Toy Story 4 – Film Review
by Diana Perez Garcia
Director: Josh Cooley
Writers: John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, Josh Cooley, Valerie LaPointe, Rashida Jones, Will McCormack, Martin Hynes, Stephany Folsom.
Stars: Tom Hanks, Annie Potts, Christina Hendricks, Tim Allen, Keanu Reeves, Joan Cusack, Wallace Shawn, John Ratzenberger, Keegan-Michael Key, Jordan Peele
Opens on Friday, June 21st
Hard as I try I find it impossible to recollect a drearier and more uninspiring June than the one we are currently experiencing. On the morning I walked through Smithfield Square to the press screening of Toy Story 4 a gust of wind turned the umbrella I was using to protect myself from a persistent drizzle inside out: how beautifully this weather would resonate with a reissuing of Blade Runner, I thought. Instead, kicking pathetic fallacy to kingdom come, it framed the viewing of the fourth instalment of the colourful and heart-warming Pixar franchise. So although I would not dare to reduce the complex, enthralling and deeply considered adventures of Woody and friends to mere escapism, I am going to begin by recommending Toy Story 4 as an antidote to the spirit-crushing ten-plagues of Egypt “summer” we have been suffering. Let the sun shine in the darkness of a cinema for once.
Fans of the franchise will have fond memories of the heart wrenching cliff-hanger lead-up to the resolution of the previous Toy Story. The ending to Toy Story 3 would have allowed its creators to put the series to rest in a much acclaimed finale so it is commendable that Josh Cooley’s new addition, far from tarnishing the legacy of its predecessors, has managed to keep it alive with dignity, inventiveness, and panache.
At the beginning of Toy Story 4 we find Woody (Tom Hanks) adjusting to his much diminished role as one of many toys in the custody of Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw), a little girl who treats all her toys with democratic rough and tumble, not having yet chosen a favourite. At a whim, Bonnie will pluck Jessie (Joan Cusack) out of the closet where she keeps her toys, and appoint her sheriff to a posse of teddies, leaving Woody to languish in the dark. Notwithstanding the odd and short lived bout of chagrin, Woody can find comfort in the company of his old pals Hamm (John Ratzenberger), Rex (Wallace Shawn), Slinky the Dog (Blake Cark) and, of course, Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), now also living in Bonnie’s room, along with Bonnie’s other toys, headed by the sensible and capable Dolly (Bonnie Hunt). Most importantly, Woody can count on the strength of his all American hero can-do spirit and the resilience of his inner voice which, in his own words, “would never leave me alone if I gave up.”
Guided by this inner voice, Woody decides to go with Bonnie to her orientation day at Kindergarten to make sure that the day goes smoothly for her. Aided by him, she manages the difficulties of a new environment by creating a rudimentary toy out of a plastic spork and classroom supplies, which she names “Forky” (Tony Hale). When Forky becomes Bonnie’s favourite toy and therefore fundamental for her future well-being away at school, Woody must contend with Forky’s wayward wish to join the trash with which he identifies. Much of the comedy in the early stages of Toy Story 4 hinges on Forky’s struggle to accept his new given identity and that his destiny will be tied to that of a child. It also contributes to the touching premise that Andy’s one-time undisputed favourite must protect and school Bonnie’s unruly creation, destined to take the shine away from him. It is thus that Toy Story 4 continues to explore the need to affirm our individual identity while strengthening our social bonds, a lesson as challenging to adults as it is to children. Given the levels of sophistication that Pixar’s animation has attained, it is rather charming to see this new toy built out of the most basic materials found in a classroom. Forky’s struggle with language and his clowning appearance will remind some viewers of early cinema comedy, thus continuing the franchise’s dialogue between past and present and the tension between nostalgia and modernity that permeates all four films.
In fact, the presence of a neglected material past looms large in the second half of the film, when our friends move away from the confines of Bonnie’s house to join her family on a short family vacation on a camper van. This second act welds adventure, comedy, romance and prison escape genres together as has been the case in previous instalments of Toy Story but opens up a world previously restricted to rooms into the wider world of nature and the fairground thus providing a much bigger stage for the toys’ existential dilemmas and higher stakes for their adventures. Toy Story has always impressed with its creators’ choice of setting, and this instalment makes great use of the amusement park and, particularly, of an antique store where Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), a 1950s doll with a defective voice box, and, therefore, another discarded toy to join a line of heartbroken villains in Toy Story, reigns supreme, commanding a quartet of sinister looking ventriloquist dummies. The store setting showcases the extraordinary visual heights that Pixar has achieved since the franchise was launched almost twenty-five years ago: dust particles float in minute realism behind rows of selves; the velvet of a skirt is dense and lush; satin shines in detailed reflection; glass, plaid, and metal all add dimension and texture to the film. The same can be said of the chiaroscuro, kaleidoscope light, and sunshine conjured up by the visual effects team. The store is also an eerie setting that brings up the question of obsolescence to the fore: a challenge that is central to capitalism and consumer culture, lovingly but pointedly staged in this gothic setting. The store reveals other discarded toys and special mention amongst these must go to the Canadian toy Duke Caboon, a demoralised motorist acrobat, voiced by Keanu Reeves, who puts to good use his dopey deadpan persona.
One of those toys, now free to roam the world is Bo Peep (Annie Potts) who leads a new life of adventure as a lost toy and who will be instrumental in aiding Woody in his latest effort to save the day. Her resurface represents perhaps the greatest departure of this instalment of the saga: Toy Story 4 is by far the most female-centred film of the series and Bo Peep, having shed her porcelain coyness and fragility in her fallow years, is the incarnation of this transformation. For the first time in the franchise, both sidekick and antagonist are female. Particular credit must be given to Potts as a voice artist as she has injected much needed vim to the erstwhile sugary sweet tones of her voice over. Bo Peep’s facial expressions, combined with her 1950s styling are also reminiscent of the sassy spiritedness of some of the great female film stars of that era. Her reappearance brings much dynamism to this film and also the biggest challenge to the status quo in the series so far in an unexpected and touching ending.
At the moment of Woody’s entrance into the antique store, I recognised yet another one of the nods to The Shining that characterise the Pixar franchise. Such a moment, rife with nostalgia but also uncanny and knowing and filled with the promise of mystery and adventure, is emblematic of the impressive levels of sophistication this series of films has achieved. We return to Toy Story because it so successfully brings to us a tried and tested formula but the films engage us because they continue to grapple with the themes of growth and decay with head on honesty and imagination.