- Toy Story 4
- Directed by Josh Cooley
- Written by Andrew Stanton and Stephany Folsom
- Featuring the voices of Tom Hanks, Tim Allen and Tony Hale
- Classification G; 100 minutes
For its fourth trip into the Toy Story sandbox, Disney has decided to stick a fork in it. Well, a spork, to be accurate. “Forky,” as the piece of multiuse plastic cutlery is christened early on in Toy Story 4, is the latest sentient plaything to join Sheriff Woody, Buzz Lightyear, Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head, Slinky Dog and the rest of the CGI gang in this new installment of a series that has lasted far longer, and resonated more deeply, than anyone could have anticipated a quarter-century ago.
As director Josh Cooley’s new film begins, every character is more or less happily ensconced in the room of Bonnie, a kindergartner with as active an imagination and sunny a disposition as Andy, the joyful young boy whose perfectly manicured suburban home provided the backdrop for much of the first three films. But Forky – arriving not out of a box like Buzz but courtesy of Bonnie’s arts-and-crafts expertise – is not like his contemporaries and his presence is the weirdest, best thing about this film, the ostensible final chapter of a multibillion-dollar brand.
With a pipe cleaner for arms, Play-Doh for a mouth and poorly glued-on googly eyes for vision, Forky is more trash than toy. And for much of Toy Story 4′s run-time, the manic-depressive creation (voiced with sublime, teetering agitation by Tony Hale) longs to be placed in the garbage, where he feels he belongs. This overriding desire to be tossed away and forgotten, and its discomforting ricochet effect on the rest of his new friends, is dark territory for a children’s movie. Forky essentially spends most of the movie on a suicide mission. But then again, what have the previous three Toy Story films been about if not Woody’s quest to find profound meaning in a world that disposes of his kind with horrifying regularity? Forky and his obsession with being forgotten about – of never wanting to be conceived of in the first place – is perfectly in line with the weighty undercurrents of Pixar’s shiniest, mightiest franchise.
It is easy to read the Toy Story films as paeans to the power of imagination or love letters to the pure innocence of childhood. They are also wildly successful commercials – the ultimate merging of art and commerce, ready to consume either on the screen or the toy aisle. But the films are also consistently unnerving meditations on life’s big questions, with a notable fixation on finality. Even forget, if you can, Toy Story 3′s infamously intense, and in retrospect grossly crass, incinerator scene invoking the Holocaust: Woody and Buzz’s adventures have been focused on expiration since the very beginning. Forky simply brings the series’ anxieties to the fore with a more furious, determined energy than ever before. “I am not a toy. I was made for soup, salad, maybe chili and then the trash,” the character declares early on, before yelling, “Freedom!” as he jumps out of a moving vehicle, sparking the film’s main rescue narrative. God bless that spork!
It is only unfortunate that a good portion of Toy Story 4 forgets about Forky or rather, that its script cannot decide if Forky is strong enough a character to justify the expense of yet another sequel (he totally is). Officially attributed to Andrew Stanton and Stephany Folsom but offering six other writers “original story by” credits, Toy Story 4′s screenplay has too little confidence in its one great idea and too much patience for everything else. Which is how we get bland villains (Christina Hendricks’ Gabby Gabby, an antique doll who will do anything to be loved again), extraneous sidekicks (Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele’s joined-at-the-paw stuffed animals) and a carnival-ground setting that is not nearly as fun or wild as it sounds.
A subplot about Woody’s re-encounter with Bo Peep (Annie Potts), whose absence from Toy Story 3 is explained here in a prologue, feels most closely aligned with the existential questions posed by Forky’s arrival. Should toys (read: people) spend their lives making others happy at the risk of disappointing themselves? What awaits us in that great big trash bin in the sky? But Cooley and his army of Pixar writers never fully commit to this approach, spreading their story in all kinds of different directions, and distractions. The best of these finds Woody and Forky encountering Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves), an old Canadian-made action figure whose 1980s commercials promised all sorts of awesome motorcycle-man stunts, but whose rickety construction provided only disappointment to Québécois children with names like Réjean. As the voice of Caboom, Keanu Reeves gets extreme comedic mileage from his attempt at a French-Canadian accent, but his presence feels imported from another, wackier movie. Maybe one that will debut on Disney’s streaming service in a few months’ time.
By the time the film wraps itself up in a tidy, comforting package – one guess as to whether Forky achieves his death wish or not – there is little doubt that Cooley’s entry is the weakest in the series. Yet, calling a Toy Story film “bad” isn’t the same as slagging, say, The Secret Life of Pets 2. Like its antecedents, the new movie is frequently ingenious, filled with delightful performances (Tom Hanks nails Woody’s fretfulness once again, while Tim Allen’s Buzz almost compensates for every other thing the actor has done in the intervening nine years between Toy Story 3 and this) and looks absolutely stunning. The visuals are so impressive that I reached the point where I wasn’t sure whether Cooley and his army of Pixar technicians inserted “real” elements such as rain and grass into a digitally animated landscape, like a backward Who Framed Roger Rabbit. And the final five minutes will leave you a blubbering mess.
Still, once the end credits rolled – including superfluous “bonus” scenes wrapping up various narrative threads – I couldn’t help but empathize with that talking spork. Freedom, sweet freedom! For now.
Toy Story 4 opens June 21
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