With its weighty themes on existential crisis and self-actualization, Toy Story 4 has strong and valid reasons to bring back our beloved characters for one more adventure.
The announcement of Toy Story 4 is met with a lot of apprehension from fans and I totally get what they’re feeling. Toy Story trilogy wrapped up on such a perfect note that it almost feels sacrilegious to extend the story of Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz (Tim Allen) and Co. for the sake of a shameless cash grab. Toy Story 3 marks the pinnacle of the franchise and anything less than ‘perfect’ will smear its reputation. Despite this, I went to the screening with prejudices set aside. After all, if there’s a Hollywood studio that can match their timeless classics, it’s probably the combination of Disney and Pixar.
And boy, I am pleased to see this surprisingly, much-needed epilogue. To say the least, I walked out of this movie with a big smile and an enriched perspective in life. If TS3 tackles separation anxiety and the lifelong impact of toys to kids, TS4 poses deeper existential questions. In here, the successor of Andy’s toys, Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw) literally makes a new friend, Forky (Tony Hale), out of a spork. He soon becomes a conscious and sentient toy who believes that he’s not meant to be a plaything. This leads to a hilarious gag of Forky throwing himself to a trash bin, and Woody repeatedly intercepting his suicide attempts.
Forky insists, “I’m trash!” and we all know what he’s talking about. It’s something that we must have said to ourselves at some point in our lives. But what makes a toy, a toy? How do you measure someone’s worth? Is it by looking at what they’re made of, or is it about them finding and fulfilling their purpose? Four movies in and this franchise continues to depict its characters the way that a kid would have imagined them: as toys imbued with real human depth and emotions.
The rescue adventure kicks into gear as sheriff Woody goes after Forky who sneaks out during a family trip. Along the way, he unexpectedly reunites with his old flame Bo Peep (Annie Potts), the shepherdess who has now turned into a free-spirited, self-sufficient “lost toy,” since her last appearance in Toy Story 2. For this installment, Bo Peep has a much more significant role than being just Woody’s love interest. Aside from being an empowered heroine, she’s there to challenge his existing ideals.
Over time, we’ve seen how Woody developed into a parental figure to his owner. He believes that the most noble thing a toy can do is to be there for a child. But does the principle still apply now that Bonnie is no longer fond of playing him? Would he be content on spending most of his days gathering “dust bunnies” inside a closet, or is it time to boldly venture to the unknown yet exciting possibilities in life? At what point should personal happiness be prioritized over the selfless advocacy? TS4 breaks the mold of what a toy should do. It gives it’s characters autonomy over their fates. Woody’s path to self realization imposes a lot of conflict which brings the character’s journey into a much fuller circle than what we thought before.
It’s also a film about breaking misperceptions, the things that we once fear – in Woody’s case, becoming a lost toy – might not be as horrendous as we once thought. There’s a wonderful subplot too about second chances and self-acceptance present in the film’s de facto villain, Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), a vintage doll who believes that the only way she can be loved is if she gets a replacement for her defective voicebox… just like the one that’s sewn into Woody’s back.
Emotionally, TS4 does not surpass the amount of damage that TS3 did to our tear ducts, yet it knows wisely not to. TS4 makes up with a lot of laughs. It’s situational humor is consistently clever, like Buzz’s complete misunderstanding of conscience/inner voice for his pre-programmed recordings and also the humor mined from our old-time favorites like Jessie (Joan Cussack), Rex (Wallace Shawn), the Potato Heads (Don Rickles and Estelle Harris), etc. Most of them might be relegated to minor status to further advance the theme and plot, but this sequel introduces equally memorable scene-stealers like disaster-prone daredevil Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves), and a pair of hysterical conjoined carnival toys Ducky (Keegan Michael-Key) and Bunny (Jordan Peele).
Some may take TS4’s level of animation and production design for granted but Pixar has always been spectacular in their game. TS4 is easily the best-looking entry in the franchise. Likewise, the same can be said to the whole voice cast, especially Tom Hanks in particular who still sounds as youthful and as energetic as he did two decades ago.
Toy Story 4 never loses sight of what makes the franchise appeal to multiple generations. It can have all the fun that it wants but the viewing experience never falls short of meaningful and inspirational, as the franchise has shown steadfast commitment to deliver mature yet kid-friendly themes. If you’re planning to skip this because you believe that the trilogy already ended so perfectly, believe me when I say that you’ll be missing a great deal.
5 out of 5 stars