REVIEW: Toy Story 4 (2019)

UK Theatrical Release Poster – Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

The following is a review of Toy Story 4 — Directed by Josh Cooley.

I once wrote that I am ‘a part of the Pixar-generation,’ i.e. I’ve grown up with their films and Toy Story was one of the first films I saw. I’ve loved almost all of the Pixar-films, and I love the Toy Story-films most of them all. The first film was a childhood favorite of mine. The second film was almost equally brilliant and becomes better the more I watch it. And, especially for my generation, the third film was a cathartic and nostalgic heartbreaker that had adults bawling their eyes out in crowded theaters or airplanes.

Toy Story is a special film series. The first three films are all some of the greatest animated films ever made and arguably include a couple of masterpieces among them. But it is also a film series that ended on the perfect note with Toy Story 3. So, I cannot say that I ever really wanted a fourth film. However, Toy Story 4 from feature film debut director Josh Cooley is another heartwarming and heartbreaking coming-of-age tale featuring childhood playthings. Though we didn’t need it, Pixar has, thankfully, brought us yet another great installment in this beloved film series, even though the fourth film isn’t as much of an instant classic as the first three films were.

Lasseter’s Toy Story was a groundbreaking animated buddy film about jealousy, realizing your worth, and finding common ground. Toy Story 2 is a film about questioning your usefulness. In the film, the main character obsesses over his injuries to such an extent that he considers leaving his home and his kid — his owner. One might say that it is a film about realizing your expiration date. It’s also an upsetting film about the playthings, hobbies, and habits you leave behind as you grow older. Lee Unkrich’s Toy Story 3 built upon the theme of abandonment from the second film in a third film where Andy’s childhood has come to an end. As the film came to a conclusion, Andy’s toys were left with young Bonnie who immediately took a liking to Andy’s toys.

In Josh Cooley’s feature debut Toy Story 4, our main characters’ new child, Bonnie (voiced by Madeleine McGraw), is struggling with the idea of taking part in the kindergarten orientation until Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks), who has gone underappreciated as he is often left in a dusty closet, tags along with her and inspires her to become active and creative. As a result of Woody’s involvement, Bonnie creates a small handmade toy named ‘Forky’ (voiced by Tony Hale) out of items from a trashcan at the kindergarten.

Now brought to life out of random items, Forky has an existential crisis. He knows that he isn’t an actual toy, and he stubbornly insists that he is trash and should thus be with the trash. Not wanting his new child to suddenly become upset again, Woody takes it upon himself to take care of Forky and keep him close to Bonnie, but, when Woody averts his eyes for just one moment, Forky leaps out of the window of a moving vehicle in the middle of nowhere. In spite of protests from the rest of Bonnie’s toys, Woody feels that he doesn’t have a choice in the matter, and so he leaves the vehicle in search of Forky, because a child needs its favorite toy — he knows this better than most.

On their way back to a clearly distraught Bonnie, Woody helps Forky understand how much Bonnie needs him, but, before they can reunite with their child, a distracted Woody takes them into an antique store which houses a broken toy desperate to feel wanted, Gabby Gabby (voiced by Christina Hendricks), who has her eye on Woody’s voice box, which might finally make someone want her. If Woody and Forky are to be returned to their child, they will have to make their way out of Gabby Gabby’s antique store, and they may need a helping hand from an old friend to do so.

Toy Story 4 is a film about listening to your inner voice, accepting change, and, of course, about abandonment and usefulness. It is very clear that the toys often stand-in for adults or children, and, more than once, it seems to speak more to parents than children, as the film sees the main character struggling to overcome a feeling of being useless and past his or her prime. At various points, the film focuses on the importance of second chances. The film reasonably and comfortingly argues that every toy — or everyone — is useful for something and that even if you are broke, lost, or abandoned you have worth and are needed, and, indeed, useful.

A character who acts as a very protective parent-like figure has to find his or her purpose after their raison d’etre seems to be over and done with. Warmly, the film seems to argue for the importance of finding a new purpose after having seen your child leave the nest, so to speak. But it also features a character who understands her worth and purpose and that her worth is not necessarily dependant on having a child. This film will mean many different things to many different people, but most will likely agree that the film is built upon a witty but mature and melancholy script — from Stephany Folsom and Andrew Stanton — that understands the themes of the series extremely well.

The film wisely doesn’t just add in new characters but also improves upon a character from a previous film. They improve the Bo Peep-character immensely. That said, the new characters are almost all memorable and witty without being grating. I had been worried that I wouldn’t enjoy the Forky-character, but he was nowhere near as irritating in the film as I initially found him to be in the trailers. Keanu Reeves’ Duke Caboom, a Canadian motorcycle stuntman toy, is used just enough, and I thought Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key’s duo is flat-out hilarious. I dug everything Key and Peele brought to the film, even the surprisingly dark humor. Christina Hendricks voices Gabby Gabby whose arc is surprisingly moving, and the toys that she is affiliated with are genuinely creepy.

With all of this having been said, one of the few problems that I have with this new film is the fact that every regular Toy Story main character other than Woody, who does exhibit incredible growth over the course of the film series, takes a step back. Although this film more than any other Toy Story is about the actual toys, the film doesn’t have a lot of time for Jessie or Buzz Lightyear and certainly not the other regular cast of characters. To my relatively short list of issues with the film, I would add that the ending, though moving in its own way, did not quite work as well for me as I had anticipated once I saw it coming, though the filmmakers have certainly done an excellent job of building to that ending.

When I sat down to watch Toy Story 4 in a local theater, I was worried. I’ve grown up with these films, and I didn’t want to see Pixar ruin one of the greatest film series ever made. I didn’t want to see Disney ruin what, for quite some time, has been an unparalleled achievement within the medium of animation. But even though I do think that simply by adding this epilogue to the story they are making the perfect ending of Toy Story 3 a little less pure, and even though I don’t think the ending of Toy Story 4 is as soul-stirring, I must say that what Josh Cooley and Pixar have given us is another outstanding film in a series of films that is increasingly extraordinary. Complete with incredible, state of the art photorealistic animation, Toy Story 4 is a wise and funny sequel which holds a comforting central message and growth for characters that we may not have realized needed some. I may not have wanted this sequel in the first place, but now I’m not sure I’d want to be without it.

9 out of 10

– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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