Back in their early '00s heyday, Pixar shied away from sequels, with the notable exception of the series that originally put them on the map. Over the course of a decade and a half, the trio of Toy Story films served as a model franchise for a studio at first finding its legs, then learning to dominate, before getting snatched up by Disney Corp., in the manner of their choosing. As such, like the earnest, indefatigable Woody, who serves as the series' main protagonist, the series more than earned its ability to go out on its own terms.
Which is why, nearly a decade later, it's fair to ask why Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz (Tim Allen), Jessie (Joan Cusack) and the others would be yanked out of the closet, as it were, and thrust together in yet another caper, except for a cynical cash grab from a studio for which such maneuvers are second-nature. Happily, this sequel, directed by Josh Cooley from a screenplay by longtime Pixar contributor Andrew Stanton and newcomer Stephany Folsom, has a reason to exist.
Like Woody, it acts out of sense of purpose.
The key to the series has always been the incredible sweetspot the original film discovered: A film about sentient toys, it turns out, is completely attractive to kids for all the obvious reasons. But as a metaphor for parenthood -- loving, besotted toys that only want to bring their child happiness, even as they slowly get replaced by more older kid pursuits -- it also struck an incredibly potent emotional fulcrum for the kids' parents.
Keeping that indelible alchemy front and center has always been the key to the series' success -- financial and critical -- and it would seem as if this filmmaking team has learned the lesson well. While not as inspired as the earlier entries -- including the heart-stopping second sequel, which remains the high-water mark -- it fares more than honorably alongside the others, even if elements of it begin to feel more threadbare.
Still under the care of young Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw), the girl Andy donated his toys to at the end of the third film, the gang is all getting along fabulously. All but Woody, who seems a bit of a lost soul after Bonnie leaves him in the closet in favor of female cowperson, Jessie. But when Bonnie is terrified of her first day of kindergarten, it's ever-responsible Woody who steals away in her backpack and helps ensure her experience goes well.
Bonnie is miserable at first, but after some help from Woody, she crafts a new toy out of a plastic spork, a pipe-cleaner, and a pair of googly eyes: Forky (Tony Hale), who, upon creation becomes sentient like the others (as an aside, as a child, knowing my various toys had lives and worries of their own would have absolutely shattered me -- but I was a strange lad). Woody alone seems to understand Forky's significance, even as the little scamp wants nothing more than to return to the trash bin, of whose materials he was originally formed.
Shortly after, the family goes on a quick getaway vacation in their RV, taking the gang to a small town with a large amusement park. Constantly watching out for Forky, Woody is whisked away by Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), an older, porcelain doll with a damaged voice box in an old antique store, who wants to use her creepy army of ventriloquist dummies to trap Woody and take his (working) voice box, in order to be more attractive to young Harmony (Lila Sage Bromley), the granddaughter of the shop's owner.
Naturally, this gets the others involved, as Buzz goes on his own to find Woody and Forky, leaving the others to hold off the family from leaving until everyone is at last reunited. Woody meanwhile runs by accident into Bo Peep (Annie Potts), an old flame from Andy's sister's room now an unowned toy, free to live the life she chooses, unfettered by any small child overlord. Enlisting her help, along with a pair of carnival stuffed toys (voiced amusingly by old friends Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key), and a motorcycle stunt doll named Duke Kaboom (Keanu Reeves), Woody returns to the antique store in order to rescue Forky, and perhaps help Gabby Gabby along the way.
Unlike the third film, which saw perhaps the most villainous figure in the Toy Story universe (a bitter stuffed bear named Lotso), this adventure finds no real enemies -- save, perhaps for the eerie cadre of dummies -- only misunderstood toys who want more than anything else to belong to a child (a task Woody refers to more than once as "the most noble thing a toy can do"), at any risk.
From the perspective of the adults in the audience, most of the pathos this time comes from between the toys themselves -- for my money, at least, less of an obliterating tear jerk, than between the toys and the kids who love them -- which at least helped me from breaking down at the end.
As a mark of a reasonable effort, the film feels appreciably conclusive (as did the last sequel, of course). It might not reach the heights of earlier installments, with little of the madcap inspiration that propelled the earlier films, but it still manages to arrive at a satisfying enough endpoint.
MovieStyle on 07/05/2019
Print Headline: Toy Story 4 finds purpose