There are very few films with the emotional baggage of a new Toy Story movie. Almost a decade ago, Toy Story 3 became one of the most beloved trilogy closers of all time, reducing anyone who had grown up with these characters to a quivering wreck of tears. I’m not sure my eyes have ever been dry since. With that in mind, Toy Story 4 had a lot to live up to – and somehow, they’ve pulled it off.
The toys are now living with Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw), who is on the cusp of starting kindergarten. A sad, isolated orientation day culminates in her building a new friend out of a spork and some craft supplies. Soon, the toys realise that Forky (Tony Hale) is vitally important to Bonnie and that they must protect him at all costs – despite his desire to return to the nearest trash can. A disastrous road trip sees Woody (Tom Hanks) try to retrieve Forky after an escape attempt and he bumps into Bo Peep (Annie Potts), who has started a new life as a ‘lost toy’.
One of the most admirable things about Toy Story 4 is its refusal to bow to the easy call of nostalgia. After a brief flashback to Bo’s departure nine years ago, that iconic wallpaper appears as Randy Newman croons his way through the goosebump-inducing ‘You’ve Got a Friend In Me’. This, however, is about as far as that nostalgia goes, with the subsequent 90 minutes telling a brand new story that, for the most part, leaves Andy firmly in the rear view mirror.
There’s a confidence to that decision which permeates every moment of first-time director Josh Cooley’s film, written by fellow newbie Stephany Folsom alongside Pixar veteran Andrew Stanton. All involved trust these characters to shoulder the weight of everything that’s new about it, and that proves to be a wise decision. This is a movie that challenges Woody more than he has been since Buzz Lightyear first burst into his life, forcing a terrific performance from Hanks that runs the full gamut of emotions.
Toy Story 4 explores the existential struggles of what it means to be a toy more than any of the previous movies, with Forky pushing the boundaries of what actually constitutes a plaything. Bo, meanwhile, has formed an attractive life for herself as what is presumably the equivalent of a freelancer. The gig economy affects toys too, it seems. Potts makes the most of her beefed-up role with a performance that leads Woody to question everything he has ever believed about his purpose in life.
There’s a sizeable injection of new characters too, from Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele’s duo of sarcastic carnival plushes to a delightfully self-parodic Keanu Reeves as Canadian stunt bike rider Duke Caboom, while Christina Hendricks portrays a sinister doll with an interest in Woody. Reeves, in particular, is an absolute scene-stealer and the size of the ensemble means that some of the more established characters are pushed to one side.
However, the story that does take centre stage is a compelling one. All of the best elements of Toy Story are present and correct, with the elaborate action set pieces given an extra layer of Rube Goldberg complexity by the fact they take place in an antiques store full of human punters who obviously cannot be allowed to see the toys move. An entourage of creepy ventriloquist dummies amps up the fear factor and there has been a noticeable improvement in the animation quality, helping the characters really emote at crucial moments.
As much fun as the anarchic comedy segments are, this is Toy Story and so those emotional hammer blows are never far away. While the concluding moments of this film aren’t quite as savage as the generation-defining tearjerker of Toy Story 3, there’s an undeniable power to this that manages to conjure the same sense of closure and provides a final line that’s as precisely aimed at the tear ducts as Bing Bong’s devastating farewell in Inside Out.
It’s fair to say that this isn’t quite a return to the best of Toy Story, but it seems unfair to criticise a fourth entry in a franchise for not quite managing the perfection of the previous three stories. Toy Story 4 has colourful comedy in abundance, warmth to spare and enough emotional sophistication to trigger feelings in brand new audiences, as well as 20-somethings who have grown up with these characters.
If this is the quality falling, it’s certainly falling with style.
Dir: Josh Cooley
Scr: Andrew Stanton, Stephany Folsom
Cast: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Annie Potts, Tony Hale, Joan Cusack, Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves, Keegan-Michael Key, Jordan Peele, John Ratzenberger, Wallace Shawn, Kristen Schaal, Timothy Dalton, Madeleine McGraw
Prd: Mark Nielsen, Jonas Rivera
DOP: Jean-Claude Kalache, Patrick Lin
Music: Randy Newman
Run time: 100 mins
Toy Story 4 is in UK cinemas from 21st June.