Well, whaddaya know: Toy Story 4 is the perfect wrap-up to the saga of Woody the cowboy, Buzz Lightyear the spaceman and all the rest of the gang of alive playthings.
Of course, the same was also true of 2010’s Toy Story 3, which seemed to bring their story satisfyingly full circle. And you might even say that 1999’s Toy Story 2 did such a terrific job of upping the ante on the angst of toys that just want to be loved and our relationships as humans with them that, seriously, nothing more needed to be said. Hell, 1995’s Toy Story — the first feature-length computer-animated movie — was so perfect a film that an argument could be made that it was best left alone as a paragon that no one should dare attempt to top.
Who am I kidding? Hollywood doesn’t work that way. But really and truly now, honestly, this is it: Toy Story 4 is the last and final Toy Story movie, Pixar promises. (Unless they make another one.)
And there is — once more — that sense that we’ve seen much of this before. TS4 is yet again a tale of rescues of lost toys and separations from beloved kids, learning to make new friends and learning to let go when the time is right. There’s a saving grace to this series, though: Its humor and its heart have been so beautifully wise and so stunningly rendered — CGI pun intended — that even with a feeling that returns are diminishing, we’re still left with a warm, smartly entertaining new chapter.
After the events of TS3, Woody (the voice of Tom Hanks) and the rest now belong to little Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw), who is just about to go off to kindergarten, and isn’t happy about it. On her first scary day of school, she makes a little plastic person out of a spork, a pipe cleaner and a couple of googly eyes, and Forky (Tony Hale) is born.
Forky raises many philosophical questions, one quite literally, as when he asks Woody, “Why am I alive?” It’s another riff on the initial relationship between Woody and Buzz (Tim Allen) from the very first movie, when Woody had to explain to Buzz how being loved by a child gave them purpose… but Buzz was already alive even before he was loved. If a child’s love — and Bonnie absolutely adores Forky — can animate an inanimate object, is there anything that cannot be brought to life in such a way? (Oh, dear: I may have just stumbled across the plot of Toy Story 5.)
There is room for some profound existential horror in Forky’s animation and subsequent consciousness, though the movie dances around it. Instead, it is Woody’s latest emotional crisis that (once again) takes center stage, as his unexpected re-encounter with former ladylove Bo Peep (Annie Potts) while on a mission to rescue Forky — who of course almost immediately gets lost — for Bonnie’s benefit makes him question his own priorities about loyalty to his kid and the other toys.
I was on the verge of feeling just a bit let down by the sameness of TS4, but some very clever new toy characters with diverse neuroses that are simultaneously heartbreaking and hilarious got me back fully onboard. Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), a Chatty Cathy-type talking doll, and her gang of ventriloquist dummy enforcers are a hoot. Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key are a smart-alecky duo of stuffed toys, Bunny and Ducky, with delusions of… well, you’ll see. And Keanu Reeves as the voice of Duke Caboom, “Canada’s greatest stuntman” — a sort of down-market Evel Knievel–esque action toy — completely steals every moment he’s onscreen. I’d say there aren’t enough of those moments, but better that we’re left wanting more of him rather than him out-staying his welcome.
I was in tears — yet again — by the end. Tears of bittersweet, melancholy joy. I have been moved in this very direction before, by these very characters, and almost by the very same predicaments, and it’s nowhere near as gratifyingly surprising as it once was. But when endless sequels are so often lazy and complacent and coast more on presumptions of audience goodwill, I’ll take a sequel that at least doesn’t take my engagement for granted, and works for it. ♦