The legacy of Pixar Animation Studios’ Toy Story franchise is unparalleled, having revolutionised the way films are made and heralded a new era of animation. Monumental achievements like these bring with them high expectations, which would explain why the fourth movie in the series, while grand, doesn’t feel particularly exceptional.
With his former owner having left for college, cowboy doll Woody (Tom Hanks) has been left in the possession of the much younger Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw). He has long relinquished the role of favourite toy, but Woody knows from previous experiences that his duty is to be there when his owner needs him. Such a need arises on Bonnie’s first day of kindergarten – overcome with shyness and unable to make friends, she is comforted by Woody in the stealthiest of ways.
On this particular day, Woody clandestinely places numerous Arts & Craft supplies near an unhappy Bonnie, who in turn uses them to fashion an anthropomorphic spork she names Forky. The rudimentary toy instantly brings joy to the youngster, who proudly takes it home to play with; during this time, the creation reveals itself to be sentient – just like Woody and his friends – complete with independent thought and a voice (that of Tony Hale, no less).
Woody assumes responsibility for Forky, which involves having to thwart his attempts to abscond; Forky eventually succeeds in doing so on a road-trip with Bonnie’s family, forcing Woody to leap from a moving motorhome to retrieve him. On their long journey back to Bonnie, the duo pass an Antiques store, where Woody encounters a sight not seen in years: the lamp belonging to his long-lost porcelain friend, Bo Peep (Annie Potts).
The Toy Story franchise has been a mainstay of pop-culture for almost a quarter of a century, having been introduced to the public in 1995; since then, audiences have witnessed two television specials, an animated spin-off centred on Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) and, of course, three feature-length sequels. The fourth instalment is undoubtedly the weakest of the series thus far, in part because it’s a very different experience to its predecessors – but that’s not to say the film is bad.
Toy Story 4 benefits from a bevvy of new protagonists, all of whom are charming and unique, including the aforementioned Forky, whose naivety, innocence and flustered demeanour is not unlike Buster Bluth. Also part of the group of newcomers is Gabby-Gabby (Christina Hendricks), a doll with vaguely-sinister intentions who gives orders and performs dastardly tasks with a never-ceasing benevolence. For this reason, Gabby-Gabby is the most nuanced and interesting character of the series to date.
One of the more peculiar additions to the Toy Story fold is motorcycle-riding Canadian stuntman, Duke Caboom – or rather, the actor chosen to portray him, Keanu Reeves. Known primarily for his serious action roles, Reeves seems an unnatural choice for a family movie, yet his bouncy vocal performance suggests otherwise, playing with a zeal that hasn’t been witnessed since his Bill & Ted days. Such enthusiasm is matched by Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, who’ve reunited to voice plush animals Ducky and Bunny, respectively.
With Toy Story 4’s attention rightfully given to these new characters, little time is devoted to the child’s playthings that previously garnered the limelight, meaning that the likes of Jessie the Cowgirl (Joan Cusack), Hamm (John Ratzenberger) and Rex (Wallace Shawn) are relegated to only minor speaking roles. This fact is especially disappointing when one considers that the ensemble cast was a huge drawcard of Toy Story 3, which saw Andy’s Toys interacting and working together to achieve their goals.
The disconnect with the previous films doesn’t end there. Whereas the rest of the franchise preaches the importance of staying together, and keeping true to one’s purpose, Toy Story 4 opts for a different message that – without wishing to spoil anything – puts forward an entirely different moral, one which could potentially baffle younger viewers. In fairness, it’s an interesting message that is put forward by the film, and quite a resonant one for those who have grown-up watching the series.
And for those who adhere to that category, Toy Story 4 is a thoroughly rewarding experience, with references to the specials and short films, and possibly the funniest gags of the franchise to date. Likewise, the animation is more impressive than ever, with Bo Peep having been given an appealing redesign and other protagonists having highly-detailed textures. (Undoubtedly, it helps that Pixar is using computers hundreds of times more powerful than the original Toy Story to render characters, scenery and whatnot.)
Toy Story 4 is a far different film to what audiences are accustomed to, and that idiosyncrasy will not be to everyone’s tastes. But the picture does earn credit for having a plot and message that older viewers can identify with, whilst also providing a collection of delightful characters and an excellent voice-cast to match.