Toy Story 4
The thing that amazes me about Toy Story isn’t just the way the first film signified a paradigm shift in animation. It isn’t just its remarkable longevity (24 years now!). It isn’t just the way it has managed to consistently craft deep, mature stories out of a bunch of walking, talking toys. It is that every time another sequel comes out, it has proven the doom-mongers and cynics wrong, and produced something arguably better than what came before. The culmination of that process, 2010’s Toy Story 3, was a nominal kids film that featured a scene where the characters decide accepting a fiery death is preferable to fighting uselessly against it, as long as they are all together.
Take a read of that last sentence again and ponder what Pixar have done for the genre, and film in general, and keep doing over and over again with this specific franchise. Beyond nostalgia bait – Toy Story itself is nostalgia worthy at this point – beyond cash-ins, beyond the creeping Disneyfication of Pixar, Toy Story continues to be the benchmark of animation. It says something that I hadn’t the slightest doubt that #4 in the series would continue that trend, and I can count on a few fingers the amount of franchises I can say the same about.
When new owner Bonnie (Madeline McGraw) has trouble on her first day of kindergarten, Woody (Tom Hanks), struggling with being a forgotten toy, secretly helps her make a new friend, spork-based pencil holder “Forky” (Tony Hale). While on a road-trip Forky makes a break for it, not wanting to be a toy: Woody’s quest to bring him back leads him to find the long-lost Bo Peep (Annie Potts), and a host of other toy’s looking for a child.
Every Toy Story film has had a basic enough narrative of lost toys trying to get back to their owners, or of “the gang” trying to find lost toys to get them back to their owners. But of course, the franchise goes beyond this repetitive framing device, to give every film a beating metaphorical heart: the poisonous nature of jealousy in Toy Story; fear of the future in Toy Story 2; acceptance of change and growing up in Toy Story 3. Toy Story 4’s addition to this canon is a treatise on the nature of, and desire to experience, parenthood, and how sometimes it’s OK to think of your own needs above others.
The symbolism is not hard to spot: you could transplant Toy Story 4’s characters and plot into a live-action drama about a father in a suddenly empty home, fussing over his grandkid (he even holds Forky’s hand like a grandparent) and pondering on the one who got away years ago. Woody bases his entire identity around being there for a child, whether it is the now-absent Andy, the increasingly uncaring Bonnie, or the child-like Forky (in an ironic reversal, now Woody has to stop a toy who wants to become lost, instead of saving one that is). Absent that responsibility, Woody is lost, and must confront the reality that he has been so busy putting the needs of other ahead of his own, that he doesn’t know who he really is or what he really wants.
Enter Bo. The way she dropped out of the franchise was always a bit strange, but is explained here in a heart-breaking prologue, where she represents a significant road not taken for Woody. Now, when Woody finds her again unexpectedly, she’s become an antithesis to Woody’s worldview: a “lost” toy, who is perfectly happy being lost, spending her time helping other lost toys. If we were to take the metaphor discussed above a bit farther, Bo is almost a representation of a foster parent, helping kids on the way to more permanent homes, while having no desire for children of her own.
Among the things that Toy Story 4 has to say are that’s it’s OK to want children, and it’s OK not to want them; that gambling all of your happiness on one thing is dangerous and unhealthy; that expectations are to be carefully managed, lest your dreams become unobtainable fantasy’s; fear of obsolescence will never entirely leave you; and that’s it’s good and moral to look after yourself first sometimes. In the realm of Pixar’s sub-textual messages, Toy Story 4 rates pretty high in terms of film’s I would want kids, and plenty of adults, to see.
Hanks and Potts do their best work of the franchise here in 4. It’s an intensely personal story for the two that requires serious gravitas in the VA. Hanks is an old enough hand at this now, but even I have to continually marvel at the power of his inflection, matched by the superb animation that literally brings Woody to life. Potts is in her largest role of the series and does just as well, making Bo far more than “the girl” she sort-of was in Toy Story: she is instead strong, independent and thoroughly uninterested in playing second fiddle. She’s the one taking the lead in schemes to find Forky and get Woody back to where he thinks he belongs, and he is utterly flabbergasted at this, not entirely unwelcome, turnaround.
It would be easy for the Woody/Bo plotline to become a saccharine piece of trash (Forky would be happy) but the script, credited to eight different writers (including Rashida Jones, despite the former’s much publicised issues with Pixar), avoids that. Toy Story 4 is too busy with a host of wonderful set-pieces and side characters to get too entangled in a romance plot-line, one that is mostly a representation of Woody’s decision, and doubts about being able, to grab some happiness for himself. In essence, he has to realise that he deserves to be loved, and not just by Andy or Bonnie. So does everyone else. In this, we have that rarest of things for animation, something I touched upon the conclusion of the How To Train Your Dragon franchise, characters that grow, change and reach an endpoint different to where they started over the course of a multi-film narrative.
But those side-characters. Much of “the gang”, especially Joan Cusack’s Jessie and Tim Allen’s Buzz Lightyear are relegated in importance for 4. In Allen’s case, this isn’t all that surprising, and some might consider it a miracle he was invited back, considering. Toy Story 4 is more interested in expanding things out, through Keanu Reeves “Duke Caboom”, (“Canada’s favourite stuntman!”), a motorcycle riding daredevil with crippling self-doubt, Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan’s Peele duo of Ducky and Bunny (who fantasise about attacking humans) and Gabby (Christina Hendricks), a 50’s era doll initially set up as the film’s antagonist, but who has a story all of her own that Toy Story 4 does a wonderful job with. In a film that often goes for the familiar as a basis for plot, that last inversion is a welcome sight, as I feared we were getting a rehash of 3’s Lotso.
And of course there is Tony Hale’s Forky, a recycled piece of plastic suddenly granted sentience, and at sea trying to figure out what he is supposed to do with it. Yes, Toy Story 4 has a sub-plot and character focused, Satre-like, on the nature of existentialism, that includes the character in question repeatedly throwing himself in the trash and insisting he’s happier that way. That’s the level we’re pitching at here, and while it may not be as complex and encompassing as the adult nature of Inside Out’s themes, it isn’t all that far off. There is a “New Avengers” feel to the set-up here, and I wouldn’t be one-bit surprised to see a continuation or spin-off featuring these new characters, but for now it suffices to say that Toy Story 4’s ensemble is varied, colourful, well-connected and brimming with interesting things to say or do.
Toy Story 4 perhaps lacks that really stand-out iconic scene that the other three was just full to the brim with. There is no real equivalent to the “I Will Go Sailing No More” or “When She Loved Me” montages, and the film avoids the outright darkness of the incinerator sequence, or even the drawn out goodbye at the conclusion of the last film. Instead, it sets itself up as more of an extended epilogue, low-intensity and melancholy in part, and could easily serve as a conclusion, far better than the more open-ended finale of 3.
And it is, despite that melancholy, great fun throughout. Toy Story 4 never loses that required comedy element, even if it has slowly drifted from kid-focused to grown-up dependent. Buzz still bring the physical yucks with impromptu soaring through the air and has some great solitary moments where he ponders over the thoughts of his “inner voice (the buttons that spew his catchphrases), the parody of human society that the toys create (this time there is a nightclub) remains engaging and there is a vibrant sense of pacing throughout, with the Pixar team always well ware of when things need a moment for seriousness, and when levity needs to be restored. Unlike many other films nowadays, they don’t make the error of mixing the two pell-mell.
It looks great of course. How could it not? Pixar sprung into prominence with this franchise, and they know their craft. Every character, every background, every setting is awash with well realised detail and colours, and even the most basic of figures overflow with a visible personality, whether it is in Caboom’s posing and articulation, or the prim and proper presentation of Gabby. While the real stand-out visual moments may not make quite as big of an impression as others earlier in this series, the restrained nature of 4’s cinematography is not a bad thing: among its best scenes is Woody and Forky just walking on a road, discussing the nature of being.
Randy Newman’s comes back in as composer/singer, and if I was to fault Toy Story 4 for anything, it may be on this point. The music of Toy Story has never really properly evolved in the same ways that other aspects of the franchises’ production has, remaining stuck in the same mode as it was in 1995, easy-listening, bouncy, jazzy orchestra. This does not make it bad, just, perhaps, overly familiar. Toy Story has taken risks, even as far as this installment, with its script, mood and visual presentation, but not so much with the music. This is personified by the re-run of Newman’s “You’ve Got A Friend In Me”, a nostalgic crutch, and the lack of memorability of the two other songs, “I Can’t Let You Throw Yourself Away” and “The Ballad Of The Lonesome Cowboy”. They, along with the general score, are toe-tapping and enjoyable enough, but they are no “When She Loved Me”, which remains the best song Pixar has ever come up with.
If this is to be the conclusion to Toy Story (if we are being honest with ourselves, there is no guarantee of that being the case), it is most certainly a fitting one, a film that is all about rounding things off and giving a sense of closure to the audience. Twice now, Pixar has confounded expectations by releasing additions to the franchise that were wonders all of their own even next to that genre-defining original. And now, thumbing their nose at the cynicism and worry, mocking the concept of diminishing returns, they’ve done it a third time. Toy Story 4 may not be, in my eyes, the best Toy Story movie – for me, that honour still goes to 3 – but that must be considered a debate of fractions in terms of quality.
Toy Story 4 hits all the high marks for narrative, cast, visual presentation, themes and script. It’s fantastically humorous and deeply touching in equal measures, and is just the latest example of Pixar’s stellar achievements. The tale of these toys has allowed for some of the most emotional story-telling of the last quarter of a century, as well as hours of entertainment: 4 is simply the latest stop on that journey. It may be the best film of the year, and if not is certainly in that conversation. Engaging, entertaining, skillfully made and heartfelt, Toy Story 4 is strongly recommended.
(All images are copyright of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures).