Toy Story 4 (Josh Cooley, 2019) 2½ out of 4 stars.
Let’s be clear: beyond the purely mercenary, there was no reason to make this film. The 2010 Toy Story 3 – itself an initially questionable second sequel, given the brilliance of its predecessors – managed to wrap up the trajectory of Woody, Buzz, Jessie and the rest in a way that felt fully satisfying and, most importantly, complete. Why spoil a perfect trilogy?
The obvious answer is money. Where there was once success, there might be more. Still, given Pixar’s track record of masterpieces – my favorites include the first Toy Story, Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, Ratatouille, Up and Inside Out – one always holds out hope that the next film will delight, rather than disappoint. Let it be an inventive Wall•E rather than an insipid Cars or The Good Dinosaur. Sadly, though Toy Story 4 is far more entertaining and creative than something like the dismal Planes (or “Cars 3,” as I like to call it), it fails to wow, taking what was a marvelous finale to the series and extending it a little beyond its due date.
The story begins nine years prior to now, with Bo Peep, Woody’s never-quite-love-interest, given away by Andy’s sister as she outgrows the toy. Flash-forward to the present, with our remaining protagonists now firmly ensconced in the home of their new kid, Bonnie, and we see that all is once again about to change as the looming first day of school threatens Bonnie’s peace and happiness. Not to worry, as Woody is on the case, even if he is no longer the alpha toy (Bonnie prefers Jessie). With his surreptitious help, Bonnie gets through scholastic trauma by creating a new playmate, “Forky,” from a spork, pipe cleaner, popsicle stick, some googly eyes and glue. Primary emergency averted!
Or not, for soon a family road trip, complete with the full load of toys, leads to more adventures. We both meet new characters and encounter an old friend, leading to a new crisis of faith for Woody and company. To whom should a toy’s primary loyalty go, to themself or to the child they ostensibly serve? While that is a powerful existential dilemma– the stuff of high drama! – even if it runs counter to the ethos of this particular universe, the metaphysics of it get somewhat lost in the overall mess of the action, less finely managed than in previous installments. There is also quite a lot of rule breaking, in terms of how the toys interact with humans, that feel cheap compared to the careful line trod before. There’s fun in the disorder, for sure, but not the transport of joy our heroes deserve.
Featuring the voice talents of series regulars Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Joan Cusack and the rest of the gang, Toy Story 4 adds the likes of Tony Hale (And Then I Go) as Forky, Christina Hendricks (Crooked House) as a very creepy angel-faced new antagonist, and Keanu Reeves (John Wick) as Duke Caboom, a daredevil motorcyclist with a dangerous lack of confidence. Perhaps best of all, however, is Annie Potts (Chu & Blossom) as Bo Peep, heretofore a minor character who finally gets a chance to truly shine, giving the series a nice feminist twist. It’s too bad the surrounding story is less than riveting (I never once cried, as I have in each of the other three films), but at least Bo Peep gives it something of a charge to carry us through to the end. It could be better, but could also be worse.