I was 15 in 1995 when the first Toy Story was released. That’s a bit older than the target audience for Pixar’s inaugural feature film, but I vividly remember seeing it and being dazzled by both the story and the groundbreaking animation. I’ll be 40 next year. I’ve been wowed by each successive Toy Story installment released over the last quarter century. Both the astonishing leap in digital animation technology and the touching stories involving old pals Sheriff Woody, Buzz Lightyear, and the rest of the gang – Toy Story 2 and 3 consistently bring me to tears with every revisit – get better with each new film.
That’s definitely the case with the seemingly impossible jump in animation quality between Toy Story 3 and Toy Story 4. The plot, however, isn’t quite up to the level of the earlier films, especially Toy Story 3, probably the strongest of the series. While “cash grab” is too strong a phrase, this is the first entry in the franchise that feels like the artistic vision got a little fuzzy.
A whopping eight different people – six individuals and one pair working together – cobbled together the story. That’s double the number of contributors of any previous picture in the series. The actual screenplay credits a ninth person, Stephany Folsom, in addition to Pixar stalwart Andrew Stanton, who worked on both story and screenplay. As a result, the tale in Toy Story 4 feels muddled; too many hands in the cookie jar.
This time around, the action takes place as Woody and the gang are adjusting to life with their new kid, Bonnie. Former owner Andy bequeathed his toy collection to the toddler upon his departure for college at the end of Toy Story 3. On her first day of kindergarten, Bonnie makes a new toy out of a spork by adding googly eyes, a play-doh mouth, pipe cleaner arms, and a craft stick for feet. Forky, as Bonnie appropriately dubs him, is convinced he’s meant for the garbage can, and Woody must convince him he is now a toy and not trash.
Except that’s not really the focus of the story, or at least not the only one. The pre-title introduction – which in no way matches the imaginativeness or outright fun of the one in Toy Story 3, reminds us that the toy gang lost a friend ten years ago. Andy’s sister, Molly, gives away her toy Bo Peep, Bo’s sheep, and the lamp that acts as their pedestal. Woody and Bo were sweet on each other, and they are both understandably distraught. We see the separation and Bo’s resignation to her fate in the introduction.
In the story’s present, Woody has to go after Forky when he flings himself out the window of Bonnie’s parent’s rented RV during a camping road trip. Forky is convinced he’s still trash, so he wants to become litter. In Woody’s attempt to get Forky back to Bonnie, the pair walk past an antique shop in a small town, and Woody spots a familiar lamp. From here, the movie becomes about Woody’s re-connection with Bo, and his being tempted by her “lost toy” lifestyle.
But there’s so much more. Besides Forky and Bo, there’s Gabby Gabby, a doll living in the antique shop who wants to replace her busted voice box to increase the odds of a child wanting her. There’s also Bunny and Ducky, a pair of plush toys stuck in a carnival game as prizes who just want to go home with a kid. And then there’s Duke Caboom, an action figure embodiment of a Canadian stuntman. Duke lost faith in himself when his kid tossed him out after realizing his toy couldn’t do all the stunts the commercial promised.
That’s a lot for one movie to juggle, and while Toy Story 4 does a decent job of giving everyone their due, it ends up feeling overstuffed and unfocused, especially when compared to the relative simplicity of the first three movie’s plots.
The plot of Toy Story 4 might be too busy to be completely satisfying, but the great casting and voice performances are what you would expect in a Pixar release. While Tom Hanks as Woody and Tim Allen as Buzz continue to anchor the emotional core of the Toy Story Universe, there are plenty of fun new additions. Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele re-team from their sketch comedy days. They are Ducky and Bunny, respectively. Tony Hale is funny as Forky, and though he’s ostensibly the focus of the movie, there is so much going on that, like many of the other characters, he gets lost in the shuffle at times. Christina Hendricks is by turns creepy and pitiable as Gabby Gabby. The stand out by far is the inspired casting of Keanu Reeves as Duke Caboom. And yes, because I know you’re thinking it, we do get a “Whoa…” out of Duke.
I thought it would be impossible for the Pixar folks to wow me again with their digital animation wizardry. Surely the glut of CGI-based animated movies in the decade since Toy Story 3’s release all but guaranteed a “we’ve seen everything under the sun” reaction when it came to the film’s visuals. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
It’s the smallest of details – and getting this granular might be telling when it comes to parsing out advancements in the technology – but the characters’ fingers are unbelievably well defined. Woody’s fingers move and have the kind of definition that almost make you believe you’re looking at a real, physical object, not just a collection of pixels. We’re almost to the point that the animators could fool you into thinking you’re seeing clay figures brought to life with stop-motion animation. That’s surely how such a movie would have been made before computer animation became de rigueur.
But the mind-blowing visual design is also present on the grand scale as well as the small. One brief shot that takes place in the antique shop at sunset is a perfect example. As Bo and Woody talk on top of a cabinet, the rays of the sun are refracted through a chandelier, transforming the store into a kaleidoscopic wonderland of light. It’s a moment signifying an attention to detail that separates the Toy Story franchise, and Pixar as a whole, from almost every other CGI animated movie.
The conversation Bo and Woody are having during that magical moment concerns Bo trying to convince her cowboy pal that life free of an owner is an incredible adventure. He’s far from convinced. To him, the life of a toy should always be centered around the joy of his or her kid. Over the course of the series, this ethos has shifted slightly. In the earlier films, toys being loved by their owners was important, but it served as a motivation for the adventure. It also allowed the filmmakers to explore human emotions and concerns about loss, grief, and even death.
In Toy Story 4, Woody’s slavish devotion to his owner takes center stage. I found myself comparing the toys in this movie to the androids in the 2001 film A.I. Artificial Intelligence, particularly the robot boy David, who is just as committed to serving and being loved by his owners as Woody is.
A crucial decision Woody makes in the final moments of Toy Story 4 allows the franchise to turn in a new direction. It’s not as satisfying as the more closed ending of Toy Story 3 – or at least it felt like a closed ending at the time – particularly because it feels like the filmmakers are hedging their bets about this being the last installment. Toy Story 4 also isn’t the most well-crafted movie in the series, but it’s still fun enough, and it’s always good to see old friends.
Why it got 3.5 stars:
My standard response for the last week to people who ask how Toy Story 4 stacks up to the rest has been something like, “Look, it’s a Toy Story movie; it’s a lot of fun, just not quite as good as the rest.” It’s very entertaining, it just fell prey to too many people in the writers’ room.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- My Toy Story rankings: 3, 2, 4, 1. The main reason 4 pulled ahead of 1 is the incredible visual effects. 1 is also the most simplistic story, while 4 is the most overstuffed.
- I watched all four movies back-to-back over a period of three days, and viewing them like that puts in stark relief just how far the technology has come in the last 25 years. There is a cat in Toy Story 4 that looks as close to photo-realistic as you can imagine. It puts anything in the first film to shame.
- The Pixar gang is well-known for the movie references they pack into their films. In a series of shots that establishes a creepy vibe in the antique shop, the end credits song from The Shining, titled Midnight, The Stars and You can be heard on a record player. I was delighted to hear it pop up in the movie.
- There are a number of celebrity cameos included and I was left wondering why they even bothered. Among them were Mel Brooks, Carol Burnett, and Betty White. Brooks (with the punny character name Melephant Brooks) was the only one I picked out. He only had one line, which I assume is the same for the others. Not sure why they (the producers or the stars) went to the trouble.
- Bo Peep has a change of heart that turns on a dime. That’s an apropos turn of phrase considering it comes as she’s riding around at break-neck speed inside a mechanical skunk.
- This movie contains the single greatest character name ever conceived: Giggle McDimples.
Close encounters with people in movie theaters:
It’s been a very long time since I’ve been to a kids’ movie in the theater. It was…a jarring experience. Some of the parents were worse than the kids. There was one gentlemen who, any time something happened in the movie that surprised him, exclaimed loudly, “WAIT?!? WHAT?!?”