Updated: Dec 22, 2021
Is there a word for trepidation and anticipation at the same time? If not, I would like to submit 'anticitrepidapation', a sensation which accompanied me into the pretty much sold out showing of Toy Story 4 (2019) at my local multiplex. The 'Toy Story' franchise has, since Toy Story 3 (2010), been a prime example of three being the magic number. Toy Story 3 wrapped up the narrative in such an appropriate and poignant way that many, myself included, felt that Woody, Buzz and friends were riding off into the sunset for the final time. I am sure the powers that be at Pixar thought long and hard about the wisdom of making another 'Toy Story' film, but even so, the announcement that a fourth instalment was on the way could perhaps have come across like the studio pushing their luck, (especially considering their recent track record for sequels has largely been less than stellar).
Toy Story 4 successfully brings Pixar out from under [its] frustratingly inconsistent ‘sequel’ slump.
Toy Story sequels aside, it has arguably only been Incredibles 2 (2018) that has lived up to its original film in terms of quality. The Cars franchise became the dictionary definition of diminishing returns. Monsters University (2013) and Finding Dory (2016) were better, but largely forgettable. Would Toy Story 4 live up to almost overbearing expectations? The absolute worst it could do was to give a sense that the series had outstayed its welcome. However, with Pixar recently stating that they will be focusing more on original stories and characters following this film (with both the upcoming Onward (2020) and Soul (2020) teasing intriguingly existential subject matter), Toy Story 4 successfully brings Pixar out from under this frustratingly inconsistent ‘sequel’ slump.
Of course, all this apprehension and debate mattered not a jot to the giggly gaggle of children populating the room. For them, this was a chance to spend time with their old friends and meet some new ones. And we are rewarded with a wonderful gallery of brand-new characters alongside the originals. Woody and friends now have a new home with Bonnie (as seen at the conclusion of Toy Story 3). Bonnie is due to start kindergarten and during an 'orientation day', she crafts a new friend out of a spork and odds and ends from the nearby 'trash', creating what is perhaps one of the most inspired animated creations since the Minions: Forky, brilliantly voiced by Tony Hale.
Forky was the main highlight and certainly a curiosity of the original trailers for Toy Story 4, and is inarguably the best new character in the film. His sudden and uniquely makeshift appearance causes confusion amongst the old guard – "I have a question. No, wait. I have ALL the questions," states a slightly wary Trixie Triceratops (voiced by Kirsten Schaal). Forky’s growing realisation that he is alive, yet out of place, and definitely not in the trash where he belongs is the source of much of the film’s heart and humour. His existential crisis is the subject of one of two brilliant new songs penned by ‘Toy Story’ stalwart Randy Newman, who has crafted a characteristically graceful jazz-inflected score revisiting themes that are as much a part of the ‘Toy Story’ world as the characters.
Toy Story 4 ... is a world which charmingly juxtaposes the very different priorities between a child and their parents.
The show really gets on the road (quite literally) when Bonnie and family embark on a short road trip in a rented RV for some family time before Bonnie starts kindergarten. Obviously, the toys accompany them. Like most of the ‘Toy Story’ saga, Toy Story 4 looks at the world with a perspective of child-like innocence; it is a world which charmingly juxtaposes the very different priorities between a child and their parents. Where Bonnie’s father is understandably preoccupied with a sudden flat tyre on the RV, (“Daddy’s going to use some words now,” says Bonnie’s mum, distracting her daughter away from his dark mutterings), Bonnie is naturally concerned with ensuring Forky is still tucked into her precious backpack that accompanies her everywhere. (Needless to say, Forky isn’t always where he should be).
The usual themes of sacrifice and second chances are to the fore – particularly for Woody (voiced again by the effortlessly dependable Tom Hanks) who, as we re-meet him at the beginning of the film, is feeling rather redundant, consigned to the wardrobe amongst the toys of yesteryear (complete with voice cameos from veterans such as Mel Brooks, Betty White, Carol Burnett and Carl Reiner!) He is trying to find a new purpose, a reason to exist; no longer the recipient of the unconditional love of his previous owner, Andy (now the growing up college kid as glimpsed at the end of Toy Story 3). Therefore, Forky’s innocence, naivety and surprise at suddenly being ‘alive’ requires Woody to become his guide and mentor – particularly as the characters begin to navigate the perils of a road trip with Bonnie and her parents. Woody assumes that role, reminded of the special bond a child has with their favourite toy and wanting Forky to experience what he once had.
True to the tone of the series, Toy Story 4 doesn’t shy away from mild peril. There is nothing that quite matches the trauma of our intrepid heroes almost meeting their maker on an incinerator conveyor belt as witnessed in Toy Story 3, but there are nonetheless, nail-biting moments and creepiness to characters that give the spinning head of Big Baby a run for its money. Characters in peril, of course, require heroes and a huge amount of enjoyment comes in the guise of Keanu Reeves as Duke Caboom, Canada’s greatest stuntman. Preening and prancing astride a retro toy motorcycle, Caboom is a playful take on a handlebar-moustachioed Evil Knievel persona, complete with a corny catchphrase of misplaced bravado: “Yes I Canada!” Among the returning toys is the welcome reappearance of a character absent from Toy Story 3, Bo Peep (voiced by a returning Annie Potts). Bo is a key figure in Toy Story 4, and her return also provides a charming opportunity for a rekindling of the ‘will-they-or-won’t-they?’ story arc between her and Woody that has always been brimming under the surface throughout the series.
[Toy Story 4] manages to successfully extend the story without feeling superfluous.
Toy Story 4 could have come across as a cynical ploy to feed the already overflowing coffers of Disney. Though it will more than certainly do that in abundance, it is anything but cynical. Having been in development since the release of Toy Story 3, with a revolving roster of writers and directors (not uncommon in the world of Pixar), Toy Story 4 has benefitted from its final credited writers (newcomer Stephany Folsom and Pixar guru Andrew Stanton) who, seemingly undaunted by the pressures of living up to previous successes, have produced a fresh, funny and perfectly paced screenplay. It manages to successfully extend the story without feeling superfluous, although a few characters do feel slightly more peripheral this time around. That said, Rex’s panic attacks are always good value, and the late Don Rickles as Mr Potato Head is present through the use of archive recordings. If I were to be picky, it is a shame Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) isn’t given more to do, but it’s a small tear in an otherwise rich tapestry.
Whether it is the final ‘Toy Story’ film, only time will tell. Whatever direction the continuing adventures of Woody and Buzz go in next, Toy Story 4 sits proudly amongst the best Pixar has to offer. The film works superbly as a celebration of why we love these charming toy characters who, nearly 25 years down the production line, are far from consigned to a cobweb-riddled attic, but have surely become a beloved part of the family.