Perhaps the highest compliment you can pay Toy Story 4 is that it’s a genuinely necessary chapter in this story. After the third instalment in 2010, an air of finality settled on Pixar’s most enduring franchise, but Toy Story 4 is far from just a tacked-on epilogue, bringing new ideas and characters to the fore whilst remaining true to the themes that have always defined the series. It doesn’t feel as definitive a goodbye or as much like the end of an era as its predecessor did, and some of your favourite toys from films past are noticeably sidelined, but as a last hurrah for Woody and the gang, there’s a lot of joy to be found here.
Now under the care of Bonnie after Andy left for college, Woody (Tom Hanks) is feeling left out. The former Head Toy is getting left in the closet during playtime and having a bit of a midlife crisis as he faces obsolescence. But when he sneaks into Bonnie’s bag on her first day of kindergarten and surreptitiously helps her build her own makeshift toy, Forky (Tony Hale), he can regain his guardian role for this new addition to the family. More than ever before, Toy Story 4 hammers home the notion of toys as parents, sadly outgrown but always thinking of their kids.
Forky is an absolute delight, grabbing many of the biggest laughs as he desperately tries to throw himself into the trash where he feels he belongs. After he and Woody get lost on a roadtrip though, Forky comes to realise how important he is to Bonnie, and thus begins their mission to get him home. Along the way, Woody is reunited with Bo Peep (Annie Potts), conspicuously absent from 3, and finds himself in the realm of lost, ownerless toys.
Woody and Bo Peep aside, the show is really stolen by all of these new characters. Forky is the obvious standout, but defective ‘50s doll Gabby (Christina Hendricks) and Canadian stuntman Duke Kaboom (Keanu Reeves) also get the most powerful emotional beat and single best joke of the film, respectively. Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele also bring their typical hilarious and energetic double act as carnival prizes Ducky and Bunny. For a while, it looks as if Gabby may be the baddie of the story, but Andrew Stanton and Stephany Folsom’s script ends up far more concerned with tragedy and kindness than that sort of obvious antagonism.
With all of this going on, it’s no wonder that a lot of franchise mainstays like Rex, Ham, and the Potato Heads get very limited screentime – mostly limited to a rather slow-moving prologue. While it would have been nice to spend a little more time with them, the new toys are so charming and well-voiced that it’s hard to resent the choice. Hale and Reeves in particular are having absolute blasts, both adorably enthusiastic and enjoyably pathetic in turn, and Tim Allen gets some funny stuff to work with as Buzz Lightyear attempts to figure out what his ‘inner voice’ is.
Toy Story 4 marks the first full directorial outing for Josh Cooley, and he proves a dab hand at conjuring the typically imaginative set-pieces of these micro-scale heroics. He’s just as good, vitally, at the stillness and silence that has defined some of Toy Story’s most emotional moments, the toys processing their feelings while remaining completely frozen in the presence of humans. The animation is as sleek and involving as we have come to expect from Pixar – they’re still so far ahead of almost every other CG animation team – and the new toy designs are great.
From some absolutely terrifying ventriloquist dummies to the blocky movements of the delightfully silly Combat Carls (all voiced by Carl Weathers), everyone is a joy to watch. Forky steals the film in this aspect though, his unreliable googly eyes and detachable pipe-cleaner arms giving him an air of profound vulnerability without ever sacrificing the fact that he just looks really funny. His very existence implies some unsettling, God-like powers possessed by children in this universe, but Toy Story 4 is happy to leave the questions raised largely unanswered, which is more than fine.
Though it’s not as affecting as the main trilogy, Toy Story 4 is so full of heart that it lands closer to Pixar classic status than any of their other sequels of recent years. It’s a lovely world to return to, all bright lights, imagination, and comforting music, but Cooley and co don’t simply rest on those laurels, crafting what is sure to be the best blockbuster of the summer.