We didn’t need a Toy Story 4, though that didn’t stop everyone at Pixar from trying. The problem with most fourth sequel installments is that, even if the audience enters the theater with goodwill, the uphill battle from the start is to not seem forced. The initial thrill of seeing Woody, Buzz, and the gang again passes once you realize that you already said goodbye to them a movie ago. While the latest from Pixar is as ambitious as ever and curiously more in tune with adult sensibilities, it feels like a franchise that has overstayed its welcome.
The story: Bonnie, the little girl who now owns all of Andy’s toys, is growing up and starting kindergarten. Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks) acts as Bonnie’s protector, struggling to keep her childhood happy and maintaining the dynamic within his gang of neurotic toys. The introduction of a new toy, a crudely made art project named “Forky,” shakes everything up and exhausts Woody’s patience.
Toy Story 4 has lots on its mind but it’s also peculiar and creepy, with jokes and emotional highs that are too easily attainable. The new characters are not endearing, particularly Forky (voiced by Tony Hale) and especially Gabby Gabby (voiced by Christina Hendricks), the talking girl doll and demented mastermind in an antique store. The screenplay makes jarring shifts to adjust our feelings for these characters but fails to genuinely humanize them. In addition to how unappealing the new cast members are, a few of them will be stress inducing for kids. Gabby Gabby’s army of menacing ventriloquist dolls is an equal opportunity offender, providing a lifetime of nightmare fodder for kids and their parents.
There is pleasure here, though it comes in small doses and doesn’t amount to much. A rescue that opens the film is imaginative and well staged. The scene where Woody observes Bonnie on her first day in school is the most truthful, even with the overdone the-toys-must-stay-hidden angle.
The introduction of Keanu Reeves’ “Duke Kaboom” (a take-off of an Evel Knievel action figure) is promising, until you realize the character is on hand to set up dumb jokes about Canada. Annie Potts’ Bo Peep is refreshingly strong-willed and interesting: Her mode of transportation is novel and I loved the bit about Woody never learning the names of her sheep. Oddly, Buzz Lightyear has been mostly written out of the film, with a useless subplot involving the search for his “inner voice” that feels like busywork for actor Tim Allen.
The best gags and new character moments come from a pair of carnival prizes named Ducky and Bunny (voiced by Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele); their running gag (a riff on plotting a heist) is the film’s most inventive, from a visual and storytelling standpoint. The playful asides of Ducky and Bunny, clearly improvised by Key & Peele (at one point, one of them address a frog by stating, “Hey you, Rainbow Connection!”) is as good as this gets.
This is possibly the most existential of the Toy Story films, as its story centers on the need to let go of those who define our past. The result is more akin to parental angst than childhood reflection, which is why this will work best for parents. That’s not really a compliment. There’s an overly complicated quality to the script, both in its search for deeper meaning and its busy, location-hopping narrative, that drags this down. Although the final moments intend to give closure, nothing here reaches the considerable highs and or the emotionally devastating moments from Toy Story 3.
The geniuses at Pixar have never made a bad movie but this one left me underwhelmed. The first three in this series are animation milestones (the second film is, at the moment, my 3-year year old daughter’s favorite movie). Toy Story 4 is, along with Finding Dory, Brave, or any movie with the word “Cars” in the title, that rare, unsatisfying, and disposable Pixar movie.
Rated G/100 min.
Photo courtesy IMDB