Reviews for Toy Story 4 are largely a mix of good to fair, high praise for a post-trilogy fourquel film that takes the audience from the familiar halls of Andy’s two-story home to a rented RV traveling across the country and then to an antique store helmed by a seriously creepy doll named Gabby-Gabby (Christina Hendricks) and her ventriloquist puppet guards that are straight-up nightmare fuel. Yeah, this is Pixar who hasn’t made a bad film since it’s founding film, unironically the first Toy Story. The first film presented a narrative that audiences had never seen before: toys coming to life and being there for their human child. The fourth film’s narrative is a mish-mash of existential crisis and feminism, all undermined by a small cowboy shaped problem.
Woody (Tom Hanks) and crew (once again all voiced by the same actors as the previous films) are happily living with Bonnie after Andy gifted them to the little girl at the end of Toy Story 3. They all get along with the other toys and are played with. But Bonnie doesn’t need Woody as much as Andy did and that puts a snake in Woody’s boot. Searching for purpose, Woody sneaks into Bonnie’s backpack and helps her create Forky (Tony Hale) at kindergarten orientation. Forky is literally Frankenstein’s monster and lives in a perpetual state of existential crisis. He’s literally made of trash, but Bonnie’s love brings him to life and he wants nothing to do with it.
After an attempted suicide by jumping out the window, Forky, and Woody, who jumped out the window to go save the little spork, meet up on the road and end up in an unnamed city with a carnival and an antique store with one half of Bo Peep’s former lamp home. What follows is an adventure that asks important questions about what makes us who we are, can we fix ourselves and handle rejection, and how we can live in the world once we’ve reached the cusp of adulthood.
The feminist themes in Toy Story 4 don’t really start until Bo Peep (Annie Potts)–missing since Toy Story 3–bursts back onto the scene in a local park where lost toys come to get played with. She’s a little broken–literally, her arm comes off in one hilarious scene after she and Woody reunite–but is all sass and brass who doesn’t need a human or a man (technically non-binary hunk of plastic and stuffing?) to save her. She has her sheep and the Polly pocket-esque Giggle McDimples and a motorized skunk she travels in. She loves the lost toy life and has no time for Woody and his schtick. And to be honest, I didn’t either.
Put it plainly, Woody is probably Hanks’ most dislikeable character and is hella problematic this time out. NPR had it right when they mentioned that Woody’s preoccupation with Forky is basically a way to “enable Woody’s reckless heroism, which is starting to look a lot like narcissism.” Only NPR has it wrong when they say that Woody is only just now acting like an inconsiderate, condescending narcissist. He’s always been one, lest we forget that he almost “murdered” Buzz (Tim Allen) when they first met in Toy Story because Andy started playing with him more than Woody. This time around, for a good chunk of the film, Woody is much more interested in trying to change Bo rather than accept who she’s become, which is the epitome of a free, strong female, the very notion of which scares Woody to death and emasculates him, much as it scares men in real life as well.
The reason this film doesn’t work as well as the other three films is because the other three films are ensemble narratives. Not only are they ensembles, but they introduce the audience to likable characters that fit the dynamic of the group we’ve grown to love. Forky is not a likable character. Neither is Gabby-Gabby, a toy at the antique store who is only after one thing, Woody’s voice box; a toy who is the creepiest villain this side of Sid from the first film. The only new character who is likable is probably Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves), the Canadian stunt toy that is clearly supposed to be Canada’s answer to Evel Knievel. Everyone else is annoying and the original group? They are left behind to wallow in worry at the RV. Buzz is reduced to a one-note, overly played slapstick pun about finding his “inner voice” via his pre-recorded voice box.
The only thing going for Toy Story 4 is its animation. Pixar has had nearly 25 years to refine and fine-tune its animation and the results are beautiful and, honestly, mind-blowing. There has never been a more gorgeous animated film. There’s a reason Pixar is the top animation studio in America. The colors are stunning. Every little detail, right down to the wear and tear on Buzz’s stickers on his chest, is gorgeous. One of the most beautiful sequences happens when Woody, Bo, and Buzz are attempting to rescue Forky from Gabby’s cabinet. Bo shows Woody her favorite spot in the antique store which is easier shown than described.
Then, when the toys all say goodbye in the night at the carnival, the lights and shadows never looked so real. Honestly, the realism in this animation is a gift and is Toy Story 4‘s only saving grace, besides Bo Peep and the lesson she teaches to young girls.
The audience didn’t need another Toy Story film. It’s as simple as that.