A film review by Craig J. Koban July 4, 2019

TOY STORY 4 jjj

2019, G, 100 mins.

 

Tom Hanks as Woody (voice)  /  Tim Allen as Buzz Lightyear (voice)  /  Annie Potts as Bo Peep (voice)  /  Joan Cusack as Jessie (voice)  /  Blake Clark as Slinky Dog (voice)  /  Wallace Shawn as Rex (voice)  /  Jodi Benson as Barbie (voice)  /  John Ratzenberger as Hamm (voice)  /  Keanu Reeves as Duke Caboom (voice)  /  Patricia Arquette as Harmony’s Mom (voice)  /  Jordan Peele as Bunny (voice)  /  Timothy Dalton as Mr. Pricklepants (voice)  /  Keegan Michael Key as Ducky (voice)  /  Kristen Schaal as Trixie (voice)  /  Laurie Metcalf as Mrs. Davis (voice)  /  Bonnie Hunt as Dolly (voice)  /  Lori Alan as Julia Anderson (voice)  /  Jeff Garlin as Buttercup (voice)  /  Tony Hale as Forky (voice)  /  Estelle Harris as Mrs. Potato Head (voice)  /  Bud Luckey as Chuckles the Clown (voice)  /  Jeff Pidgeon as Squeeze Toy Aliens (voice)  /  Christina Hendricks as Gabby Gabby (voice)  /  Ally Maki as Giggle McDimples (voice)  /  Don Rickles as Mr. Potato Head (voice)  /  Jay Hernandez as Bonnie’s Dad (voice)  /  Mel Brooks as Melephant Brooks (voice)  /  Betty White as Bitey White (voice)  /  Carl Weathers as Combat Carl (voice)  /  Carol Burnett as Chairol Burnett (voice)  /  Carl Reiner as Carl Reineroceros (voice)  /  June Squibb as Margaret the Store Owner (voice)  /  Madeleine McGraw as Bonnie (voice)  /  Alan Oppenheimer as Old Timer (voice)  /  Flea as Duke Caboom Advert (voice)  /  John Morris as Andy Davis

Directed by Josh Cooley  /  Written by Andrew Stanton and Stephany Folsom

SCREENED IN
3D

Pixar has absolutely nothing to prove.  

The pioneering animation studio was solely responsible for fundamentally altering the landscape of movies forever with the release of 1995's TOY STORY, which was the very first animated feature film done entirely with computers.  Much like what the original STAR WARS did for visual effects, the John Lasseter directed TOY STORY opened up a whole new portal into how animated films could be conceived and created.  Looking back, it's impossible to consider a time when there were no CGI created animated films.  Considering that Pixar was attempting to harness the then untested waters of computer generated imagery in feature length form - and using tools no where near as advanced as today - it's a bloody miracle that TOY STORY was the artistic and critical triumph that it was. 

The first TOY STORY ushered in a whole near animation genre overnight, which, in turn, led to Pixar crafting some of the most cherished and aesthetically impressive animated films of the last quarter of a century, including, yes, two sequels to TOY STORY.  The franchise opening installment introduced us to its toy characters, all lovingly envisioned as fully realized personas with as much emotional weight as any flesh and blood human being.  The first sequel opened up their world considerably, and the last film - which many thought was going to be the last - explored the idea of a child growing up into young adulthood and out of fondness with his toys, leaving these pint sized creations struggling with their own sense of worthiness and relevance.  Now comes TOY STORY 4, which seems born more out of studio focused financial motive than any other imperative, especially considering that TOY STORY 3 was a wholly satisfying and dramatically potent trilogy closer.  It's hard not to be cynical about this fourth film, and I'm still not entirely convinced that it's a necessary sequel at all.  I found myself - perhaps more than with any previous TOY STORY film - engaged and being wowed over by the spellbinding animation, but not so much with its storytelling. 

 

 

You may recall that the thematic core of the first two TOY STORY films was the fear that cowboy Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks) and his companions were outlasting their usefulness with their human child owner, Andy.  2010's TOY STORY 3 showed the child moving on to college, which led to a poignant and tissue grabbing moment when he passed on Woody and his pals to a young preschooler, meaning that they were about to move on to different lives with a new loving child.  It was seemingly the most perfect bittersweet ending you could have possibly asked for from the creators of this series.  TOY STORY 4 opens with a prologue that takes place between the events of the second and last sequel and explains where the AWOL Bo Peep (Annie Potts) was  through the entirety of TOY STORY 3.  We then skip forward several years to the present to see how Woody and his plastic hinged gang are acclimating to lives with their aforementioned new child, Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw), who's about to leave her toys behind to attend her first day of kindergarten. 

Everything seems relatively fine, outside of the fact that Bonnie seems have become disinterested in playing with Woody, who far too frequently gets left in the closest to collect dust.  Alas, he's still convinced that he has value to Bonnie, so he stows himself in her backpack and accompanies her to school.  While there he witnesses the creation of a new toy by her during a school crafts project, which she dubs "Forky" because of the fact that his body is a spork.  She falls head over heels for her new toy, but Forky (Tony Hale) seems...well...not all there mentally and believes that he belongs in the trash.  Woody takes it upon himself to watch over Forky, but when the anxiety plagued new toy escapes Bonnie during an RV trip, Woody becomes bound and determined to find him, leaving his BFF in Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) following in turn.  Along the way, Woody reunites with Bo Peep and meets a lonely vintage doll, Gabby (Christina Hendricks), who lives in an antique shop and has motives that may or may not be trusted. 

One of the narrative pleasures of TOY STORY 4 is the return of Bo Peep, who oddly wasn't a part of TOY STORY 3 and now has her absence explained, with heartbreaking results for Woody, who had grown to love her while in Andy's care.  Now, Bo-Peep is a porcelain toy without a home or child, leaving her a bit more battle hardened and world weary, living a sort of post-apocalyptic existence as a scavenger type near a carnival.  Bo Peep was never as fully realized as a memorable character on the same level as Woody and Buzz, but TOY STORY 4's attempts at giving her more of a distinct personality - and frankly more to do - is welcoming, and her newfound status as a freedom fighter hero protector of lost toys is a refreshing new arc of interest for her.   

TOY STORY 4 also opens up things considerably when it comes to a smorgasbord of new characters, like Forky, whose googly eyed facade is both creepy and endearingly cute at the same time.  He's also a comically sad creation, who constantly fails to see his worthiness alongside the other more polished looking toys and, as a result, seems unhealthily fixated on the garbage can.  Gabbie is also a compelling addition, a very old toy with a broken voice box that seems both unbearably depressed at the fact that she's been childless for years and quietly chilling as a layered villain that generates empathy and horror from viewers (that's a tricky dichotomy).  There's also stuffed carnival toys Ducky and Bunny (Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele respectively), that display a penchant for cracking wise constantly and coming up with ridiculously elaborate plans for tasks barely requiring simple solutions.  My favorite new addition is unquestionably the hilariously named Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves), a Canadian Evel Knievel motorcycle daredevil clone from the 70s that has a serious inferiority complex because he can't drive as fast and jump as far as his toy commercials forty years ago advertised her could.   Whoa.

For as much as I liked this new menagerie of colorful and likeable characters, TOY STORY 4 paradoxically suffers from being too overstuffed (no pun intended) for its own good.  The keen focus on introducing us to fresh characters means that classic originals are delegated to the sidelines and are not giving very much of interest to do.  Part of the joy of the last three TOY STORY films was the team dynamic between Woody, Buzz, and his crew, something that this film sort of forgets (we regrettably get less of them together, not more).  You also gain a sense that screenwriters Andrew Stanton and Stephany Folsom seem to be struggling at making TOY STORY 4's plot a dense and complicated one, but never fully realize that padding it with too many characters all vying for attention doesn't equate to dramatic complexity.  For a sequel that's one of the franchise's longest in terms of running times, this fourth film comes off as a bit too muddled, oftentimes trying to juggle to many subplots, too many new and old characters, and too many unwelcome plotting detours.  Worse yet is that the writers are going through the motions of rehashing many story beats from previous sequels, and a running bit with Buzz taking his pre-recorded Space Rangers messages too literally seems lifted from the first film altogether.  Buzz, among all of the series regulars, isn't given much of a purpose in this outing. 

There is a potentially intriguing angle to sending Woody, Buzz and the gang to a carnival and pawn shop, but the stakes for all don't feel as dramatically engaging or dangerous this go around (especially when compared to the frightening pressure cooker of a climax in TOY STORY 3).  This has the negative side effect of leaving TOY STORY 4 lacking in hitting the euphoric heartrending highs as what came before.  I haven't spoken much about the bravura technical craft on display in the film, and newcomer director Josh Cooley helms perhaps one of the most gorgeously animated and exquisitely detailed efforts in the entire pantheon of superbly rendered Pixar films.  No animated film in the first TOY STORY's wake will ever have that visual lightning in a bottle and awe inspiring wow factor, but this latest entry is an endless cavalcade of show stopping imagery that represents staggering new highs for the studio.  This is the best looking TOY STORY film ever made. 

I fear, though, that Pixar is clearly guilty of doing to TOY STORY what Disney has been doing to STAR WARS, which is needlessly preying on our collective nostalgia for the most cherished series entries, regurgitating their story beats, and repackaging them for the purposes of box office gain.  Classics begin to lose their stature with increased saturation, a plague that's seriously tainting STAR WARS, which caused Disney to react and change their aggressive market penetrating playbook by canceling many planned cinematic adventures.  TOY STORY 3 brought this series to an elegant and moving sense of closure, leaving TOY STORY 4 seeming like a effort to grasp the past and retool it instead of simply letting the previous films end as a fitting trilogy with a beginning, middle, and end.  TOY STORY 4 is a film of strange contradictions:  It was simultaneously pleasurable to be in the company of these beloved playthings again, not to mention that the artists of Pixar have aesthetically outdid themselves to wondrous and unheard of levels. But this film is more comfort food then a delicately finessed cuisine.  Overall, TOY STORY 4 is a real Catch-22 movie as an engagingly entertaining, yet conflictingly non-essential franchise extender. 

I hope Pixar serves up new main courses moving forward.  

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