AT THE MOVIES
Fourth Time’s a Charm for the “Toy Story” Franchise
By Noah Gittell
The “Toy Story” movies have always been about obsolescence. From the moment Woody (Tom Hanks) first dealt with the intrusion of Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), a snazzy new toy that made Woody feel like old news, these films have provided an ongoing lesson in the art of letting go. Viewers of all ages appreciate this lesson, but as the series has gone on, the toys seemed to be speaking more directly to the adults. In the third installment, they faced down a fiery death before narrowly escaping. Kids may have feared for the fates of their heroes, but adults in the audience may have left contemplating their own mortality.
“Toy Story 4” continues the trend. The whole film could be read as an allegory for Empty Nest Syndrome. As we find Woody again, he is seeking a new purpose in life. At the end of the last installment, he and the whole gang were handed down to Bonnie, a 5-year-old neighborhood kid. Woody was always Andy’s favorite, but he’s a bit of an afterthought with Bonnie. So when she comes home from a rough first day of kindergarten with a toy she made out of a spork and some pipe cleaner — he is dubbed “Forky” and voiced by Tony Hale (“Veep”) as a dim bulb — Woody takes him under his wing and guides him through the process of being a favorite toy.
On a road trip in a rented RV, however, Woody and Forky get separated from the gang in a small town. There, they run into Woody’s old flame, Bo Peep (Annie Potts), who is living a fiercely independent life as a lost toy. With Woody’s sense of purpose hanging on by a thread, he is tempted by a romance with Bo and perhaps an exciting new chapter of his life. Like parents whose children have gone off to college, Woody has to decide whether to savor whatever vestiges of his old life he can, or embrace something new. Life with Bo is an appealing proposition. The romantic scenes with between the two are so richly-drawn you can understand the temptation: they are steeped in the imagery of Old Hollywood, with Woody and Bo standing in for Bogey and Bacall.
The filmmakers, too, seize new opportunities. It has been 24 years since the first “Toy Story,” and while the series has survived due to its thoughtful scripting and stellar lead voice work by Hanks, the creative team at Pixar has expertly introduced new characters to appeal to younger generations. This installment features Ducky and Bunny, two stuffed animals who escape from their destiny as carnival prizes and join Woody’s adventure. Voiced by Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, they bring a fresh comic energy.
The inventiveness with new characters helps to keep the film rolling during the long middle section. Keanu Reeves shows up as Duke Kaboom, a Canadian daredevil suffering from a chronic lack of confidence. There is also a heavy, mid-century doll Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), and her army of creepy ventriloquist dolls. Like other villains in the “Toy Story” universe, Gabby’s intentions are revealed to be sympathetic: she was born with a defective voice, and has been languishing in an antique store for years. She is convinced she won’t find a kid to love her until she takes Andy’s voice box and surgically implants it in herself.
There are plenty of bells and whistles for the kids in the audience — the action-filled third act is set at a carnival, after all — but what makes “Toy Story 4” such a riveting piece of filmmaking is simpler than that. It knows exactly what it’s about, and all of its plot springs from that knowledge. Andy’s desperate fear of obsolescence drives every one of his actions, from his decision to sneak into Bonnie’s bag for the first day of school to his desperation to retrieve Forky after he jumps willingly from the RV. By the time Woody casts off this fear and imagines a bold new path for himself in the final act, he has provided a model for viewers on how to process and be released from some of life’s biggest challenges. The kids in the audience will still be howling with laughter, with no idea that their parents just got a lesson in how to let them go.
My Rating: See it in the Theater