Toy Story 4 (Josh Cooley, 2019)

Nine years ago, one toy belonging to a child named Andy Davis, R.C., had been caught in a fierce rainstorm. Andy’s favorite toy, Woody, led a rescue operation and managed to bring him back into the house. However, in the midst of the operation, Andy’s younger sister, Molly, entered the scene. As toys act insentient around humans, Woody could do nothing to prevent one of his friends, Bo Peep, from being donated along with her sheep. Woody tried to convince her to stay, but Bo reminded him that all toys must leave their owners one day. Realizing Andy still needed him, Woody stayed behind.

WARNING: This review will contain unmarked spoilers for the series thus far.

Two years have passed since Andy donated his toys to Bonnie. Right away, we get a sense of how much Woody’s character has progressed since the original film. Despite Bonnie’s initial enthusiasm when she happened upon Woody for the first time, she prefers playing with Jessie instead. While Woody would have harbored feelings of extreme jealousy for such a slight in the original film, as of this film, he knows how to take it in stride. He’s disappointed, but realizes Bonnie’s happiness is a higher priority than his own.

Admittedly, this scene is a double-edged sword. While I think the scenes with Bonnie successfully showcase how much Woody has matured, it comes at the expense of making the girl a little unsympathetic at times. During play sessions, she is seen callously tossing Woody into a closet, and later ends up stomping on Woody’s face. While the film’s conflict would indeed need some kind of catalyst, I feel the writers succeeded a little too well. What they did cheapens the beautifully heartfelt ending of Toy Story 3. If it meant to be Andy passing the torch onto a new generation, Bonnie callously extinguished it, though she does treat the other toys well.

The film begins in earnest when Woody, realizing that Bonnie is very worried over the prospect of going to kindergarten, decides to sneak into her backpack and watch over her. During an arts-and-crafts session, a classmate steals her supplies and throws them in the trash. This prompts Woody to surreptitiously place the contents of the trash bin on her table. Inspired by the materials that appeared on her desk ex nihilo, Bonnie crafts a handmade toy out of a spork, wire cleaners, and a popsicle stick, naming the creation Forky.

From here, Toy Story 4 continues with the series’ grand tradition of exploring the underlying implications of its universe. One of the most basic laws of this reality is that toys are sentient whenever they are not directly observed by humans, though they are fully capable of breaking the rule under particularly extreme circumstances. However, there is one question that the films, providing minimalistic, high-concept experiences never directly addressed. What constitutes a toy in this universe? One might extrapolate that only factory-made creations are alive, but Toy Story 4 directly challenges this notion when, to Woody’s shock, Forky springs to life.

As soon as Bonnie takes Forky home, the handmade toy immediately has difficulties coming to grips with what he is. After all, his main body was intended for but a single use before being discarded in the trash. However, fate had other plans for this spork, and as Bonnie’s new favorite toy, his role in life has been drastically altered.  From there, he keeps attempting to throw himself away, prompting Woody to step in and stop him. This becomes especially difficult when the toys are brought on a family road trip. Although Woody and his friends attempting to keep Forky out of the trash is amusing, it becomes a little darker when you realize that the new toy essentially has suicidal urges as a result of a debilitating existential crisis.

As the family nears their destination, Forky jumps out of a window, prompting Woody to give chase. The patient Woody tells Forky of his time with Andy, which causes the new toy to accept his new role. Fate takes a turn for the interesting when Woody espies a lamp in an antique shop. Realizing the lamp in question belonged to Bo, he decides to break inside and look around. There, they happen upon a doll named Gabby Gabby. She is the leader of a group of ventriloquist dummies known as the Bensons. Gabby offers to take Woody to Bo, but quickly reveals her ulterior motives. Her voice box is broken, and will stop at nothing to obtain Woody’s. Realizing he got a little more than he bargained for, Woody flees the antique shop, but Forky is captured by Gabby. Woody then soon finds himself in a playground when he soon finds himself face-to-face with Bo herself.

One of the best things about Toy Story 4 is how it handles Bo’s character. She had been an important character in Woody’s life from the very first installment, yet she never played a significant role other than emotional support. Her relative irrelevance to the plot was taken to its logical extreme in the third film wherein she doesn’t appear at all. After two films of being a talkative background character, this installment gives her some much needed development. After wallowing away in the antique store for a number of years, Bo and her sheep, Billy, Goat, and Gruff, escaped and now live the free lifestyle of a lost toy, bringing joy to children wherever they can. Her trials have made her a much more assertive person. This is demonstrated by her being unafraid to fend off Gabby’s henchmen and taking her arm getting broken off in stride before getting it taped back on.

Sensing something is amiss, Buzz decides to search for Woody on his own. However, his rescue operation goes awry, and he soon finds himself tied to the wall as a carnival prize. Said carnival would appear to be rather crooked, for two plush toys, Ducky and Bunny, have gone without being won for years. These characters along with Forky highlight what I find truly fascinating about this film. There are so many characters present in this film who, if written poorly, would have been completely insufferable. Forky looks and sounds like the kind of character one would introduce several seasons into an animated show to keep things fresh and original. Ducky and Bunny, voiced by Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele respectively, come across as the kind of comic relief characters who could destroy an otherwise fine narrative with their antics. It is a true testament to the writers working at Pixar at the time that I had no problem with these three characters at all.

The year 2019 also saw the release of DreamWorks’s How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World. It was a decidedly average effort, though not for a lack of trying. The issue holding the film back from achieving its true potential was twofold. In addition to not sticking the landing with any kind of grace, the narrative was weighed down by its comic relief characters. These characters were used sparingly in the first two installments, but in The Hidden World, their propensity to crack jokes ruined otherwise heartfelt moments. It was to the point where a few critics strongly suspected the director let the voice actors ad lib certain lines. It’s a little ironic that Toy Story 4 would be better at handling its comic relief squadron because all three of the characters in question were introduced in this installment. Bad comic relief characters tend to be newcomers rather than familiar faces.

However, unlike the writers who penned the script for The Hidden World, the Pixar team fully understood what to do with these kinds of characters. Forky is more of a traditional example of his character type while Ducky and Bunny’s antics are darkly hilarious. When the latter two are recruited by Buzz to rescue Forky, they have to steal a key from the antique shop’s owner. They feel a perfectly acceptable strategy is to accost the old woman in her own home like Michael Myers. Meanwhile, Forky’s primary source of comedy stems from his incessant desire to be thrown out. It’s when he accepts his new role in life that he stops. The idea of developing a comic relief character is highly rare regardless of what medium you’re parsing. At the same time, what allows these characters to thrive in this story is that the writers know where to draw the line. Their antics don’t go on any longer than necessary, and they are skillfully separated from the earnest scenes.

As the character presented as the primary antagonist, it’s easy to get the impression that Gabby is Lotso 2.0. She appears to rule the antique store with an iron fist and her ventriloquist dummies enforce her will. Even the fact that the antique shop is not as innocent as it seems brings to mind the general atmosphere of Sunnyside Daycare. However, as the film progresses, you’ll learn she is actually much different than Lotso. The stuffed bear possessed an utterly irredeemable soul and only looked out for himself. Because he felt slighted when he was replaced, he thought it only fair he inflicted his pain onto others. Gabby, on the other hand, never had Lotso’s opportunity to begin with. Due to her broken voice box, she never got a chance to make a child happy in the first place despite wanting that more than anything. She is what Stinky Pete would be if the prospector never gave up hope of having a kid one day.

It makes for an interesting conflict because you’re expecting Gabby to finally snap and reveal her true malevolence. She is very kind to her henchmen, yet even when they fail an important task, she is more disappointed than angry. After spending time with Forky, she convinces Woody to give up his voice box to fix her own. She notably uses Woody’s memories of Andy while persuading him, which is reminiscent of the countless times you see villains break through the hero’s mental defenses. All of this was done in order to get the attention of Harmony, the granddaughter of the antique store’s owner. However, even after Harmony notices Gabby, the young girl remains uninterested.

This is the moment in which many people suspected she would become the second Lotso, but she is merely deeply saddened. She even offers to give Woody his voice box back, but the cowboy has other plans. Enlisting the help of the impressively hammy 1970s-era stuntman toy by the name of Duke Caboom, they traverse the carnival with the intent of introducing Gabby to Bonnie. However, along the way, Gabby spots a crying, lost girl and decides to help her. As if it was destiny, the child happily takes Gabby and the doll, at last, has the opportunity to make someone happy. In the end, the antagonist was never evil to begin with. Disney tried their hand at twist villains time and again throughout the 2010s, and Gabby was definitely one of the more effective ones – particularly for those who had following the series this entire time.

When they return to the RV, Woody initially bids farewell to Bo, but after reflecting upon what he has gone through, he christens Jessie the new sheriff and decides to live the life of a lost toy. It is a bittersweet moment that seems like the true end of an era. However, the problem I have with this scene is that it lacks the same emotional resonance the ending of Toy Story 3 packed.

Despite many years passing between installments, the first three films had a definite through line to them. The first introduced the high concept of this universe while the sequels explored them in ways that took its implications to their logical conclusions. In other words, those films succeeded because they built upon themselves. Toy Story 4, on the other hand, actively derails character arcs – most notably, Bonnie’s – for the sake of continuing a plot that had nowhere to go. Woody leaving the other toys could have worked as an alternate ending for Toy Story 3, but by implementing them both within the same overarching story, it is effectively given two third acts.

When Toy Story 4 was announced, a feeling of dread overcame fans of the first three films. The third installment had such a definitive, conclusive ending that it wouldn’t seem right to continue the story. Even bearing Pixar’s impressive track record in mind, nobody predicted that Toy Story 4 would receive overwhelmingly positive critical praise. The odds were not in its favor, so creating something that could appease fans and critics alike was quite the accomplishment.

Unfortunately, actually watching the film reveals its positive reception was the result of the goodwill the series had built up by that point. While Incredibles 2 read as a less-memorable encore performance, Toy Story 4 actively strove to explore new ideas, failing almost as much as it succeeds. As a result, I sympathize with the skeptics because Toy Story 4 was the weakest installment the franchise had spawned by a significant margin. The film does stand as a solid piece of animation, but what its predecessors lack in aesthetics, they more than make up for in writing. At the end of the day, Toy Story 4 is what happens when you create a sequel to a film with an air-tight ending. An emotionally satisfying ending is undone, and we’re left with an installment that, for all intents and purposes, can be completely ignored without losing anything of value.

Final Score: 5/10

9 thoughts on “Toy Story 4 (Josh Cooley, 2019)

  1. Well, I’ve seen Toy Story 4 three times now, which is probably enough to finally write a proper review of it. My feelings towards it are…weird, to say the least.

    First and foremost, it IS a good movie, no doubt. But something about it just doesn’t click like the previous three films. While I’ve watched it, I’ve greatly enjoyed Toy Story 4, but it doesn’t stay in the memory like the others did. It’s like, it has all these bits and pieces of greatness, but they somehow never join together to create a movie as unforgettable as the first three.

    I think part of my problem is that Buzz Lightyear’s role has been reduced so greatly. That was a complaint I had with the third movie, and instead of addressing this gross negligence of Buzz, TS4 doubled down on it. I get that Woody is the main character, but the first film established that both he and Buzz had equal prominence, which continued beautifully in Toy Story 2. But TS3 seemed to forget that Buzz Lightyear was also capable of drawing emotion from audiences (“I Will Go Sailing No More”) and made him comic relief. But here, he’s comic relief amidst an array of comic relief characters. And poor Jessie, her role is also nearly nonexistent by this point, and it’s because of her that Toy Story became known as a franchise that brings adult audiences to tears. Personally speaking, I feel Woody’s role as the main character would have made sense to end with Toy Story 3, and 4 could have put Buzz and Jessie in the spotlight (especially seeing as they aimed for a bit more of a romantic element with the Woody/Bo Peep angle, and Bo Peep was never the character Jessie was. Not even now with her reinvention).

    But even if Woody were destined to be the main character, Buzz and Jessie STILL needed to be more important to make the ending really stick the landing. As it is, the ending is great and emotional…to an extent. But had the classic characters been featured more prominently, it would have felt more earned. I don’t want to give anything away, but given how Woody’s relationship with Bo was presented in the past, I think his final decision just doesn’t add up with his character.

    All that, and I also feel like the Ducky and Bunny characters, while not necessarily bad, felt kind of shoehorned in just to get Key and Peele in the movie. Yes, Pixar usually enlists big name actors to portray their characters. But Pixar’s characters usually feel genuine, like the creation of the characters and story came first, and then they found actors who could bring them to life. Ducky and Bunny, however, feel like they were written for the sole purpose of getting Key and Peele in the movie. That seems kinda Dreamworks-y.

    Okay, I know I’m sounding really negative. But TS4 IS a really good movie on its own merits. It’s just the first Toy Story film that I find major flaws in. I mean, what’s my big complaint with the first Toy Story? It’s not as good as the second. Not exactly a detriment, there.

    Personally, I think both Finding Dory and Incredibles 2 were probably better sequels. Even if they shared more familiar elements with their predecessors, their focus on different main characters (Dory and Helen Parr getting the starring role in the second go) helped justify their continuing stories. And now it seems kind of weird that Toy Story 3 served as the ending of the series, and then Pixar said Toy Story 4 would be a “standalone” sequel…and then it turns into a second ending for the series.

    I promise my actual review will sound more positive than this comment. I did really enjoy the movie. But I think the previous three were likely my favorite films in their respective years. But TS4 hasn’t made me question Endgame’s current placement as my 2019 title holder.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Yeah, I know what you mean – it’s definitely a good film, but its flaws are far more apparent than those of its predecessors, and because of its controversial changes, I find this to be the weakest film in the series. One person made the argument it’s like DLC, and I’d be inclined to agree – something that, while a nice addition to the overall story, could be axed entirely without really missing anything of substance.

      I actually think that Buzz was used a little more effectively here than he was in Toy Story 3 wherein he was a temporary antagonist (and later, pure comic relief), which really interfered with the arc he underwent in the first two films. Nonetheless, you have a point, and his not knowing what a conscience is seemed really out of character for him. And Jessie barely played any role at all in this film. Although I do give credit to the writers for giving Bo more of a personality, you do have a point in that the writers are kind of just retreading ground they sufficiently covered with Jessie.

      I thought Woody’s decision to leave was a sound storytelling choice, but you’re right in that it really didn’t have the same emotional impact of when Andy handed his toys to Bonnie at the end of Toy Story 3 (which this film actively cheapens) – and I think it is for the exact reasons you stated.

      As for Ducky and Bunny, I think I’m inclined to give them more of a break because I saw How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World handle its comic relief characters much more poorly – with established characters, no less. Even so, I see where you’re coming from.

      I still think it’s a better sequel than Incredibles 2 because it had more of a story to tell, but it wasn’t the welcome addition Finding Dory was – even if Toy Story 4 basically creates a second third act for the series.

      Loathe as I am to admit it, I doubt Toy Story 4 will make my top 10 for this year. It’s a shame because the previous three films would have easily made it for those respective years (in the case of Toy Story 2, I’m pretty sure it would’ve won outright).

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Just saw it this morning. It is admittedly my least favorite of the series, but that still means that it’s “great” rather than “phenomenal”. I’m still organizing my thoughts on the film, though, so… yeah.

    Liked by 1 person

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