Film Review: Pixar finds its mojo again with “Toy Story 4”
The belated Pixar sequels to beloved hits such as Finding Nemo and The Incredibles have been, uh…leaving a little to be desired, right? Finding Dory was so devoid of inspiration that you could practically hear the puffs of dust being squeezed out of the wrinkly old udder. And The Incredibles 2, while slick and watchable, took the safest possible route at every opportunity; it certainly was not worth a 14 year wait.
This all left me feeling apprehensive about Toy Story 4, the continuation of a perfect trilogy that ended perfectly. Completing a trilogy without a bad instalment is difficult enough. Following that up is hardly possible. How many good sequels end with a “4”?
Anyway, goes to show what I know. Toy Story 4 is a worthy continuation for the franchise, a vibrantly animated work buzzing with comic energy and neatly threaded with sophisticatedly written themes of identity and purpose. The plot hews pretty close to the usual Toy Story template of the sentient toys getting lost in the big wide world and having to move from this place to that place while overcoming seemingly insurmountable physical and emotional obstacles. Buzz (Tim Allen) and Woody (Tom Hanks) are still the best of friends, there are still some freaky and hilarious new toys to meet along the way, etc. etc. The standout one undoubtedly being the Canadian stuntman with swagger Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves), a toy who was abandoned by his owner after failing to perform a stunt his toy was advertised as being able to do.
Which brings us to the main antagonistic force in Toy Story 4: Feelings of uselessness. A decidedly more adult-oriented villain than a seemingly genial figure who knows what’s best for everybody (as seen in 2 and 3). To wit, Woody’s new owner, little Bonnie, mostly leaves Woody in the dark to gather dust. At one point, Bonnie’s father accidentally squishes Woody’s face and it isn’t a big deal whatsoever. So what’s toy once they’re no longer played with? Trash?
And so enter Toy Story 4’s wild card, Forky (Tony Hale). A plastic fork with mismatched googly eyes and pipe-cleaner limbs, created by Bonnie in a whirlwind of fear and loneliness during her first day of kindergarten. This displacement of raw anxiety imbues Forky with neurotic sentience. The poor thing longs for the warmth of the bin, much like how I imagine a squalling newborn longs to crawl back into the womb. Because he considers himself a fork, not a toy, and forks are used once and then tossed into the garbage. This existential underpinning is what has separated the Toy Story films from more standard kids fare, and it’s never been more compelling or funny than it is here.
But Woody sees how Forky functions as a kind of safety blanket for Bonnie, and it becomes a source of tension and some gut-busting laughs as a freaked out Forky attempts various suicides of sorts as Woody tries to convince him of his new value to Bonnie. If he can’t be played with, he should at least be able to keep Bonnie happy in at least an indirect way, right? There’s a weariness to his duty here, though, and Tom Hanks hits those subtle notes with his usual understated warmth.
Anyway, it all gets quite a bit more complicated when Woody and the gang are taken on a road trip and they reunite with Bo Peep (Annie Potts), who separated from them some years ago. In the meantime, she has become something of a self-reliant warrior. Her independence forces Woody to confront his deep-seated fear that he might be just a lost toy.
While I’m still not sure if Toy Story 4 is wholly necessary (3 ended things on such a beautiful note), the series still proves it has heart and visual creativity in unnatural abundance. And on the off chance they go for 5, I won’t be the least bit concerned; heck, I’ll look forward to it. To infinity and beyond, indeed.