Toy Story 4

US (2019) Dir. Josh Cooley

One of the most successful animated franchises of the last twenty-five years came to an end with Toy Story 3 in 2010 – or so we thought. Hollywood just can’t help itself if there is a dollar to be made thus Toy Story was revived for new feature film in 2019.

Most of the toys from the previous films are now with a girl named Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw). Desperately dreading her induction day at kindergarten, Woody (Tom Hanks) sneaks into her backpack to support here. At the school, Bonnie makes a plastic spork man named Forky (Tony Hale), who quickly becomes her favourite toy. Forky has trouble fitting in with the other toys from thinking he is trash and should be in the bin.

When the family go on an RV trip, Bonnie takes the toys with her but Forky still keeps trying to run away, forcing Woody to chase after him and ending up separated from the others. In trying to get back to the RV, they end up in an antique shop where they meet the sweet Gabby Gabby doll (Christina Hendricks) who secretly has plans for Woody. He escapes, but Gabby kidnaps Forky, knowing Woody will be back for him.

Toy Story 4 has received mixed reviews with no middle ground – people either loved it or hated it with a passion. I personally don’t understand the latter; it has everything one expects from a Toy Story film – laughs, drama, fun characters, a well-meaning message, and top-notch animation. Maybe expectations were too high, or the emotionally charged ending to Toy Story 3 meant nothing could follow it, but this really isn’t a bad film.

It is always a gamble to bring such a popular property back after an extended break, especially one we’ve been led to believe has ended, as there is so much past magic that needs to be recreated, or improved upon if the bar has already been set very high. In all fairness, Toy Story 4 doesn’t seem intent on replicating the success of the prior films (though it has joined the billion dollar grosses club already), presenting an enjoyable but hardly groundbreaking adventure.

Yet there are signs of progression in terms of reflecting modern society in its narrative, in this case pushing a female toy upfront as a major character. In the previous films, Bo Peep (Annie Potts) was a porcelain figure set on a display stand with little movement available to her; in this film she no longer has the stand and is as active as the others, as well as being a proactive and resourcefully tough woman.

A prologue set in between films two and three reveals how Bo was separated from the gang when Andy’s sister Molly gave her toys away. She is reunited with them at the funfair park when Bonnie’s family are staying, near which is the antiques store. Woody spies Bo’s lamp in the window and enters the shop hoping to find Bo, instead encountering Gabby and her creepy servant dolls all called Benson.

Gabby is a “lost toy”, one that hasn’t been owned in years. Her voice box is broken and she believes if she can speak properly again, the store owner’s granddaughter Harmony will take her home with her. Woody’s voice box is the same as Gabby and in perfect working order, though Woody is reluctant to hand it over voluntarily, so Gabby resorts to kidnapping Forky instead.

So we have a plot based around a rescue/return home scenario, just like in the previous three films which I suspect might be people didn’t enjoy it. It’s hard to dissent from this, but one could argue every Agatha Christie plot is the same too – someone is murdered, a detective finds the culprit, lather rinse, repeat. But despite the recycled plot there is still plenty of fun to be had with the new toys and rebooted Bo Peep.

Joining the cast along with Forky, are stitched together stuffed toys, Ducky (Keegan-Michael Key) and Bunny (Jordan Peele), who are hilarious, pocket toy Giggle McDimples (Ally Maki), and motorcycle stuntman Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves), a Canadian version of Evil Knievel. They all come from different backgrounds – some are lost toys at a public playground, others are archaic leftovers in the antique store, and Ducky and Bunny are prizes at a fixed shooting gallery.

The moral of this story is about finding one’s personal worth despite what you look like or what your origin is. Woody asserts that a toy’s duty is to make a child feel happy but Forky doesn’t understand how he can do this for Bonnie being a plastic spork. Then there is Gabby who believes too much in her worth as a precious doll, and Bo who has adapted to life as a lost toy, embracing the freedom of not having a permanent owner.

Putting new toys and a remodelled Bo in the spotlight might seem a bold move to make but the old favourites are not ignored, with Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) taking it upon himself to rescue Woody and Forky, recruiting the others to help the against the clock finale in getting them back to the RV before it heads home. It’s hokey for sure, but pure Toy Story without question.

Having set the standard for CGI animation with the first film in 1995, Pixar have reset the bar to even higher level here. The improvements in creating photorealistic images are simply astonishing, though a slight cartoonish veneer remains to ensure the toys aren’t so incongruous against these superb backgrounds. Texture like hair and cloth are better than ever, whilst the actual designs of people is still a few steps away from being completely lifelike.

Maybe we didn’t really need Toy Story 4 but I don’t resent that it exists. For 100 minutes, it delivers perfectly enjoyable and stunning looking escapist fun in the company of some familiar faces and charming new friends. Welcome back guys!