To say that the announcement of ‘Toy Story 4’ came as a surprise would be an understatement. ‘Toy Story 3’ was one of Pixar’s greatest triumphs - an award-winning and critically acclaimed box office smash that somehow managed to bring the series to a satisfying and poignant finale, and it seemed a done deal that the 'Toy Story' franchise was over. The idea of another film was a complicated one to take in - on one hand, these characters are amongst the most beloved in animation, while on the other, there didn’t seem to be anything else left to say. Unfortunately, despite being very entertaining and aiming for profundity, ‘Toy Story 4’ ultimately proves to be the latter, a film with essentially nothing to add to a franchise that had already said so much.
The toys have settled into their new life with Bonnie, everyone except Woody (Tom Hanks, ‘Cloud Atlas’, 'Cast Away'), who is avoiding dealing with missing Andy by throwing everything he has into protecting Bonnie as she transitions into kindergarten. Things get complicated though Bonnie comes back from her first day with Forky (Tony Hale, TV's 'Arrested Development’), a new "toy" she has created out of a spork and some craft supplies. Convinced he is trash and not a toy, Forky keeps trying to run away, but knowing how important he is, Woody takes the job of babysitting him, even when Bonnie and her family go on a road trip. At an RV camp spot, Woody’s plan is thrown out of whack when he reconnects with an old friend, Bo Peep (Annie Potts), who shows him the free life of a lost toy.
If that synopsis demonstrates anything, it’s that ‘Toy Story 4’ is problematic even at a foundational level. There’s no question it’s an entertaining film, and the animation is another level of beauty for Pixar, but the story itself is complicated and messy, moving between narrative threads that have little to do with one another and further diluting their intentions. It’s simply trying to do too much, and consequently doing nothing well. The two central conceits - Forky’s confusion at his existence and purpose, and Woody trying to define himself after losing Andy - are certainly strong ideas, but the film never gives either the space it deserves, shrugging off the delicious existential questions that Forky raises for the 'Toy Story' universe and (in what has become Pixar’s standard MO) deciding that Woody’s story is profound with actually working for it. The wit, danger and honesty of the previous three films is missing, replaced instead by work that’s unfocused and unnecessary.
The film also cements the idea that Woody is the protagonist of the series, and while this was always obvious, it was never at the expense of the 'Toy Story' films being ensemble pieces. With ‘Toy Story 4’ though, Woody is thrust very much to the front, and with a whole bunch of new characters introduced, the original toys are relegated to background supporting players. Even Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen, TV's 'Home Improvement' and 'Last Man Standing') becomes nothing more than a plot device, and Jessie (Joan Cusack, 'Working Girl', TV's 'Shameless') barely does anything at all. ‘Toy Story 3’ managed to introduce new characters without impacting on the main players, but the same balance is missing here, and you definitely feel their loss.
The great surprise of the film is that the most interesting character ends up being Forky, who moves past the gimmick of his existence to be charming, bizarre and wildly entertaining, Tony Hale giving a stupendous vocal performance. His appeal is so instantaneous that you start to count down the minutes until he reappears, and it seems like a real waste that the fun and fundamental questions he proposes are never cashed in on. Instead, his narrative is devoured by exploring Woody’s hero complex, wound up by yet another disaffected toy villain wanting to be loved in the form of 50s pull-string doll Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks, ‘Only God Forgives’) and her team of weird ventriloquist dummies. It’s also never clear why Bo Peep needs to be in this story other than to help out with Woody’s rescue of Forky from Gabby Gabby and to provide him with a love interest and alternative life option. She serves the narrative, but it hardly would have suffered without her other than emphasising Pixar's continuing lack of female characters.
These films have always been about more than "what do our toys do when we aren’t looking", and the thematic ideas of ‘Toy Story 4’ certainly try to carry that through, with Woody struggling to define himself after Andy dominating his existence, but director Josh Cooley and his story team don’t seem to have the skill to be as brave in their storytelling as they need to be. There’s a really great film hidden in here about loss and grieving, about moving on and finding your new self, but the film doesn’t seem brave enough to go for it. The film also bears all the scars of a troubled production, of a constantly shifting narrative focus and change of writers. There’s no indication that the film really knows where it wants to go, and by never getting a good grip on Woody’s through line and completely sidelining the other toys, this new ending to the series feels nowhere near as satisfying a conclusion as the one we've already had.
The wit, danger and honesty of the previous three films is missing, replaced instead by work that’s unfocused and unnecessary.
That said, there are many aspects of the film that work in isolation. There are a few really lovely set pieces in there, especially involving Bo Peep’s plan to rescue Forky, and Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele are really great as carnival soft toys Ducky and Bunny. Keanu Reeves also does his best as Canadian stunt-toy Duke Caboom, but the film never really finds the best way to take advantage of him in the way the previous films had with Tim Allen and Michael Keaton. These positives end up becoming fewer and further between as the story goes on, making the 100 minute film feel even longer than it is. I’d even wager that children will find it hard maintaining focus through this one.
Rather than offering an even more potent ending, ‘Toy Story 4’ ends up being an unnecessary epilogue, offering little to enrich the overall narrative of the series and never cashing in on the actual possibilities it offers. This could have worked if it had explored a new story in the 'Toy Story' universe, and Forky certainly makes it clear that such a move could have worked beautifully. Instead, we have a film that feels tired and forced, lacking in clarity or inspiration, serving neither its classic characters or its new ones, and ultimately never justifying its existence. It’s certainly an enjoyable film, but it’s hardly a necessary one.
In my retrospective on the previous three Toy Story films, I wrote that each film represented, for better or worse, a turning point for Pixar, and ‘Toy Story 4’ is no exception. It demonstrates that the magic that made the engine of this important animation studio work is starting to run low, that the same tricks are becoming tired and predictable, and the bravery that resulted in such masterpieces as ‘Finding Nemo’ and ‘WALL-E’ and ‘The Incredibles’ has faded away. In the wake of incredible competition such as ‘Frozen’ and ‘How To Train Your Dragon’ and ‘Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’, it’s becoming sadly clear that maybe the glory days of Pixar Animation are coming to an end.