2019 | rated G | directed by Josh Cooley | 1 hr 40 mins |
Every time Pixar releases a new Toy Story movie it feels like a roll of the dice, chancing that their invention, cleverness and warmth will continue for another installment of this spotless series. Each entry has seemed like a miracle, arguably getting better with each one, building off the characters and themes that came before. Each time a new Toy Story movie has come out, I leave it buzzing on the high of a beautifully made movie firing on all cylinders: smart, funny and emotionally raw stories wrapped up into thrilling miniature adventures. I came away from Toy Story 4, however, conflicted for the first time. It is a very good movie, still pulling out new ideas that very few movies 3 sequels in could muster, but it’s a bittersweet movie.
But first, because I love talking about Toy Story, the road so far. After establishing a world where toys were alive and duty-bound to care for the children that play with them in Toy Story, it’s sequel explored the idea that if these toys are alive, they also cannot die, crafting a Curse of Immortality story where young Andy’s favorite toy, Sheriff Woody the Cowboy (voiced by Tom Hanks) and flashy Space Ranger Buzz Lightyear (voiced by Tim Allen), faced a future of being locked away forever. In the end of the film they choose fleeting time with their kid and isolation over an eternity under glass in a toy collector’s public exhibit. Toy Story 3 turned the Empty Nest metaphor from subtext into text. Now the moment had come where Andy, having long put away childish things, was to leave for college. It wrote itself into a corner and drew a door out of it by creating new possibilities: that toys can die (with the help of a billowing furnace) and that life may not end locked in a box, but in a cycle of toys being handed down to younger generations to play with. Toy Story 3 ends the trilogy on a perfect note.
As they say, a happy ending is a story that isn’t finished yet. Toy Story 4 jumps off after 3 with it’s natural next step. The group’s new kid Bonnie doesn’t care about a cowboy doll, instead preferring cowgirl Jesse (voice of Joan Cusack) to be the sheriff. Woody still inspires the loyalty of the room’s toys about how important there role is, especially with Bonnie heading to kindergarten, but he’s essentially worthless now. We get into a lot of new territory both for the characters as Woody’s uselessness drives him to increasingly rash decisions and the location moving out of Tri-County on an RV road trip. The movie’s most bizarre idea asks what makes a toy, a toy, as Bonnie fashions a plaything out of a spork, pipe cleaners, and googly eyes and it comes to screaming, feral life. That’s Forky (voiced by Tony Hale), he’s made of trash and looking after him has given Woody a mission.
The movie is gorgeous with some inspired plot turns and world building. We go to an antique story full of antique toys patrolled by ventriloquist dummies that look like Gabbo from The Simpsons, Gabby Gabby doll with a broken voice box. It explores what happens to a lost toy – previously an unspeakable fate in the Toy Story universe, now shown with the return of Bo Peep (voice by Annie Potts) as a toy who loves being out in the world on her own. Toy Story 4 turns Bo Peep into hook-swinging Furiosa living resourcefully off the land in a travelling carnival. She is child-less and throws everything Woody believes about a toy’s purpose in life up in the air. Yes, Bo Peep is also a strong female character – which Hollywood pretends is rare nowadays and makes a big deal about when the movie they are trying to sell isn’t very good – but her arc from damsel in distress over shark tanks and killer monkeys to resourceful action hero is completely organic, in character and story driven.
Toy Story 4 consciously avoids repeating ground already covered in previous films – and it’s here where your mileage may vary. Mine did, because as much as I respect this movie not falling back into formula, some of those things previous films did were very effective. The film lacks the chase story of the previous films and it doesn’t have a traditional villain. Where the previous movies went bigger, this goes smaller. When they went emotional, this goes intellectual. It maneuvers with it’s head, not it’s heart.
You could argue that Toy Story is often more clever than funny, which is most apparent in 4. Where each movie has had some genuine belly laughs, 4 elicits knowing nods. With 3’s scene-stealing fashionista take on the Ken doll out of the picture, he is replaced by Canadian wind-up motorcycle stunt man Duke Kaboom (voiced by Keanu Reeves). His mix of machismo and Canadian jokes are ready made for hilarity and while some hit, it’s amazing how many just hit the floor with a thud. Where the other films felt more like balanced ensembles, this one is very Woody-centered allowing very few moments to allow Potato Head (the late Don Rickles), Rex, Trixie, Slinky Dog and even Buzz to shine.
The first two acts of Toy Story 4 are about flawless. The writing is still top notch, Pixar is still digging under Woody’s plastic skin and pulling out dark fears, Buzz is still a lughead (though after 25 years it seems odd he’s still so clueless) and the animation is gorgeous (particularly in the antique store sequences). The third act, where the previous movies kicked into a straight-line chase climax, feels particularly hazy. It throws a lot of balls in the air, sets up a lot of stuff and doesn’t pay them off tightly. The script’s aversion to backtracking over old ground puts it in a place of attempting everything and nothing. The movie gets busier when it should be slimming down to a point.
With each Toy Story sequel being the result of Disney putting a creative gun to Pixar’s head and threatening to make their own direct to video sequels, Pixar has finally found a conclusion that will be very hard to sequelize. I’m conflicted over the ending, which without going into detail, has run through my head for days afterward. That’s always the sign of seeing something great, something challenging. It’s the film’s mature conclusion, one that only Pixar would go for, and yet personally, it didn’t sit well with me. Where every other movie in your series clicks on all cylinders, it feels more obvious when this one doesn’t land exactly right. A happy ending is just a story that isn’t finished yet. Toy Story 4 might be the best movie I’ve seen that I wish I hadn’t seen.