I’ll admit, I was genuinely surprised to hear that there were people in this world who were concerned that the fourth installment of Toy Story series might not be good. What exactly have the makers of Pixar’s most consistent and emotionally resonant franchise done to earn such trepidation? I get that some folks feel that Toy Story 3 ended with such an air of finality and closure that anything beyond would be slightly suspicious. But if there were ever a series that wouldn’t return unless the makers had something genuinely interesting and new to say, it’s this one. So feel free to stow your accusations of cash grabbing and simply enjoy Toy Story 4.
The real treat about Toy Story 4 is that it has a host of new themes and ideas at play. We’ve been living in a world where we’ve been led to believe every toy is searching for that one perfect kid. That kid may change over time, but it was that one-on-one connection that made the toy’s purpose so meaningful. But this time around, there are new wrinkles in this theory, and we meet a group of new toys who actually love being there for all children. They might be in a school or doctor’s office or playground—toys that belong to no one kid, but are played with by dozens of kids every day. And not only do we learn about this unique group of toys, but we actually see the appeal of such a lifestyle.
The other big takeaway from Toy Story 4 is perhaps more substantial to today’s world, which is that just because someone gives you a label that somehow lessens your sense of self-worth doesn’t mean you adhere to those labels. When we catch up with Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks) and Buzz (Tim Allen) this time, they are still very much in the collection of toys belonging to Bonnie, although Woody spends a great deal of time in the closet these days, alone and not brought out often to play with. He’s still very protective of Bonnie’s needs, so much so that when she pieces together a makeshift craft project out of a spork, pipe cleaners, and googly eyes, Woody realizes that this odd little creature is Bonnie’s favorite toy. When “Forky” (Tony Hale) springs to life, he immediately makes a run for the garbage because he believes he was meant to be used and thrown away as trash. But Woody and the others take the time to show Forky what the life of a beloved toy can be like.
Just as Forky begins to understand this heartwarming message about his true worth, he gets accidentally bounced out of the vehicle that Bonnie and her parents are driving in on their family vacation, and Woody nobly jumps out to find him and bring him back to Bonnie. But on their journey, they wander into a small town that’s having a carnival, complete with a playground that features the aforementioned group of communal toys, including his long-lost potential love interest Bo Peep (Annie Potts), who has become a different, more road-tested toy who enjoys the freedom of being a source of comfort and joy to so many children, after suffering the heartbreak of being forgotten or rejected by a single owner.
There’s an antique store in the town run by a kindly old woman (June Squibb), where Woody and Forky meet a seemingly sweet doll named Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), designed to talk but with a faulty voice box that made her one and only owner cast her aside the first time she tried to make her speak. Gabby seems harmless until you are introduced to her army of ventriloquist dummies/bodyguards, who seem intent on luring Woody into the store and keeping him there forever. It turns out, Gabby and Woody have the same voice box, only his still works; she wants to take his, insert her set of pre-recorded sayings and hopefully find a kid once and for all—a terrifying prospect for Woody, since he’s afraid Bonnie won’t have any use for him if he’s can’t speak properly. (As if Toy Story 4 weren’t already full of worthy themes, the Gabby storyline also serves as a wonderful metaphor for people with speech impediments or any type of disability.)
Lest you think Toy Story 4 is nothing but a tale of toys is mortal danger (we’ve had enough of that, thank you), a great deal of the movie is devoted to reuniting all of the toys, rescuing whomever needed rescuing at any given moment, and my favorite part, meeting new toys, including the re-teaming of Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele as carnival prize stuffed animals, attached at the hands, who have a twisted sense of how toys are meant to behave. Vying for the title of Crowd Favorite is Keanu Reeves’ Canadian Evel Knievel knock-off Duke Caboom, who seems as much into posing on his motorcycle as he does actually performing death-defying stunts. Reeves reminds us of two things with this performance—that his sense of comic timing is impeccable and that he’s in on the joke about his image.
First-time feature director Josh Cooley (pulled up from the shorts/art department bullpen) and writers Andrew Stanton and Stephany Folsom aren’t trying to rip our hearts out of our chests the way previous installments may have, but that certainly doesn’t mean that Toy Story 4 doesn’t have moments that will have you weepy. But the source and nature of the tears feel different this time around. Before, we were crying for the nostalgia of our lost childhoods, for the toys we may have put aside for newer, cooler ones. But with this film, it feels like the Toy Story world has matured along with us. These stories have been a part of our lives for nearly 25 years, so to simply repeat plot lines and tap into the same old emotions would feel wrong. But by taking this turn into a deeper understanding of the way the world—the whole world—works and the differences among all of us, Toy Story 4 brings a sense of the grown-up most of us have become and how we carry the core values of our youth with us into adulthood.
But never fear, Toy Story 4 is also about action, adventure and more laughs than I ever remember uttering in a Toy Story movie. The old gang are still around (voice actors like Joan Cusack, Bonnie Hunt, Kristen Schaal, Wallace Shawn, John Ratzenberger, and Jeff Garlin all get their moments, albeit in smaller doses), but this time around is about moving forward. There is personal sacrifice for the greater good (another sign of growing up), but the film is rewarding on every possible level, and if this universe does make a return in the years to come, I suspect it will be a slightly different experience (with some characters not returning, maybe). If for no other reason, go see Toy Story 4 because it’s one of the only franchise films this summer that doesn’t stink up the joint; the other reason to see it is that’s it’s one of the best movies of the year.
Did you enjoy this post? Please consider supporting Third Coast Review’s arts and culture coverage by becoming a patron. Choose the amount that works best for you, and know how much we appreciate your support!