Toy Story 4 (2019)

Woody is tempted by a new life in Toy Story 4

Director: Josh Cooley

Cast: Tom Hanks (Woody), Tim Allen (Buzz Lightyear), Annie Potts (Bo Peep), Tony Hale (Forky), Keegan-Michael Key (Ducky), Jordan Peele (Bunny), Christina Hendricks (Gabby Gabby), Keanu Reeves (Duke Caboom), Ally Maki (Giggle McDimples), Joan Cusack (Jessie)

Probably the hardest thing about making the fourth film in an acclaimed, perfectly-formed trilogy (yup) is justifying its existence in the first place. That’s basically the main task that faces Toy Story 4 – does it manage to exist without ruining the other three? And was there any need to go back to a story that had already been pretty much finished perfectly.

After the third film, Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz (Tim Allen) and friends are now settled with their new child, Bonnie (an imaginative 6 year old). But Woody is being played with less and less, and is struggling with the adjustment from being Andy’s most important toy to becoming a little-used toy in the box. Taking it upon himself to accompany Bonnie to her first day at kindergarten, he sees her use an art-class to turn a spork into a toy – a toy that quickly comes to life as Forky (Tony Hale). As Bonnie’s parents try to ease her anxiety about starting kindergarten by taking her on a road-trip, Woody obsessively tries to train the reluctant Forky – who doesn’t want to be a toy – in how to be a favourite toy.

When Toy Story 4 rapped up, I basically said I didn’t really need to see it again. That’s quite a sad statement to make considering the original trilogy of films are so damn good. But this never really feels like it does justify its existence. Toy Story 3 finalises the whole saga so well with Woody and the other toys coming full circle, having helped Andy grow up and now being passed to Bonnie to help her deal with her childhood. It’s a beautiful, heart-warming story – and there isn’t a need to see what happens next. 

Toy Story 3 ended with Woody accepting that Andy has grown up, choosing to stay with his friends as a toy rather than going to college with Andy. But here we need to hit the reset button so that Woody is now missing Andy and his previous status – but is also in denial about this. I think there is something in this that is working towards Woody working out whether he wants to continue with a life of dedicated service or whether he wants to move on and change his life completely. Of course the scales are weighted a bit by the fact Woody is no longer a favourite toy and – worse! – is gathering dust in a cupboard. But it’s all a bit unclear and gets a bit lost.

Part of this is the amount of time given over to Forky, a rather trying and faintly irritating “comic” character, whom I could certainly have done without. He exists primarily as a motivation for Woody to remain at the funfair the road-trip gets stuck at, but the long stretch of time they spend apart means the mentor-mentee relationship the film starts with trails off and disappears for a large chunk of the film. As a mirror on Woody, the part is a failure.

In fact most of the plot gets stuck at the funfair along with the road trip, as the film introduces Gabby Gabby (voiced by Christina Hendricks) a voice-box doll from the 1950s with a misfunctioning voice box who has lived her life in an antiques store and dreams of being a real toy. Gabby’s obsessive belief that gaining a working voice-box (from Woody!) will get her the love of a child drives most of the rest of the film, a slightly rambling action-adventure that features Woody, Buzz and a gang of newly-met toys breaking in, then out, then back in to the antiques store. It’s a sprawling series of adventure scenes, that seems a million miles away from the film’s original opening of Bonnie dealing with going to school for the first time.

In fact, poor Bonnie gets almost completely shelved after the first act of the film, along with the rest of the original cast who barely appear. Jessie, Rex, Slinky Dog, Hamm and co are left “guarding the base”, hardly having any impact on the film and kept separate from Woody and Buzz for ages. Since the first three films revolved so heavily around the “family” mechanism of the group of toys, to shelve most of them into background characters seems a real shame. 

Instead the film starts to focus on Woody’s fear of being “a lost toy” – something put sharply into perspective by him re-encountering Bo Peep (Annie Potts) his sometime love-interest from films 1 and 2 (not present at all in 3). With a “nine years earlier” flashback opening the film, showing Bo Peep being gifted on to a new child, the film catches up with her having escaped from Gabby’s antiques store and now leading a free life, without a child, doing what she wants, when she wants. There is some decent chemistry between the two, but more could have been made of showing Woody slowly seeing that there are positives in not having a child as well as the negatives he has always associated it with. But like so many things in the film, with so much going on and so many new characters being introduced, the thematic issues get lost.

There is just too much plot. Essentially Forky exists to give Woody a reason to remain at the funfair. Gabby exists as an obstacle to stop them leaving. The funfair is a sort of existential trap for the heroes. But everything just bogs down the film, making the storyline increasingly top heavy. Buzz seems to have taken a step or two down in intelligence. Most of the new characters don’t engage as well as the old ones, even though Keanu Reeves has great fun as a nervous stunt toy. But the film has no economy, it gets crowded over with events.

Which is a shame as there is a simple thematic story here of Woody accepting that one stage of his life has finished and he needs to move on to the next. There was, I am sure, a way of telling this story that didn’t feature all these new characters, the confusing setting and the overlong adventure sequences. There was a way of doing this in parallel with Bonnie needing to grow up a little and start going to school. Of making it harder for Woody to think about leaving, because he has the whole family of toys with him (rather than on the sidelines). But the film doesn’t do it. It’s all too often flat footed, slow and missing the emotional target. It’s Toy Story so there are good moments. But they should have stopped at three.

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