Above all else, the one thing Toy Story 4 needed to do was make itself worthy of the title “Toy Story.” That’s a name with a grand tradition in animation. A name that promises excellence, not some by-the-numbers cash-grab. And while it’s certain to grab a lot of cash, the movie somehow lives up to that high standard. It’s an exciting, surprising, incredibly funny film that’s just as poignant and heartfelt as you’d expect from this franchise.
Directed by Josh Cooley, from a story and screenplay credited to 10 people, Toy Story 4 picks up where Toy Story 3 left off. Woody, Buzz, and the gang are now the property of Bonnie, a young girl who is about to start kindergarten. However, Bonnie’s world is different from what they’re used to. Woody, always the leader and the favorite, finds himself at the bottom of the toy food chain. In fact, he’s one of Bonnie’s least favorite toys, so he continually goes out of his way to make her happy, like looking after her brand new toy, Forky.
Forky, voiced by Tony Hale, is a homemade toy crafted out of a spork and some garbage. He does not want to be a toy. And that existential crisis is just the start of what’s to come. Bonnie and her family go on a road trip and all the toys come along. Forky is Bonnie’s favorite, though, so as he continues to try and throw himself in the trash, Woody takes it upon himself to continually save him. When things go too far, Woody and Forky get separated, and things kick into high gear.
While much can be said about Forky, he’s just one among the new and returning characters at the center of Toy Story 4, all of whom are there for a single purpose: to make this movie about Woody. Sure, the Toy Story movies have all been about Woody, but Woody himself never sees it that way. He’s always doing what’s right for others. But Forky’s actions—and the reintroduction of Woody’s former flame Bo Peep—kick off an adventure that will make Woody question everything.
Toy Story 4 asks questions about selflessness. About love. About existence and purpose. All of which is possible because the film tells a surprisingly compact story. Once Forky and Woody get separated, the rest of the film takes places basically in two places: a carnival and an antique store. By limiting the number of locations, Cooley and his crew can really zero in on the characters. Specifically, the story focuses on Woody and Bo. Turns out, Bo Peep has been living a unique toy lifestyle that’s new to the franchise. She has new friends, like Giggle McDimples (Ally Maki); a nemesis, Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks); an ex, Duke Kaboom (Keanu Reeves); and eventually meets Bunny and Ducky, voiced by Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele.
Over the course of the film, each of these new characters provides a unique, interesting perspective on life as a toy, while simultaneously enriching Woody’s journey. Gabby, in particular, has a fascinating arc that’s handled incredibly well. Unfortunately, for these new characters to shine, most of the main toys from the previous three films get the short end of the stick. Even Buzz Lightyear, the usual second lead, doesn’t have as much to do he usually does—and he still has at least four or five times as much to do as Jessie, Rex, Slinky Dog, and the rest. It’s a little disappointing, but ultimately, it does no real disservice to the movie.
Toy Story 4 also really stretches our suspension of disbelief, far more than any previous installment ever has. The toys in this movie do more juuuust out of sight of humans than probably all of the other movies combined. That makes for a more propulsive, exciting narrative, but it also slightly negates the whole idea of the franchise, which is that these toys are part of our world but can’t be that impactful for fear of discovery.
Still, while the film pushes that line between reality and fantasy, it also takes things to some dark, hilarious new levels. There are some borderline disturbing moments in the film. A few even come close to what many would consider legitimately scary. But those things, coupled with the new characters, breathe a freshness into the movie that’s welcome. And, once the story starts wrapping up, it comes together in a memorable, emotional way that will surely get the waterworks going.
The first three Toy Story films are about as perfect as a trilogy gets. They’re legendary, landmark films that changed the animation art form as we know it. So, the mere notion of a Toy Story 4 felt superfluous. A foolhardy, insurmountable task to continue and build upon that wonderful story. Could it be done? Should it be done? Turns out, the answer is abso-freakin-lutely.
Toy Story 4 opens June 21.
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