Film review: Toy Story 4 has fragile toys in a fragile state of mind

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★★★★☆

The fourth installment of Pixar’s classic franchise goes deeper than ever before on what it is to be a sentient toy, but is it a necessary venture for the studio?

The Toy Story films have always been about something more than just what do toys do when we’re not looking. The franchise’s evolution has continued to ask questions about the human condition for nearly a quarter of a century now. With its birth in 1995 it tackled the need to be wanted by people we love, and what it is like to be pushed aside. How after years of not having to share affection, it feels to find yourself falling from grace.

Since then the series has embraced and grappled with feelings of belonging, loyalty, self-worth and accepting that at times we need to move on. Unfortunately, Toy Story 4’s biggest downfall is its failure to move on. Yet somehow, despite its lack of necessity it’s an exciting, moving and hugely enjoyable film.

Nine years after Toy Story 3 left Woody and the gang in what seemed to be the perfect ending to a trilogy we find ourselves only a short distance in the future. The adorable inheritor of our beloved friends, Bonnie is soon to be starting kindergarten. She’s nervous in the build up to an orientation day and desperately wants to bring a toy along with her, but mum and dad think this a little immature for someone all of four years old. A recently sidelined Woody sees this as his opportunity to influence her great start to kindergarten by doing what he does best: jumping into a bag against the advice of other toys.

Cut to kindergarten and a shy Bonnie is finding it difficult to adapt until Woody jumps a bin and inconspicuously sparks Bonnie’s imagination by dropping a spork, a pipe cleaner, a lollipop stick and some googly eyes onto her table. Before we now it Bonnie has had a full on Frankenstein-moment and created everyone’s new favourite character Forky (voiced by Tony Hale)!

Everything is seemingly good in the world. Woody’s ingenuity has given Bonnie a great start to school life *and* a new best friend in Forky but not everyone is convinced, particularly Forky. When introduced to the established group of toy’s Forky is met with scepticism because of his ramshackle components. This new breed of life as a toy is also not something Forky acclimatises to very well. Woody though, ever the pursuer of good, persists that Forky’s incarnation from spork to toy is a duty he must fulfill.

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Bonnie’s parents then decide to take the family (and toys) on a road trip. This is when the film’s plot really starts to crank things up, introducing us to new and welcomed characters like Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), an unloved antique doll and her henchmen of terrifying ventriloquist dummies. We also meet Evel Knievel-homage Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves) and a comedy duo consisting of a plushy duck and rabbit, Ducky and Bunny (Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele), stitched together as an unattainable prize at the fair. Though it isn’t just the new toys that make a scene. Absent from Toy Story 3 Bo Peep returns, hardened, scooting around in a remote control skunk like something from Mad Max (Furry Road am I right??).

The film bounds at beats we’ve come to expect. Woody is always between saving someone and telling somewhere that he’s not where he should be because he’s saving someone. The old gang of Jessie, Rex, Hamm, Slinky et al are sidelined somewhat to make room for other characters but I think it was possibly a sacrifice worth making in light of what the new characters bring to the table.

Buzz is on a solo mission to get the group back to the family RV in one piece but it’s a conversation he has with Woody and his subsequent actions that really get the most out of the Space Ranger’s screen time. Touching on his jock-like empty headedness we really get to see Buzz try and search for “the voice inside”, with his electronic catchphrases working as his subconscious, a real highlight of the film’s obsession with what it means to be alive.

Though the film goes harder than ever before on these questions of existence and mental health it wastes nothing on spectacle. Pixar have really upped the animation here: the detail of the materials, the choreography of the set pieces and the shots of the fairground at night are all really something to behold.

In a way, Toy Story 4’s very existence changes the function that the other films served as a series. I’ll always find a sense of detachment from this one because the first three felt so final, and though they’re not tainted they certainly don’t fulfill the perfect positions of a beginning, middle and end. Toy Story 4 is great. It’s fun, at times hilarious and consistently challenging. Perhaps it is fitting that a film that so intensely and beautifully questions existence should have a questionable existence of its own.

Toy Story 4 is showing at The Electric Cinema in Birmingham now, and at The Mockingbird from July 20th.

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Harry Jones

Long and incompetent man who is being allowed to write about films you can watch from your bed.