As if being one of the greatest trilogies in film history wasn’t enough for the Toy Story franchise, along comes a fourth feature that’s just as fun, witty, and incredibly moving as the first three. Hats off to Pixar (and parent company Disney) for being four-for-four with Toy Story 4. This new film is one of the year’s best and easily the clear favorite to take the Best Animated Feature Oscar come next February.
How does Pixar do it? Because animated films take a few years to make, such a calendar allows filmmakers to tweak the script as they go along and use time and distance to make more objective calls when putting together such a time-consuming film. All true, but there’s more to what Pixar does. They genuinely put their passion for great storytelling and character development first before technique and style, even though they have plenty of those characteristics in all they do too. And nowhere in the Pixar portfolio can you find a striving for fully-dimensional characters and nuanced stories more than in the Toy Story 4 films. And in this new one, even though the story includes characters we’re all very, very familiar with, the filmmakers find surprising ways to dig deeper into who they all are.
Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks), the doll who’s the titular head of the box of toys in these films, is experiencing a building sense of panic as Toy Story 4 starts. He’s no longer little girl Bonnie’s favorite toy, as he often gets relegated to the closet to watch his friends dominate playtime. Woody’s too proud to lash out or express his envy blatantly, but he does search for ways to ingratiate himself to Bonnie more and more. When the little five-year-old frets about heading off to orientation day for kindergarten, Woody stows along in her backpack, hoping to provide some familiar comfort to her. His fellow toys object to Woody leaving the house in such a way, but the toy cowboy’s neediness is more paramount than even Bonnie’s.
At school, Bonnie feels all the lonelier when a selfish male classmate nabs the box of crayons from her table where she’s about to make a pencil holder. Woody intervenes and tips over the trash can for the little girl to discover some discarded crayons and other materials. The creative Bonnie makes a character out of a dirty spork and adds feet, arms, eyes, and a mouth to it. Suddenly, she’s made a new friend, literally and figuratively. She calls him Forky, and Woody is amazed that Forky comes to life just as all legitimate toys do.
Forky, voiced as a frazzled utensil by the superb Tony Hale, thinks of himself as garbage and keeps tossing himself back in the trash. Thus, three characters feel unworthy, and this compels Woody to keep saving him to keep Bonnie coddled. The themes of abandonment and worthiness are very adult ones, but the Pixar people make them work amazingly well amongst children and toys here.
The relationship between Woody and Forky becomes even more of the new film’s focus when Bonnie’s toys end up in a rented RV together as her family sets out for a quick visit to a local carnival. During the journey, Forky ends up getting separated from the others, and Woody goes after him. Soon, the two find themselves smack dab in the middle of the local town’s second-hand store. Talk about abandonment, everything in the store is somebody’s trash, and that includes a host of new toys for Woody and Forky to discover.
Key among the finds there is Little Bo Peep (Annie Potts), Woody’s old girlfriend, and her three sheep. The foursome got traded to a collector in the first moments of the film, and Woody had trouble letting Bo go too. Their adventures in the shop make up the body of Toy Story 4 as it cleverly riffs on its themes with a subtle nod to Rankin-Bass’ ‘island of misfit toys’ from their Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer Christmas classic.
It may be shocking to some fans, but Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) and the group of toys from the previous films take a definitive background role to the new toys at the store. There, Woody, Bo, and Forky bond with other toys that feel discarded, and must also figure how they’re going to get out of their predicament to reunite with Bonnie et al. in the RV. Standing in their way are all sorts of obstacles, everything from shop customers to a curious cat to the needy doll Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks). Gabby likes the three newcomers, but she mostly covets Woody’s voice box. His works and hers hasn’t since coming out of the toy factory, so she schemes to steal it from him.
Most films would make Gabby into little more than a straight-up villain, especially as she employs a quartet of discarded ventriloquist dolls as her henchmen. This is Pixar though, and such expected machinations are never the path to take. Instead, the creative forces at Pixar ensure that Gabby is a three-dimensional character with complex emotions that drive her actions, even her evil ones. Yes, she’s desperate to be whole and is willing to rob Woody of his voice box battery to do so, but she’s been thrown on the trash heap of life as well. Her neediness is very similar to that of Woody.
Pixar follows the laws of toy physics too, despite giving them thought and movement. The new character of Duke Caboom (voiced by the game Keanu Reeves who is having one hell of a year) can only pose and move in his G.I. Joe sort of stiff-limbed way. He does a lot of posturing too, and each movement earns enormous laughs, but he moves only as much as he can. It’s also true with the ventriloquist dolls who have no voice in their hidden world either. Even there, they need someone to speak for them, and that’s Gabby!
Toy Story 4 is constructed with such precision; it could easily serve as a screenwriting class all on its own. Each of its action set-pieces means something to the plotting, and they’re storyboarded so audiences can see what’s going on in the through-lines. Such scenes are truly stirring too, breathlessly executed, and given as much detail as all of the characters and plotting receive. Kudos to director Josh Cooley, screenwriters Stephany Folsom and Andrew Stanton, and the story contributors John Lasseter, Rashida Jones, Will McCormack, Valerie LaPointe and Martin Hynes for delivering such a thoroughly thought-out film.
To tell more of the story would be to spoil the many surprises along the way. (I will tell you that there is a running gag concerning a couple of carnival sideshow plush toys voiced by Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key that is one of the funniest bits in film comedy in some time.) Woody ultimately finds purpose, as do all of the others who feel left behind here, and the ending will have you in grateful tears. Toy Story 4 is wondrous, made with care and craft by Hollywood’s most stunning filmmakers. They continue not just to deliver the goods, but truly great films.