Adding a dash of creepiness to the usual formula, Toy Story 4 exceeds expectations by - ahem - toying with them.
It's not as if the world needed a fourth Toy Story movie. After an unbroken string of gems, Pixar has been hit-and-miss since Cars 2, and Toy Story 3 was a step down from its predecessors, although it did manage to deliver a great third act and a poignant coda that seemed to wrap up the franchise and put it to bed for good. What more was there to say after Andy passed on his toys to a new child?
Surprisingly, Toy Story 4 has an answer good enough to justify the film's existence as something more than a cynical cash grab. It may not be A-list Pixar, but overall it is better than its immediate predecessor. Fans will not only be pleased to see the lovable characters back in action; they will be surprised to see a new story unfolding on its own terms, uncompromised by concerns for preserving the franchise.
Toy Story Review 4: Synopsis
Toy Story 4 finds Woody, Buzz Lightyear, and the rest of the gang living with their new kid, Bonnie, who is having trouble adjusting to kindergarten until she literally makes a new "friend" in class: a spork with glued-on eyes, pipe-cleaner arms, and stick feet, named Forky. (Why not Sporky? You'd have to ask Bonnie!) Confused about why he's alive, Forky is undergoing an existential crisis ; having completed his purpose as a throwaway utensil, he would prefer to be in the trash. Woody, realizing that Forky is crucial to Bonnie's happiness, makes it his mission in life to keep the new "toy" alive.
This becomes even more difficult when Bonnie's family takes her on a road trip, and Forky jumps out the window of their RV, forcing Woody to go on a rescue mission, which takes him to an antiques shop, where Toy Story 4 takes a rather interesting turn into horror movie territory, with a quartet of creepy ventriloquist dummies doing the bidding of Gabby, a talking doll who wants to expropriate Woody's voice box for her own use. Will Gabby succeed? Can Woody survive? Will Forky and Bonnie be reunited?
Toy Story 4 Review: Analysis
You don't need an advanced degree in plot structure to see that Toy Story 4 is all over the map. First, it's about Woody feeling bad that Bonnie chooses to play with other toys. Then it's about Forky wondering why he's alive. Next it becomes about rescuing Forky from the antiques store, which leads to the subplot about Gabby wanting Woody's voice box, which in turn segues into Gabby's dream of being chosen by the granddaughter of the store owner, which leads to one of Pixar's patented third-act action scenes, in which the other toys prevent Bonnie's family from continuing on their vacation, which would leave Woody and Forky behind.
You also don't need an advance degree in existentialism to see that Forky's angst shouldn't be particularly remarkable in the Toy Story universe. After all, his Big Question ("Why am I alive?") could just as easily have been asked by any of the other toys, all of whom were created by humans; the only difference is that he was not made professionally. This isn't really enough to self-awareness more of an issue for him than it is for the others.
Fortunately, this is not a problem, because Forky's suicidal tendencies are a plot device that give Woody a problem to solve; the film rightfully focuses on Woody's issues, which form the film's emotional core. The first level of genius of Pixar's writing team is that they know how to wrap the various set pieces and plot devices in a character-oriented story, which is ultimately about Woody finding his place in the world in the wake of Andy having outgrown him. The glue holding the film together is the love story about Woody reuniting with Bo, who was given away nine years before the events of this film take place. At that time, Woody's loyalty to Andy prevented him from running off with Bo, but now things are different, and Woody has to decide whether he is acting simply out of desperation to make himself feel useful when he might be better off following his own personal happiness.
The second level of genius of Pixar's writing team is they know how to dramatize this conflict with action, hiding the love story in the weave of other plot threads, then tying them all together and taking the film around full circle in a way that allows for a revisiting of Woody's earlier decision after he has gone through enough adventures and hardships to give him a new perspective affecting the choice he will make. It would be unfair to reveal that decision, but let's say that it is completely motivated by the character and the story, not by planning for future sequels. It's pure and perfect.
The horror elements are a welcome surprise: those amusingly creepy ventriloquist dummies certainly outshine Chucky, and Gabby's harvesting of Woody internal organ (well, voice box) has an aura of mad science surgery. Even better, this apparent tangent turns out to be part of the film's emotional fabric - Gabby becomes Woody's mirror-image, also acting desperately to win the love of an indifferent child, revealing the dangers of too desperate to be needed.
Toy Story 4 Review: D-Box
Besides 3D and 2D IMAX, Toy Story 4 is also screening in D-Box at some theatres. Like MX-4D, D-Box uses special seats to simulate motion synchronized with the action, but the presentation is rather different. First, unlike MX-4D, D-Box is not really an immersive experience - there is no 3D or in-theatre lighting effects, only the vibrating seats. Also, D-Box screenings are not separate events; a theatre will set aside a few rows, approximately 40 seats, about one-third of the way back from the screen, and sell those tickets at a higher price. Everyone else sees the same movie; the only difference is that D-Box viewers will rock and roll along with the action.
Most of the comic antics of Toy Story 4 do not lend themselves to the D-Box treatment. There are some great action scenes (Bo swinging from her sheep-herder's cane; Duke Caboom performing an Evel Knievel-type motorcycle jump, etc), but even these are not greatly improved by the shaking seats, which seldom convey the sensation of moving along with onscreen events.
In fact, D-Box reminded us of earlier generation of motion-simulators, which often failed to simulate motion but instead buffeted viewers and rattled their brains: when a car races down a road, the seats will vibrate but not capture the G-forces of hairpin turns. There are a couple of good jolts that goose a little more adrenaline out of the audience, so the extra is not completely wasted. But there are better special film formats to enhance your enjoyment of Toy Story 4. Viewers with neck or back problems should stay away.
Toy Story 4 Review: Conclusion
Ultimately, Toy Story 4 is not up to the standard of the first two installments, but it asks some interesting questions: Is it better to be free or to belong? If being needed gives your life meaning, does it also restrict you from following your own bliss? Heady stuff for a family-friendly entertainment, but the film is amusing throughout, if not hilarious, mixing the familiar gang with some new characters (stunt rider Duke Caboom is more annoying than funny, but Ducky and Bunny are a blast). Pixar's computer-generated animation continues to improve, making the once-amazing original Toy Story look almost drab by comparison. (The technique still seems better suited to anthropomorphized toys than to humans.) Randy Newman's score expertly underlines the big emotional moments.
Like its immediate predecessor, the latest Toy Story sequel delivers a wonderful resolution that redeems any missteps along the way - it's a three-star film with a five-star ending. There is less of the interplay between Woody and Buzz, who is reduced to supporting character here; fortunately, Buzz's time onscreen is well spent, especially near the end when he delivers an ambiguous line that informs Woody's ultimate decision. Buzz's limited screen time is perhaps emblematic of Toy Story 4's success: the movie doesn't deliver exactly what you expect, but it does deliver.
Toy Story 4 Rating
Funny, touching, and sometimes creepy, Toy Story 4 is no match for the first two Toy Story movies, but like Toy Story 3, it’s a three-star film with a five-star ending.
Credits: Disney-Pixar, 2019. Directed by Josh Cooley. Produced by Jonas Rivera and Mark Nielsen. Screenplay by Andrew Stanton & Stephany Folsom. Voices: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Annie Potts, Tony Hale, Keegan-Michael Key, Madeleine McGraw, Christina Hendricks, Jordan Peele, Keanu Reeves, Ally Maki, Joan Cusack, Bonnie Hunt, Wallace Shawn, John Ratzenberger, Blake Clark, Carl Weathers, Don Rickles, Estelle Harris, Mel Brooks, Carol Burnett, Betty White, Carl Reiner, Patricia Arquette, Timothy Dalton. Rated G. 100 mins. Release Date: June 21, 2019.