I went to an advanced screening of Toy Story 4 last night. No industry insider treatment here. Just a theater rental by a bank that does a lot of business with my day job employer. I’m starting to think that release dates don’t mean a lot in Hollywood anymore and the era of the corporate “advance screening” rental is upon us. The novelty of seeing a film one day in advance will start to wear off once people begin to catch on. But, I digress.
PSA: Light spoilers will follow below the movie poster over to there. <<<
Toy Story is a franchise that occupies a special place in the film landscape. It’s a franchise that started when many current parents were children. It’s also a franchise that kickstarted Pixar and launched an entire sub-genre of animated films. Say what you will about the Pixar formula (anthropomorphic objects, be they toys, cars, planes, fish, etc., get lost and find themselves uncomfortable outside their life’s status quo, then find their way home and, on the way, find themselves) it works and we all love it. So each Toy Story sequel has had a steep mountain to climb when it came to expectations.
The first Toy Story pitted a comfortable cowboy toy, Woody (Tom Hanks, Forrest Gump), up against the stubborn delusion of a space ranger come toy, or toy come space ranger. It explored why children love toys, the importance of childhood play, friendship, and what it means to know your purpose in life. Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen, Home Improvement) had a difficult time adjusting to his reduced role in life as not quite the galactic savior he once thought he was. Eventually he settles into his place in the pantheon of Andy’s favorite toys.
Toy Story 2 dealt with collectors and how they treat toys. Toy Story 3 dealt with growing up and passing the torch to a younger generation as Andy went off to college and our favorite protagonists moved on to befriend young Bonnie.
Ok, recap over. Light Spoilers ahead.
Now, in Toy Story 4, we go a little deeper into what it means to be a toy. We meet Forky (Tony Hale, Arrested Development), an abstract totem of a person that Bonnie made out of an old spork and rejected arts and crafts materials. Forky, convinced he is trash, and longing for the warmth and security of a other trash like himself, repeatedly hurls himself into myriad trash cans along an impromptu road trip Bonnie’s family is taking. Woody, dealing with his fall from grace as Bonnie’s favorite toy, embraces his new role acting as Forky’s keeper. A montage of pretty hilarious trash-can-related antics ensues and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy that. Yet again, Woody is faced with having to convince a friend that he is, in fact, a toy. This time, Woody has to convince Forky that he is not trash and that he is an important friend to Bonnie; that Bonnie needs Forky for support to adapt to kindergarten.
Underpinning this main story vehicle is the sub-plot that Bo Peep (Annie Potts, Ghostbusters) was given away by Andy’s sister Molly long before Toy Story 2 or 3. Thus, naturally, as Forky and Woody find their way back to Bonnie’s RV, they become sidetracked by Woody’s exploration of an antique store, as he searches for Bo. Structurally, I like this element of the story. There is some well-executed foreshadowing about Woody’s nature. What seemingly looks like just another Toy Story wherein Buzz is replaced with Forky, becomes a story about Woody developing as a character. Frankly, that was the right way to go. We all know Forky will eventually accept his role as a toy, but we’ve grown as an audience and we’re wondering what’s next for Woody. Needless to say, Woody and Forky become waylaid by our antagonist, Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks, Madmen) and her legion of terrifying ventriloquist dummies. This is creepy stuff. It’s like Chucky meets Saw meets Hills Have Eyes. I didn’t have my 7-month-old daughter with me, but probably too much for most of the kids in the theater. Hell, those puppets were too much for me at times. Having said that, they were well executed. Of course, Gabby is from the same era as Woody and lo and behold she has a defective voice box and needs to extract Woody’s to be loved by a kid. Here’s where what could otherwise be a yawn-worthy detour becomes a great story element. Woody’s interaction with Gabby does not go how you think it will.
Sorting out this whole antique store microcosm debacle involves recruiting the newly recovered Bo Peep and a Canadian daredevil, Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves, The Matrix, John Wick). Duke is an excellent new flash of flavor in this franchise and a welcome addition to the toy box. At first glance, he appears to be a cocky, self-interested showman, but like all things Toy Story 4, that expectation is soon subverted. Being about 1/4 Canuck myself, I had a lot of fun with his Quebecois flashback.
Filling out our cast of characters is Ducky (Keegan-Michael Key, Key and Peele) and Bunny (Jordan Peele, Key and Peele). Two plush toys, attached at the paw, hanging from a carnival game as prizes. These guys are here for comic relief that is mostly aimed at the parents in the audience–they hit their mark. I won’t spoil a thing, but their input into the Forky antique store rescue is priceless.
All these new characters leave little room for the original menagerie: the Potatoheads, Rex, Slinky, and Buzz. They aren’t missed when not on screen, though.
All-in-all, as the film progresses, you get an idea where this is all headed. When you finally get there, you aren’t surprised. But, having arrived, you enjoy the journey and the destination. In that way Toy Story 4 feels like coming back from vacation. You’ll leave feeling glad to be home.
Bottom line: I Liked it.