Curse this fearful life of infinite sorrow! In 1995’s Toy Story, plastic cowboy Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks) worried his beloved Andy was leaving him behind. That dark prophecy came true in 2010’s Toy Story 3. Andy handed Woody and pals over to a preschooler: A bittersweet conclusion, happy only because it was better than melting in a hell-sun of garbage lava.
In the haphazardly endearing Toy Story 4, Woody’s more precarious than ever. Kindergarten-bound Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw) doesn’t play with him at all. She removes his Sheriff’s badge and gives it to Jessie (Joan Cusack). The future of wild western law enforcement is female, and Woody’s gathering dust bunnies in the closet. “Running the room was my job,” he recalls fondly. All is was for Woody now. He lost the lead role. His story really did end. Toy Story 4 is an unnecessary franchise extension savvy enough for self-criticism: What is Woody still doing here?
On her first day at kindergarten, Bonnie glues googly eyes to a white spork with loosely-wrapped pipe cleaner arms. “Something weird happened,” Woody tells his fellow toys, and that weird something is named Forky, who starts stumble-walking on popsicle legs and tremble-talking with Tony Hale‘s wonderful freaky-poignant voice.
Bonnie adores Forky, as all humanity soon will. Hail Forky, the worldcure! The charming monstrosity abhors Bonnie’s love, though, and would rather return to the warm embrace of nonexistence. Woody always desperately clings to life: His kid, his friends, his sense of personal self-worth. Whereas Forky keeps jumping into a garbage can, struggling to escape from toyhood. Forky is trash, says Forky. It brings to mind the Bride of Frankenstein, when Boris Karloff declares “WE BELONG DEAD.” Frankenstein’s monster was the original Forky, turns out.
Toy Story 4 has much more going on than Forky, unfortunately. (Sorry: Unforkunately.) Eight credited screenwriters came up with the hot idea to send the Toy Story gang on a road trip to a carnival. You recall how the earlier films twisted regular locations into rollercoasters: the suitcase conveyor maze, the phantasmagoric daycare, the coin-op arcade game with a kaiju-sized claw. Going to an actual amusement park feels like a cheat code — and everything looks suspiciously clockwork, the first carnival without carnies.
On the trip, Woody finds himself in a store called Second Chance Antiques. (“Established 1986,” the sign reads, the same year Pixar became an independent company.) Inside lurks Gabby Gabby, a cherubic 1950s doll who sits on a throne of fine china behind locked glass. Gabby Gabby is up to something tricky — and she’s uncannily voiced by Christina Hendricks, channeling retro good cheer and horror-movie megalomania slipping into unbearable sadness.
So Gabby Gabby is groovy groovy, and Forky is forking great. This overstuffed movie throws in another complication, though. An opening flashback explains what happened to Woody’s lost love Bo Peep (Annie Potts). The porcelain shepherd reappears at the carnival with a new attitude. Now a kidless Lost Toy, she’s a vaguely post-apocalyptic action type, weaponizing her staff, driving a twisted metal skunkmobile. What changed her so? “Some kids play rougher than others,” she says. “You wouldn’t believe the things I’ve seen.” Lady, have you seen Forky?
I’m of two minds here. Bo Peep’s arrival offers Woody a new kind of conflict. He wants to take care of Bonnie, and he’s badly missed Bo Peep. So, what does he value more: The companionship of a child, or the companionship of another toy? Problem: I don’t really understand the difference. We’re hitting the outer edge of this universe’s emotional cohesion, and the toy-human divided reality crosses a couple other uncanny valleys as the story shambles along.
There’s a pile-up problem, too, so many new characters alongside all the old ones. The original crew gets short shrift: You want to see more of them, and what you do see winds up feeling like a distraction. Did development of this movie get lost somewhere between sequeldom and spin-offery, juggling old toys with new stories? Kids won’t care, though they will wonder why Jessie gets relegated backwards to seventh banana status. Her Toy Story 2 role remains the best character arc in any Pixar movie from the B.F. era (Before Forky).
Some repetition sets in. Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) has a running gag about his vocal programming, which was also his whole plot thing in Toy Story 3. Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key voice carnival toys who look a tad familiar. Peele’s Bunny suggests a bigger-eared Sulley from Monsters Inc, and Key’s Ducky is literally an angry bird. Keanu Reeves plays a daredevil Canadian toy, and John Wick star’s line readings float like rainbow vapor above an undiscovered waterfall. Still, his stunt-casting is the kind of referential gag Pixar used to avoid: Yes, he Whoas.
Is this a cash grab? Toy Story 4 doesn’t hit the emotional highs of the previous films. There are good jokes that work and heist setpieces that don’t. The ending is moving, though now you distrust any finality with this saga. It does feel a bit cheap, somehow: Another movie drifting melancholy off forgotten toys, from a 25-year-old multimedia franchise starring global icons preparing to gross yet more multigenerational billions.
Woody’s story in Toy Story 4 is an emotional, if familiar, journey towards self-realization. Bo Peep offers him, and us, a stranger perspective. She shows him the glorious horizon of the outside world. “Who needs a kid’s room,” she asks, “When you can have all of this?” She’s a toy who wants to tell her own story. And yet, the grand world Bo yearns for is kinda boring: Meticulous trees on videogame-background mountainscapes, a freeway programmed for order, a small town square as glistening and generic as Main Street, USA. It looks more plastic than any spork. Cast your googly eyes, instead, back to Forky. It took Pixar decades of technological innovation, but they finally made a beautiful piece of trash. B