is full of moving pieces and new textures that I imagine drove a few artists buggy. The antique store embodies every experience I’ve had in one — the elderly proprietors retired from their original day jobs, the raggedy merchandise no one under thirty could want, the stacked boxes of extra goods waiting to be displayed and ignored, and the cobwebbed nooks and crannies behind everything. Amid all that, the sight of those creepy ventriloquist dummies romping with their accurately tilted heads through the deserted aisles — for some youngsters, that’ll count as seeing their first haunted-house flick.
My favorite moment that had me marveling at technical proficiency and catching some feels was a more low-key scene, that of a toy and its owner swinging around, panning in a full 360 like a Steadicam roundy-round, as continuous and detailed backgrounds fly past in an effervescent arc. That moment, more than any other here, recaptures the primal essence of the kid/toy partnership that made the earlier movies really click for us. In that moment, more than any other, Toy Story 4 remembers the strongest parts of its forebears were about the kids and the toys united, not just about selling kids toys.
How about those end credits? To answer the burning question that MCC is usually happy to verify: yes, there are indeed scenes during the Toy Story 4 end credits, along with a gag at the very end after the final names have dropped, in which one character achieves closure at last. For those who fled the theater prematurely and who really want to know without seeing it a second time…
[insert space for courtesy spoiler alert in case anyone needs to abandon ship]
…during the early minutes of the end credits, we have two scenes. First up: Woody, Bo Peep, and their new pals Ducky and Bunny make a mission of freeing all the other stuffed animals trapped in the one carnival game. Later at night, once the rack has been emptied, Ducky and Bunny describe their next move…which naturally involves them ambushing the carny who ran their game, then trashing their surroundings, growing to Godzilla size and wreaking havoc all around with their laser eyes and whatnot.
Then they snap back to reality. Duke Caboom, their lone audience member by this point, is stunned. His response: “Whoa.”
(For the Keanu fans out there, obv.)
In the second scene, Bonnie and Jessie return home from another day at kindergarten with a new friend: a potential love interest for Forky made from a plastic knife. Forky is smitten and promises to tell her everything she needs to know, except that looming question of Why They Live.
Sturdier audience members who stay seated in the theater until the closing seconds get to see one last treat: the Pixar logo caps off the matinee as usual, but Luxor the living lamp is replaced by Duke Caboom. Our Hero rides in on his motorcycle, bounces up and down on the ‘I’ and strikes more poses. For his last good deed, he gives an enthusiastic high-five to one of Combat Carl’s action-figure sidekicks, the same one that Woody left hanging earlier in a moment of rudeness. So at least he exits with a sense of closure.