What do toys do when we’re not around? They live, they love and they evolve. They’re just like us.
That’s the basis driving Disney/Pixar’s magnificent “Toy Story” franchise since the first film bowed in 1995, when audiences met loyal cowboy Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks) and brave commander Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen). The animated classic celebrated friendship and the wonder of childhood.
The enjoyable “Toy Story 2” (1999) continued the theme of lost toys being found. The introspective “Toy Story 3” (2010) seemingly wrapped up the series perfectly as the toys found a new owner.
But nine years later, the delightful “Toy Story 4” shows us there’s still more story to tell, with a mix of returning favorites and new characters. The heart-warming final entry lives up to the high bar of animation and storytelling established by the franchise while further enriching its legacy.
The film picks up after “Toy Story 3,” which saw a college-age Andy give away his beloved childhood toys – including Woody, Buzz and Jessie the cowgirl (Joan Cusack) – to the fresh-faced Bonnie. The little girl is just starting kindergarten, and she is afraid to leave her toys.
Trying to figure out his place in Bonnie’s playing order, Woody sneakily accompanies her to school. With a nudge from Woody, Bonnie uses her imagination to build a new toy out of a spork – Forky (Tony Hale). As Forky becomes Bonnie’s new favorite, Woody rallies the gang to protect the trash-turned-toy. But when Forky disappears on a family road trip, Woody pulls out the stops to find him.
The cowboy reunites with an old friend – the savvy Bo Peep (Annie Potts), accompanied by her trio of sheep – at a nearby carnival to bring home Forky. But standing in Woody’s way is Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), a manipulative doll who wants something from him. Woody is put to the test as he works with new allies and must come to terms with his new purpose in life.
The candy-colored animation in “Toy Story 4” is breath-taking. The action moves seamlessly between locations, from Bonnie’s room to the kindergarten classroom to the open road. At the carnival, the characters must navigate several obstacles from the game booths to the towering rides, which sets up an exciting finale. An antique store, where much of the action occurs, offers lots of nooks and crannies for the characters to hide.
“Toy Story 4” expands upon the existential themes of “Toy Story 3” as its characters search for meaning. The film thrives in exploring how life is about change, and how one’s purpose can change over time. Even though the lessons are shown through toys, they apply to real life. The film may not carry as much emotional weight as the gut-wrenching “Toy Story 3,” but that doesn’t mean you won’t need tissues handy.
The latest chapter is Woody and Bo Peep’s movie. The soulful cowboy, guided by Hanks’ soothing voice, struggles to move on from the memories he made with Andy as he ponders where he fits within Bonnie’s life. Woody doesn’t know how to be anything but loyal, unable to see a future for himself outside of belonging to a child.
His reunion with Bo Peep comes at the perfect time. The shepherdess, who was last seen 20 years ago in “Toy Story 2,” has dramatically transformed from a dress-wearing love interest to an empowered, pants-wearing survivalist. Potts shines as the character adjusts to life on her own after being separated from the gang. As Woody lacks purpose, Bo Peep has found hers, and the two learn from one another.
The film excels at adding new characters to its canvas. The traumatized Forky, voiced by franchise newcomer Hale, quickly endears himself to moviegoers. As Forky deals with how to be a toy after being groomed for garbage, his plight mirrors Woody’s internal struggle. Keanu Reeves is a welcome addition as Duke Caboom, a mustachioed daredevil who must overcome his own insecurities to help Woody and Bo Peep. Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele add comic relief as Ducky and Bunny, a big-talking pair of stuffed animals.
Even the villain character is sympathetic. Hendricks brings heart to Gabby Gabby, who is not as self-serving as she may seem. Her dummy henchmen, however, will send chills down moviegoers’ spines.
As “Toy Story 4” brings in so many new characters, some of the original characters inevitably take a backseat. As Woody strikes out on his own, Buzz and Jessie must step up and take on different roles within the toy gang. Though Allen and Cusack are enjoyable in their return, their characters are relegated to less screen time than in past films.
If this is the end for the “Toy Story” franchise, then “Toy Story 4” is a masterful way to bow out. The film beautifully wraps up a 24-year franchise, with plenty of laughs and tears as audiences say goodbye to their favorite – and new favorite – characters.
4.5 out of 5 stars
“Toy Story 4” brings Woody, Buzz and the gang back together nine years after the third installment and 24 years after the original. “Toy Story 3” wrapped the franchise perfectly so ordinarily a fourth film would seem pointless, an attempt at a cash grab. However, the franchise’s first three films are so beloved and critically acclaimed it deserved a shot to tell a fourth story.
The toys now belong to Bonnie after Andy gave them to her in the third film before going off to college and the dynamic changes. Bonnie’s favorite toys are different from Andy’s, which pushes Woody to the side. Woody has to find his place in the world because he only knows loyalty to his kid.
As soon as Forky is introduced, it’s difficult to not fall in love with the spork. So much thought goes into the character design and what a spork with googly eyes, pipe cleaner arms and Popsicle stick feet can accomplish. Combined with Tony Hale’s voice work, Forky provides comedy and heart.
Comedy geniuses Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele give the audience plenty of laughs as Ducky and Bunny, while Keanu Reeves adds another solid role as Duke Caboom to his Keanusance, which started in 2014 with the breakout franchise “John Wick.” Also, Christina Hendrick’s Gabby Gabby serves as a strong villain with understandable motivations.
The fourth installment also brings back Bo Peep, who was absent from the third film. Her evolution from the first two movies makes her arguably the best character in “Toy Story 4.” Her storyline with Woody gives the film its strongest theme.
The messages “Toy Story 4″ tackles work, and that’s key to the success of any kids film in 2019. Great themes for kids and adults make smart movies, which is the cornerstone of Pixar’s rise to prominence that started in 1995 with…”Toy Story.”
Throughout all its films, the franchise has phenomenal attention to detail. It perfects what it takes for these toys to get from point A to point B, how they fall when a human is about to walk in the room and their point of view. The flawless animation supports that attention to detail, which adds to the realism and connection the audience builds with these characters.
“Toy Story 4” has no negatives, just nitpicks. The audience can ask how Bonnie created a sentient being, but in a franchise where all toys are essentially humans – who cares? The movie focuses a lot on the new characters and limits the screen time of the characters the audience grew up with, but the new characters add a lot to the world and keep the franchise as fresh as possible.
The only thing “Toy Story 4” has going against it is the perfection of the previous three films and the finality of “Toy Story 3.” Although each film has its own story and themes, the beats remain the same. Credit to the franchise for staying fresh for three films, but this started to feel tired. “Toy Story 4” gives the audience what “Toy Story 3” did. The movie seemed a little long because of it.
“Toy Story 4” is flawless in its execution and proves a story worth telling. It serves its nostalgic purposes for those who grew up with Andy, while giving today’s kids a smart, funny and heart-warming movie. After four films, the franchise feels a bit overdone, but “Toy Story 4” has a friend in me.
4.5 out of 5 stars