Did the world need another Toy Story? No. Did Pixar’s original trilogy not feel perfect? Yes. But only because it was perfect. The perfect beginning, muddle and definitive end. Definitive. What’s more, surely the only thing rarer than a trilogy without a misstep is a quartet that never once drops the ball. Curiously, Toy Story 4 doesn’t drop the ball but still doesn’t succeed in self-justification. At least, not entirely Gloriously animated, richly constructed and brilliantly witty, there’s no denying the film is a charmer and cross-generational hit. It’s a tricky one though. For all the successes here, questions of necessity loom large over all, perhaps leading to a singular conclusion.
The film opens in flashback to a time somewhere between Toy Story 2 and 3. Back when no one knew a third film was needed, never mind a fourth, It’s a stormy night – astonishingly animated, oddly reminiscent of It – and Andy’s race car has fallen fowl of a sharp curb side current. In line with the ‘no toy gets left behind’ philosophy that has driven him these past twenty-four years, Woody (Tom Hanks) throws himself into the rescue. Naturally, Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), Slinky (Blake Clark), Jessie (Joan Cusack) and company are all on hand to help. Most notable of these is Annie Potts’ Bo Peep, the porcelain shepherdess with a soft spot for Woody and ill fate ahead. Sure enough, no sooner than the car is secured safe and sound, Bo Peep is stolen away to a new home far, far away.
Nine years on – two since the events of the last film, which saw Andy donate his toys to young Bonnie for a new lease of life – and Woody is no longer top toy in the playpen. Bonnie’s love spreads wide but only occasionally stretches as far as Andy’s old favourite, who is regularly left in the cupboard and stripped of his sheriff badge for Jessie. When Bonnie returns from a preschool orientation day with a homemade toy – spork, pipe cleaner, googly eyes and putty. – called Forky, his galvanisation is accompanied with existential crisis. In rye recall to the very first Toy Story, Woody is once again forced to utter the line: ‘you are a toy’ to a new friend, this time convinced he’s trash. So sure, in fact, that repeated escape attempts – hilariously montaged – eventually yield success on a road trip.
There’s certainly familiarity in the plot of Toy Story 4, stitched together with a very recognisable structure: toy gets lost, rescue mission is launched, climactic action chases reunion. As before, themes appertain to the cruel rejection toys – well veiled metaphors for parents – face as their children outgrow them. Whilst his friends have adjusted well to their new home, Woody was always Andy’s toy, no matter what sharpie on his foot says. But where does that leave him? Is he destined to join the dusty old toys in Bonnie’s cupboard, an intelligently cast trio of Mel Brooks, Betty White and Carol Burnett (voicing: Melephant Brooks, Bitey White and Chairol Burnett – ha!). Perhaps, Woody no longer represents parenthood after all, but instead channels the mature anxieties of grandparenthood, enforced retirement and the fear of the end.
If this all sounds incessantly bleak, fear not. Whilst Toy Story 4 is the least narratively active in the series to date – being, arguably, the most grown up – it is among the funniest. Relegated significantly from his days as one half of the franchise’s buddy comedy dynamic, Buzz is treated to a delightful subroutine involving his ‘inner voice’, and there’s great comic value to be enjoyed from newcomers Keanu Reeves – as hopeless Canadian daredevil Duke Caboom – and Keegan-Michael Kay and Jordan Peele – as plush, fairground prizes Ducky and Bunny. One further addition to the fray – Christina Hendricks’ defective doll Gabby Gabby – offers an antagonist with empathy, whose villainy builds upon that of Lotso in the film before by striping back any sense of the cartoon and swapping evil for a grey area of misdemeanour. That said, her fifties ventriloquist henchmen spook pleasingly hard.
Toy Story 4 is an uneasy success. There’s certainly relief in the assurance that Pixar have no sequels to any of their roster due in the forceable future but that’s no guarantee. Much like Woody himself, the studio once renowned for their faultless ingenuity have much to learn about letting go. For now, though, this fourth Toy Story really is a joy. Whilst masterclass visuals steal breaths, sharp writing continues to tug heartstrings with effortless efficacy.