Courtesy of Disney/Pixar
Like a certain animated spork, I too face an existential crisis. For many, Pixar’s iconic and beloved “Toy Story” saga is something they hold near and dear to their hearts. In my case, these aren’t just characters on a screen, I consider the gang of toys: most notably space ranger Buzz Lightyear and Sheriff Woody - some of my closest friends. Growing up I’d like to think we shared a special bond, weather at the movies or in my own backyard, these films let me believe I could travel to infinity and beyond.
My crisis steams from that tricky “4” that inhabits the title of “Toy Story.” When folks heard Pixar was making a “Toy Story 4,” our first response was “Why?” - because “Toy Story 3” wrapped a nice and satisfying bow on this series; Woody and crew were left with four year old Bonnie while their old owner, Andy - now past the age of afternoon playdates - ventured onto new beginnings and life was perfect. Save for a couple afternoon specials around Thanksgiving and Christmas time, you’d thought Pixar would put this series to bed.
So when I saw the ads start arising for “Toy Story 4,” I was optimistic that one of the most reliable studios in the industry would find a way to make a sequel with purpose. Plus I don’t want to be selfish, I think kids growing up today deserve their own adventures with Woody and the crew, but you can tell from the first thirty minutes that “Toy Story 4” isn’t going to match its predecessors in terms of quality, and that’s okay. Because even though it’s the weakest entry in the franchise, it still rises above the normal tier of mindless kid flicks, introduces a slew of huggable and endearing characters guaranteed to be household staples, and tackles mature themes that in any other animated film would look weak. In Pixar’s hands, it’s a no brainer.
Of course it’s easy to get on board with a new entry when returning partners Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks) and Buzz (Tim Allen) hop on screen ready to bring joy and happiness to their new owner. Although this time around “Toy Story 4” is more focused on closing the arch for Woody that began with 1995’s beloved original.
Now, the rootin-tootin’ hero is more precious than ever. Kindergarten-bound Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw) wants nothing to do with the Sheriff, even going as far to relinquish his credentials to Jessie, (Joan Cuasck) proving the future of wild west law enforcement isn’t to bright for the once shiny cowboy. Like the franchise itself, Woody is literally gathering dust bunnies from being cooped up in the closet all day. Provoking such thoughts of: Why is Woody still here to begin with?
Then begins the next monumental breakthrough as Bonnie, at her kindergarten orientation no less, throws some googly eyes on a white spork with loosely-wrapped pipe cleaner arms and gives birth to what is likely to be your child’s must have eating utensils this year: Forky (voiced to perfection by Tony Hale). How is he alive and what is his purpose are just some of the many thematic elements director Josh Cooley and screenwriters Andrew Stanton, Will McCormack, and Rashida Jones, along with Cooley, attempt to answer.
Bonnie adores Forky, as the entire world will in time, and he is easily a character that’s inclusion alone makes “Toy Story 4” worth the investment and not seem like another cash grab. Forky, unlike Woody, doesn’t comprehend what it means to be a toy - he would much rather jump back into non-existence than be someone’s plaything. He is litter and makes countless suicide attempts to land back in the trash where he feels at home. Forky embraces the unknown, whereas Woody clings to life, his kids, his friends, and sense of personal self-worth.
But “Toy Story 4” has more going on than just a spork who unknowingly sprouts to life. The filmmakers have concluded this batch of toys should take a cross-country road trip to a carnival. It’s the least interesting locale we’ve visited in the “Toy Story” universe, failing to live up to the expectations of Sid’s room, Sunnyside day care, and even Al’s Toy Barn. In all honesty, it feels like a cheap way out.
Regardless, on the quest Woody finds himself in an abandoned antique store where strange inhabitants lurk inside. Cooley - not trying to be shy about his references - gives straight horror vibes when we meet Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) - a 1950s porcelain doll who mine as well be Annabelle’s second cousin twice removed - and her posse of three ventriloquist dummies. For a G rated film, it sure pushes the boundaries of what your three-old could handle (some of those scenes are intense).
So for the scoreboard we’ve got the fantastic Forky, the creepy Gabby Gabby and to add more complications to the narrative - an opening flashback sequence details how the gang was separated from Woody’s old flame Bo Peep (Annie Potts - a welcome return). The shepherd reappears at the carnival with a new brass attitude.
This isn’t the same damsel from before, she’s practically weaponized her staff, and drives around a metal skunk mobile living life dangerously as a toy free from the restraints of an owner.
This only causes more of a dilemma for our cowboy. Sure he wants to help Bonnie, but he also misses Bo. Which is more important: the companionship of a child? Or rekindling his lost romance? The screenwriters are clearly reaching beyond their grasp, and some of the arches start feeling a bit repetitions.
For starters, the O.G squad: Buzz, Jessie, Bullseye, Slinky Dog, Pork Chop. Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head all seem reverted to the sideline in lieu of the - I’ll admit - sharper attractions added to the story. Buzz has a running gag throughout the film about finding his inner voice (explored prior in “Toy Story 3”) but aside from a couple of lines here or there - he seems absent to the material. But credit needs to be given to Keegan-Micheal Key and Jordan Peele who voice two carnival stuffed animals desperate to find an owner. Granted, they’re just playing angry birds, but the comedic duo bring, forgive the pun, lots of fluff to their roles here. One sight gag in particular had me in hysterics during my screening. The same can also be said about Canada’s best stuntman Duke Kaboom (who is obviously voiced by Keanu Reeves) a real Evil Knievel style guy removed from his owner long ago, and you can be sure many “Whoa’s” are uttered.
Which brings us back to Woody and Bo and, of course, Forky. Their main adventure doesn’t quite hit the emotional highs of its predecessors. In fact, the main action sequences seem like filler and distractions from the brisk, higher staked, journeys of past adventures. But still, this is a “Toy Story” film and even when an installment can register as a little disappointing, there’s still plenty to love and embrace.
Though it doesn’t quite go to infinity and beyond, “Toy Story 4” offers a soothing conclusion to this comradery of characters. Most will probably be thrilled to have these characters back in their life for one last hurrah. In a way, I am too. This was a terrific trip down nostalgia lane complete with the iconic “You’ve Got a Friend In Me” in the opening credits, and an emotionally charged finale that will make any fan shed a tear or two. Still, if Pixar isn’t planning any stand alone Forky or Duke Kaboom feature films in the near future, I think it's time to hang up the ole’ “Toy Story” hat for good and say once and for all: ‘So long partner.’