by Philip Price
Director: Josh Cooley
Starring: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen & Tony Hale
Runtime: 1 hour & 40 minutes
“Toy Story 4” is necessary. Know that first and foremost, that not only is “Toy Story 4” a necessary addition to the franchise that launched Pixar, but a meaningful one as well. One wouldn't be at fault for thinking the animation studio has been somewhat off its game over the past few years as it turned into a sequel factory of sorts and churned out entertaining enough diversions to more creatively satisfying original films as that's kind of the fact of the matter save for the occasional “Inside Out” or “Coco.” Since “Toy Story 3” in 2010 Disney and Pixar have released ten films counting this latest ‘Toy’ sequel and of those 10 films six have been prequels or sequels. These have all been of a certain quality, mind you-as even the third “Cars” film allowed Pixar's most underwhelming franchise to go out on more of a high note than not-and yet, “Toy Story 4” feels like the true return to form the studio needed and that audiences were waiting on. With original creative mastermind John Lasseter only credited as a story contributor among a barrage of other contributors it was up to screenwriters Andrew Stanton (“Finding Nemo,” “WALL-E”) and Stephany Folsom to crack the story as “Inside Out” screenwriter and frequent Pixar voice actor Josh Cooley was tasked with his feature directorial debut being the fourth installment in this consistently excellent series. No easy task, but to circle back to the beginning of this review is to reiterate that the most difficult obstacle to overcome with a fourth “Toy Story” film would be that of justifying its existence. “Toy Story 3” ended in such a way that it not only wrapped up the story of these toys and the child they'd belonged to for as long as either of them could remember, but it gave closure to those who'd grown up with the first two films and were now transitioning into adulthood themselves. Almost another decade later and the characters of this world are as endearing as ever with Stanton and Folsom's narrative zeroing in on Woody (voice of Tom Hanks) as he learns that being in charge doesn't always mean being in control. While there were seeds of doubt as to whether or not Cooley and the gang (ah thank you) could find what more there was to be said with these characters and this world, what transpires in “Toy Story 4” ultimately provides the necessary comfort to the truth spoken by “Toy Story 3”; if that previous film eased the transition from adolescence to adulthood then this latest (and presumably final?) film discusses how one adapts to their new role in a mature and positive way.
One of the biggest stories around both “Toy Story 3” and ‘4’ was that of where Bo Peep (voice of Annie Potts) went and how she might make her way back into the lives of Woody, Buzz Lightyear (voice of Tim Allen), and the rest of the crew. The "how" is answered immediately as we flash back to the stormy night in which Andy's little sister, Molly, gave up a few of her toys including her Bo Peep lamp to another child and friend of her mothers. In this sequence, there is a moment between Bo and Woody where everyone's favorite sheriff is faced with the choice of choosing between his desires and his loyalty and in fine Woody fashion, he sticks to his (toy) guns and stays with his kid. Making our way into present day though and the majority of the original gang now reside in Bonnie's room even if the most popular toys of old AKA Woody aren't being played with in the capacity they might have been in Andy's room. Bonnie enjoys Lightyear's space ranger antics and has taken to removing Woody's sheriff badge and pinning it to Jessie (voice of Joan Cusack) which is completely logical for a 5-year old girl, but while he tries to mask it as best he can this lack of a sense of purpose is sending Woody into a tailspin. No longer is "Sheriff Woody" the head of the bedroom, the toy every other plaything looks to for guidance or security, but rather Woody has been relegated to the floor of the closet where he collects dust bunnies and is encouraged to name them so as to occupy the loneliness. It is this idea that prompts Woody into action when he sees Bonnie is upset at the thought of having to begin kindergarten and thus the reason he risks getting her in trouble by sneaking into her backpack and watching over her at orientation as if to serve as her own personal bodyguard. In an attempt to divert Bonnie's attention away from the fact no one sits with her at the crafts table, Woody inadvertently provides the tools necessary for Bonnie to build "Forky" (voice of Tony Hale); a spork with mismatched googly eyes, a pipe cleaner made into arms and hands, and a popsicle stick broken in two that serve as feet where Bonnie prints her name on the bottom. Forky was never meant to be a toy, but finds himself at the center of this young girl's world while Woody finds purpose in convincing Forky of his importance and therefore finds meaning in his unflinching loyalty to the idea that toys are meant to serve as tools to improve the lives and eventual memories of the children they are lucky enough to serve.
Getting too deep into the weeds and one might find themselves questioning their own purpose in life or their own sense of worth and what they've done so far that has made it worthwhile, but much like Woody-if you're a parent especially-you find yourself looking at your kid and hoping you've done as good by them as you could. There is a particular moment in “Toy Story 4,” when Woody, Bo, Buzz, and new characters Bunny (voice of Jordan Peele) and Ducky (voice of Keegan-Michael Key) along with stunt toy Duke Caboom (voice of Keanu Reeves) are making their way through an antique shop to try and rescue Forky where a brief, simple shot exists of a customer walking through the store inspecting a ceramic duck or something of the like and it immediately triggered this sort of nervous sense of "why?" as in, "why do we accumulate this stuff and these things? What purpose do they ultimately serve and aren't toys just another thing we collect to try and fill a void or satisfy an idea that might never become fully realized?" There was no reason for this particular shot to stand out and one might think such ponderings feel a little far-fetched all things considered, but it is in this reaction the film elicits that we find one of the many layers and ideas that Cooley and the gang (I'll show myself out) are exploring at greater depth than the comedy and pristine animation would initially suggest. All of the necessary peripheral characters are present and given a fair enough amount of screen time, but Scranton and Folsom were smart to make this about Woody and his journey from participant to spectator as these ideas and themes being discussed truly come from this natural arc we've seen his character take. Through Forky, this object that was given a soul and a home by a little girl who needed to create something to give these things to, we are also presented with Woody’s put upon responsibility that, if he isn’t going to be the center of Bonnie’s world that he’ll at least play a role in supporting whoever Bonnie chooses as her most important toy in the moment. It is in this desire to validate his worth as a toy by continuing to make Bonnie happy even if he's not the center of attention that Woody’s arc becomes emotionally investing. Yes, Forky is this fantastic and funny embodiment of all of our deepest fears and anxieties as he constantly feels like he's treading ground where he doesn't belong, but it is Woody’s realization that he’s no longer effectively of any use in his traditional environment but can flourish in his “sheriff” tendencies elsewhere that make the final ten or so minutes of this such a welcome yet challenging reminder for all those that must let go at one point or another: wings are just as critical as roots.
Breaking down the lines of what constitutes a toy in the first place, at what point these inanimate objects are granted souls and how the eventual end of Forky will undoubtedly skew closer to his original desires despite having been shown the greater wonders and possibilities of the world is definitely getting too far into the weeds as this hand-crafted and humbling reminder that life can be about what we make of it (or from it) tends to serve just as much as a piece of comic relief as it does a representation of all of our deepest existential concerns. As far as new characters go though, Forky is certainly a highlight as Hale lends his Buster Bluth-like neuroticism to the character making lines that are as simple as calling out for Bo Peep genuinely hilarious. Speaking of Bo-Cooley, Stanton, and Folsom handle this reintegration with an intuitive nature that allows the character's re-introduction to not only feel natural, but fated in a way; as if this were the only way she and Woody's story could be told with their paths destined to cross once again. There was caution in the fact Bo just happened to show back up and in pants at a time when, culturally, the #MeToo movement was happening and women were fighting for more equality in the workplace and across the board to the point this certainly could have felt like an attempt to capitalize on the moment, but while Bo has certainly grown into a stronger, more independent character in the years since leaving Molly's room her presence never feels like part of an agenda here, but rather an inherent thread in the narrative that was necessary to tell this next chapter of Woody's story.
In having been what is referred to as a "lost toy" for some time now though, Bo has naturally accrued some new friends in the process as a short scene with Combat Carl (voice of Carl Weathers) proves too short while Bo's right hand woman, Giggle McDimples (voice of Ally Maki), proves a precious commodity along the way. The aforementioned Bunny and Ducky are obviously a great addition as Key and Peele know exactly what they're doing and know how to do it well; a sequence where they team up with Buzz to extract a key is especially brilliant and one of the bigger laughs in a movie that consistently delivers big laughs. And while it would be unfair to expect all of Woody's original gang to get an equal amount of development while also introducing new characters the lack of Buzz here is somewhat disappointing even in light of the understanding this is Woody's movie. The other major new character is Gabby Gabby (voice of Christina Hendricks), a doll who maybe personifies what is best about “Toy Story 4” in that, while Woody must challenge the conventions of his life, Gabby Gabby forces the viewer to challenge the conventions of the typical movie antagonist. Morphing from a stock villain into what is essentially the example by which Woody sees his new possibilities each major player and new cast member tend to not only help build a hugely entertaining adventure, but play a role in both the film and Woody figuring out why they're still needed, what purpose they might serve, and how meaningful they are to those who love them.