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Role Play 

Toy Story 4 is still delightful, but in a strange and different way.

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click to enlarge PIXAR ANIMATION STUDIOS
  • Pixar Animation Studios
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I hold this truth to be self-evident: The first three Toy Story features are, in fact, one movie. Don't get hung up on semantics like the fact that they were released in different years, and tell different stories; on a fundamental level, they are a whole. It's a narrative about childhood, played out in more-or-less real time, recognizing the way that children use toys and play to process big feelings about jealousy, fear of abandonment or major life transitions. The way those three movies grew over 15 years just like Andy did was essential to their emotional resonance, to an extent that asking "which Toy Story movie was best" feels like missing the point.

So it's disorienting to realize fairly early in Toy Story 4 that, despite the nine real-world years that have passed since the release of Toy Story 3, Bonnie—the new owner of our plaything heroes—is still only just beginning kindergarten. Woody (Tom Hanks) stows away with an anxious Bonnie on her first day of school, and secretly helps her put together a craft—a google-eyed spork she calls Forky (Tony Hale)—that becomes a comforting friend. So when Forky flies out the window of the family RV while they're on a road trip, Woody is determined to retrieve the object that means so much to Bonnie.

Centering the story on a search-and-rescue operation places Toy Story 4 squarely within the series' comfort zone, and first-time feature director Josh Cooley (the Inside Out short Riley's First Date?) oversees the action with a keen sense for choreography that's exciting and delightfully silly. From the methods for obtaining a key proposed by a pair of carnival-prize stuffed animals (Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele), to the self-doubt of Canadian stunt motorcycle toy Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves), to the toys attempting to re-direct Bonnie's parents by impersonating the RV's GPS system, the adventure holds up to the high bar set by its predecessors.

The same is true for the characters—which is impressive, considering that Woody is the primary returning protagonist who's still at center stage. We do get the re-discovery of Bo Peep (Annie Potts)—whose absence was briefly mentioned in Toy Story 3—but the focus is largely on the new additions, specifically Forky. And what a wonderfully weird creation he is in his existential horror at his own sentience, and his conviction that he belongs in the trash. The new stuff almost all works, including a primary antagonist in pull-string doll Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) who might not be quite the clone of Stinky Pete/Lotso that she initially appears to be, and Gabby Gabby's ventriloquist dummy henchmen, who are exactly as disturbing as they initially appear to be.

Yet there's also something that's just a touch off about Toy Story 4 as it tries to land its tear-jerking body blows. The metaphors from the earlier films for specific childhood experiences, like dealing with sibling rivalry or leaving the nest, aren't quite so tidy here, which does in some ways make for a more complex experience as these inanimate objects try to figure out where they belong, and where they should put their love. The real paradigm shift, though, comes from figuring out that where Woody had often previously played stand-in for Andy's emotional life, here he takes on more of a parental role—frantically concerned with keeping Forky from throwing himself away, and trying to understand his place in Bonnie's life now that she seems to be interested in other things. While there's nothing inherently wrong with that shift, it results in Toy Story 4 feeling like it's not part of the same cohesive story as the previous installments.

I suppose this is one of those things that happens when a franchise has been as reliably remarkable and emotionally wrenching as Toy Story: The merest change of direction can feel a little bit like a betrayal. Perhaps that's not fair to a movie as smart, engaging and often laugh-out-loud funny as this one; it's a wee bit of genius to see a would-be high-five left hanging as a tragic punch line. For nearly 25 years, we've lived with these characters as part of one grand chronicle of growing to independence. So now, Toy Story 4 is its own thing. Permit me to grieve a little that the nest is now empty.

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