“Toy Story”, “Toy Story 2” and “Toy Story 3” remain one of the finest movie trilogies ever brought to life on the big screen. “Toy Story 4”, on the other hand, feels like one of those reunion specials that seem to be so in vogue right now, getting the whole band back together only to ignore almost all of them in favour of a new assortment of merchandise characters.
When Bonnie comes back from her first day of kindergarten with a new self-made toy, Forky (Tony Hale), Woody and the gang do everything they can to help the jittery newcomer settle in. But when Forky is lost on a road trip Woody sets out to rescue him only to find himself trapped in an antique store by a sinister doll named Gabby Gabby. But some new friends – and a very old one – are about to show Woody what the world can be for a toy.
First off, this is a Pixar movie and so, of course, the animation and character design are superb, no doubt about that. Also delightful, in the classic Pixar mould, are some of the new additions, like Bunny and Ducky (Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key) and Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves) who get the share of the movie’s laughs but unfortunately, they’re poorly served by a story which always feels like two or three TV specials joined together and never manages to become more than the sum of its parts.
As the poster boy and instigator of the plot of “Toy Story 4”, it comes as something of a surprise when Forky all but disappears from the second half of the movie although given how tiresome his popsicle schtick quickly becomes, we should be grateful for small mercies. In its place comes a plot about a sinister toy doll who controls an antique shop and the return of the long-thought-lost Bo Beep. While Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) initially seems like a do-over of Lotso from “Toy Story 3”, her story is a shade more poignant, casting her as the injection-moulded Miss Haversham of the “Toy Story” universe. Being faulty straight out of the box, she has never had a kid of her own and sees her chance of salvation in Woody’s functional voice box. Her desperation for meaning through having a kid of her own is contrasted against Bo Beep’s liberation.
The “Toy Story” franchise has always had a somewhat uneasy relationship with some of the consequences of its superficially enchanting premise of toys coming to life, their relationship with their children and, especially, the occasional nudge nudge wink wink innuendo of ‘being played with’. Where “Toy Story 3” dealt eloquently and poetically with the inevitability of children growing older and moving on from playing with toys, “Toy Story 4” doubles down on the toy/ child relationship being explicitly and repeatedly shown to be pseudo-parental, with the central question being: what is Bo and Gabby’s purpose if they don’t have children? Time and time again, the movie suggests that a toy without a kid is less than whole and even while reaffirming Bo’s right to choose the ‘lost toy’ lifestyle the movie side-eyes it again and again. Forky’s plotline may begin with the existential horror of Bonnie being an oblivious ‘creator god’ but the movie at least has the sense to ignore ‘all the questions’ that the idea (and Trixie the Triceratops) raises.
It’s in how “Toy Story 4” handles Woody, though, that the film takes its biggest risk. He’s the focus of the lion’s share of the action – even Forky’s story is framed by how it impacts Woody – but the rest of the OG “Toy Story” gang are given practically nothing to do (Buzz, at least, gets a fun running gag about his ‘inner voice’). Ultimately, there’s a bold and unexpected choice made here that may sit very uneasily with many “Toy Story” fans, calling to mind the sudden shifts of character motivation and action which caused such consternation at the end of “Game Of Thrones”.
Of course, all this idle speculation and digging for meaning is symptomatic of the fact the movie just didn’t keep me as spellbound as previous Pixar efforts (and particularly “Toy Story” instalments) have done. As for the movie’s target audience, though, they loved it. Mertmas and The Littlest Craggling thought it was fantastic and even Mrs Craggus, while conceding it wasn’t nearly as good as the three previous movies, enjoyed it a lot. Maybe it’s me. Maybe I’m the one having a midlife crisis. Maybe I’ve outgrown toy stories. God, I hope not.