When we last saw Woody, Buzz Lightyear, Jesse, and all of the other toys (animated shorts notwithstanding) they had been surrendered and given to a young pre-school girl named Bonnie by their previous owner Andy, who was heading off to college. Life has been great for the toys and Bonnie (as evidenced by the animated shorts since then), but now Bonnie has to go to Kindergarten Orientation, and she isn’t allowed to bring any toys. Through an unusual set of circumstances she ends up making one out of a spork and she calls him Forky. Unfortunately Forky believes himself to be trash, and despite Woody’s best efforts to help educate him he manages to escape while the family is on a road trip. Forky has absolutely no comprehension that he is currently Bonnie’s favorite toy. As Woody tries to rescue Forky he has a peculiar encounter with a doll named Gabby and her henchmen of Charley McCarthy ventriloquist dolls. As he escapes her nefarious clutches he has a reunion with a very special toy that he thought was forever lost to him. He is found by Bo Peep.
Toy Story 4 has some pretty big shoes to fill given the power and weight of its predecessor. Each of the Toy Story sequels have managed to up the ante in terms of its storytelling, culminating in the emotionally powerful Toy Story 3 that saw Andy saying goodbye to his favorite toys after giving them one last wonderful memory of playtime along with Bonnie. Needless to say there was some very powerful stuff that had this critic sobbing his eyes out at the end. Now the studio that has brought us an enormous quantity of amazing animated movies has gone back to the well in the hopes of capturing lightning in a bottle for the fourth time. In doing so they have given us a story that sort of shows what happens to a toy when its owner, in this case Bonnie, decides she likes other toys instead. This is an idea that was barely glanced over in the first Toy Story, but here we see Woody start to experience the replacement syndrome, which he manages to handle MUCH better than he did the first time around. He recognizes Bonnie’s infatuation with Forky and his sense of loyalty to this little girl supersedes his own need to be the center of her attention. The problem is that it is once again barely dealt with.
There is the risk of seeing something of a repeat of Toy Story 3, but the specifics are different here and that could have opened up a variety of different avenues to explore and go further with each of these toy characters. Instead the movie puts the brakes on from going down that road and elects to go for the easy way out. It becomes an outrageous comedy. While each of the movies in this franchise have had some excellent laughs, Toy Story 4 clearly comes out way ahead in the joke and gag department. Right from the chuckles and giggles that Forky provides, it only gets wilder and crazier the moment new toy characters Bunny (Jordan Peele) and Ducky (Keegan-Michael Key) are introduced. From that point on the jokes become full-blown slapstick that even have a bit of an edge on them. The problem is that while these jokes are fantastic and the humor is plentiful, it drowns out any real substance and story that has made past Toy Story movies so strong. The movie had a real chance of telling a story on emotional abandonment, not to mention how a child feels when something that creates a sense of comfort and security is taken away. Instead it falls back on gag after gag, joke after joke. Again the jokes were top notch and had the audience laughing quite hard, but for a production company that has become famous for producing movies with very strong stories, what we end up with Toy Story 4 is something of a letdown.
What still remains strong is the quality of the animation. In fact there were scenes that served as flashbacks to the days when Andy was a young boy, but the animation had become so strong that Andy actually looked quite a bit more human than he had in the first two movies. Also Toy Story brings back all of the surviving cast members from the earlier two entries, especially Tom Hanks as Woody, Tim Allen as Buzz Lightyear, and Annie Potts as Bo Peep. Hanks hasn’t lost any of his timing and energy as Woody, and Annie Potts successfully voices Bo as a character who has gone on an unusual evolution. Unfortunately the remaining returning characters don’t have much screen time, and Allen didn’t quite have the arrogant and self-deluded tone that made Buzz such a popular character in the first place. On the other hand, Tony Hale as Forky was a hilariously welcome addition to the cast, as were also Key and Peele as Ducky and Bunny respectively. Then there is Christina Hendricks as the doll Gabby Gabby. This is where the movie does something that I wholeheartedly disagree with. The movie presents Gabby in a rather specific type of light thereby creating an almost immediate reaction towards her. From almost the very first minute we meet her the audience is being manipulated on false pretenses as to Gabby’s nature. It isn’t until much later on that a vital piece of information, that was deliberately withheld, is then shared that immediately causes the audience to view her otherwise. This comes off as a form of emotional manipulation that is based on a false premise. It’s fine to take the audience on an emotional ride as the movie’s narrative is being played out, but to manipulate the audience in order to generate a specific response out of them is purely disingenuous.
Toy Story 4, while loaded with some of the funniest gags ever shown in a Pixar film, is sadly lacking with some truly resonant story material, despite the original story having come from franchise creator John Lassetter and Andrew Stanton, as well as several others. Lassetter had previously stated that he would only agree to a Toy Story 4 if the story were deemed better than Toy Story 3. It’s unknown how much impact he had on the story, but this is a movie that chose to emphasize laughter over true substance. Is it an enjoyable movie? Yes. Was it entertaining to everyone in the audience? Most certainly. However it does not live up to the standard set by Toy Story 3, making it to be something of a disappointment.
I give Toy Story 4 3.5 out of 5 Sporks!