(Dir: Josh Cooley, 2019)
One of the many successes of the Toy Story franchise is its ability to top the emotional high point of its films with each new chapter, a trend that culminated in heart-wrenching fashion in Toy Story 3 – Woody, Buzz, Jessie and the rest of the gang trapped inside an incinerator with no means of escape. As they slip slowly towards the incinerator’s fiery heart, the toys silently take each other’s tiny hands and bravely accept their fate. Tears of sorrow became tears of joy for audiences when, miraculously, the gang are saved by three familiar friends (‘The Clawwwww!’).
When rumours circulated before its release that Toy Story 4 was to be the last in Disney’s flagship franchise, my mind turned to how this new, unexpected entry would top the emotional high point of its predecessor: perhaps the only way to do so would be to make good on what Toy Story 3’s incinerator scene hints at – the deaths of Woody, Buzz, Jessie and co. As unimaginable as that may be, it seemed to me that if the Toy Story franchise were to continue its trend of emotional escalation, this was the logical, devastating step.
Whether or not the unthinkable happens, the story proper begins not with death but with birth – well, not birth exactly, toys aren’t born. It begins with an assembly, a construction, a bringing into existence: now the proud playthings of youngster Bonnie (voiced by Madeleine McGraw), Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz (Tim Allen) and Jessie (Joan Cusack) welcome into their ranks Forky (Tony Hale), a maladjusted spork with googly-eyes, hand-crafted by Bonnie in her first kindergarten class. Indignant at being a toy and drawn to trash like a zombie to brains, Forky continually attempts to throw himself away, whether that be in the nearest waste basket or out of an RV window during a road trip.
Most of the first act revolves around Woody, largely ignored by Bonnie, preventing Forky, adored by Bonnie, from disposing of himself. While it’s fun enough to begin with, it doesn’t have the same magic to it as, say, Andy’s birthday party in the original Toy Story or the yard sale in Toy Story 2, despite its significance to later developments. Only once Woody and Forky find themselves in an eerie antiques store after becoming separated from the rest of the group does Toy Story 4 hit its stride. Or, rather, at this point it turns into a Toy Story film, complete with daring Mouse Trap-like toy rescues and a villain cast in the same mould as Stinky Pete and Lots-O’-Huggin’ Bear – Christina Hendricks’s unblinking yet blinkered Gabby Gabby. It may be familiar, but what’s wrong with familiar when it’s this good?
Less successful, though, is a lack in character continuity, Buzz particularly. An intelligent, efficient and always impressive figure throughout the series, it’s strange and a little sad to see Buzz reduced to a bit of an idiot here, defined by a recurring joke about his ‘inner voice’. Chalk it up to the adaptability of toys given the context of play. His romance with Jessie, a major storyline in Toy Story 3, has also been refashioned as a less overt love story between Woody and Bo Peep (written out of Toy Story 3, once again voiced by Annie Potts), the latter introduced in an opening prologue resigning herself to donation, much to Woody’s woe. Bo, looking like Rosie the Riveter once she throws away her dress and bonnet, is something of a revelation, injecting the series with a sharp pragmatism at odds with Woody’s unwavering idealism and offering a new take on the role of playthings in the Toy Story universe. Compared to the soft-spoken belle she was in the first two Toy Story films (there’s that contextual adaptability again), Bo might as well be considered an entirely new character.
New characters also come in the form of Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele’s child-pleasing plush toys Ducky and Bunny, Ally Maki’s diddy Giggle McDimples and Keanu Reeves’s doubtful daredevil Duke Caboom, his dejection at having been discarded by his previous owner, Rejean, bordering at times on the absurdist. Their inclusion does mean, however, that there’s no room for fan-favourites Slinky Dog, Hamm, the Potato Heads and Rex. Even Jessie is side-lined for long stretches of the film. As it is with our childhood toys, the characters who brought many of us the most joy have quietly found their way onto a shelf and are gathering dust there, forgotten. More so than any narrative climax, seeing the survivors of the incinerator cast aside is the saddest thing of all.