“I’m going to a Toy Story 4 screening,” I told my coworker Jesse. “What are the odds I’m going to cry?”
“One hundred percent,” she said. “It’s a Toy Story!”
24 years ago, Pixar inaugurated a new era in animation, and in family entertainment, with the original Toy Story, the first feature film to be fully computer-animated. The movie’s warmth and wit were undeniable, and its subject matter brilliantly flipped the script on the challenges facing digital animation. If the film’s humans looked a little plastic, that was fine: we were seeing them through the eyes of characters who were, literally, plastic themselves.
A quarter-century later, as the late Peter Cushing rebuilds his Death Star thanks to lifelike digital animation by a studio (Lucasfilm) that’s, like Pixar, now owned by Disney, Woody (Tom Hanks) and Buzz (Tim Allen) still hold their heart-melting charms. Their original owner has grown up and moved out, but our toy chest of heroes are still here to save the day for their new owner, little Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw).
The fact that Pixar hasn’t gone back to the well too often has ensured that there are still plenty of variations to spin on the toys’ story. (In the sequel-happy ’80s, it took Hollywood less than a decade to get from Superman to Superman IV.) That does mean a good chunk of time has passed — and without putting too fine a point on it, the eight-person team credited with crafting the film’s story recognize that the very concept of a “toy” is increasingly antique, as kids increasingly spend their time in organized activities when they’re not concentrating on screens.
Thus, a lot of the Toy Story 4 action finds Woody and friends in an actual antique store, where the deceptively sweet-faced baby doll Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) exerts a reign of terror from a curio shelf patrolled by ventriloquist dummies with unsettlingly loose limbs. (Among figures of supposed mirth appearing onscreen over the decades, only clowns have been more horrifically handled than ventriloquist dummies. From The Twilight Zone to Dead Silence, the concept of ironic manipulation has proven irresistible.)
In a resort town where Bonnie and her family have parked their RV, Woody’s first drawn to the store by the presence of his long-lost crush Bo Peep — still voiced by the iconic Annie Potts. Woody, Peep, and her three conjoined sheep soon find themselves facing a hostage situation involving Forky (Tony Hale), the hilariously confused little friend Bonnie fashioned from a spork on her first day of kindergarten.
Most of the movie unfolds as an escape caper, with the antique store and a nearby amusement park as rich settings for adventure and the discovery of new comrades. Among them are a Canadian action figure voiced by Keanu Reeves; and Key and Peele as an overstuffed pair of fairground prizes sewn together at the hand.
After the devastating Toy Story 3, it’s all to the good that this installment is far lighter, with a focus on quick gags and pure fantasy. The story’s stable of beloved characters is by now so well-established that the mere appearance of a stalwart like Rex (the priceless Wallace Shawn) or Hamm (John Ratzenberger, who’s had at least a cameo in every Pixar movie) can bring a smile.
Josh Cooley, making his directorial debut, has helmed a production that won’t disappoint: frequently funny, visually inventive, and, of course, more than a little touching. While the film’s climactic drama hinges on the question of whether a toy can be happy when it’s “lost” without a child, the most touching moment returns the franchise to its timeless thematic roots of humility and friendship.
Leaving the theater, I texted Jesse. “Re: Toy Story/ you were right.”
“Aw,” she replied, “lil J.”
What can I say? I was thinking of Gizmo.