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TOY STORY 4 (2019) review

June 22, 2019

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written by: Stephany Folsom and Andrew Stanton
produced by: Jonas Rivera and Mark Nielsen
directed by: Joshua Cooley
rated: G
runtime: 100 min.
U.S. release date: June 21, 2019

 

The talented folks at Pixar Animation have come a long way. The groundbreaking animation in the first “Toy Story” movie looks rudimentary compared to what is presented in “Toy Story 4”, the latest addition to the Disney franchise. Granted, these movies haven’t always been about visual feats, they have clever humor and emotional punch as they touch on topics that range from friendship and purpose to abandonment and mortality. While this funny third sequel touches on some relatable themes, it stands out by adding some fresh weirdness to the franchise, making it one of the oddest entries in the franchise. While no one was asking for another entry, offering something unexpected is a welcome relief considering the sequels currently out in theaters.

If you recall, anthropomorphic toys Woody (Tom Hanks) and Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) and all their friends, now belong to Bonnie (Madeline McGraw), a precocious and imaginative young girl who lives with her mom and dad. If you’re a little hazy on their status, director Joshua Cooley provides a swirling montage that catches us up with how the toys got to where they are now. This occurs after the opening of the movie, which finds screenwriters Stephany Folsom and Andrew Stanton taking us back nine years.

 

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This is when we find out what happened to Bo Peep (Annie Potts), last seen-but-not-heard in “Toy Story 3”, and it turns out she and her three-headed sheep (named Billy, Goat and Gruff) and the lamp they came with, were sold off and never seen again, much to Woody’s chagrin. Bo Peep accepted the reality of the situation, knowing full well that children lose their toys, yet Woody, who was always concerned with keeping the toys together, was dismayed to lose his old flame. It’s one of the first life changes for Woody that we later realize he maybe never quite got over, which adds an interesting and relatable layer to the character.

In the present, which is a couple years after the events of “Toy Story 3”, Woody has begun to feel a little left out. He watches from the closet with the other older or discarded toys (voiced by the likes of Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Carol Burnett and Betty White – please give them their own short) as Bonnie plays with everyone else, even deputizing cowgirl Jessie (Joan Cusack) as the sheriff. Determined to reinstate his value, Woody hitches a ride with Bonnie for her kindergarten orientation in order to look after the shy and apprehensive girl. In an effort to help her feel included, Woody secretly provides her with discarded materials that she inadvertently turns into a new friend she names Forky. This new handmade toy – made out of a used plastic spork, pipe cleaners, broken popsicle sticks, and a pair of unsettling mismatched google eyes – becomes the world to Bonnie, who is preoccupied with never leaving him out of her sight.

The big problem though is that once Forky (Tony Hale) comes to life he could care less about being a toy and would rather return to the comfort of the local waste basket, since that’s where he’s from. Knowing how much he means to Bonnie, Woody takes it upon himself to shepherd the odd creation and make sure he doesn’t run off or literally throw himself away. This job becomes particularly challenging when Bonnie and select toys go on a family road trip (since school doesn’t begin for another week), especially when the nervous Forky throws himself out the RV window. As Woody sets off to retrieve and return Forky, the two find themselves in an antique store near the RV park where the family is staying for the night.

 

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The shop is loaded with old and discarded knick knacks, including an assortment of toys. One of the toys who happens to run the place is Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) and when she meets Woody, she becomes set on acquiring his voicebox so she’ll become a functional and desirable toy to a prospective buyer. Woody escapes but is unfortunately separated from Forky, but when he unexpectedly runs into Bo Peep at a nearby carnival, his finds himself reexamining a toy’s place in the world for the first time.

There’s absolutely no way that another “Toy Story” sequel could top or equal any of the entries in the masterful trilogy which ran from 1995 to 2010. After the one-two/gut-punch ending of “Toy Story 3”, which saw our beloved toy pals go from near-incineration to being gifted to a new child after their longtime owner Andy out-aged them as he headed to college. It was a satisfying, emotional ending to our time with these characters and honestly, no one asked for more…except Disney/Pixar. Unlike Andy, they just couldn’t pass their toys to someone else and move on. Even before “Toy Story 4” was announced their were short films that would play in front of other theatrical Disney releases and even some television specials, between 2011 to 2014. Granted these shorts (each under thirty-minutes in length) were typically fun and creative, but none of them left viewers clamoring for another feature-length release.

 

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While it’s an absolute joy to hang out with these characters again, what “Toy Story 4” does is remind us why that is and what to savor about these movies. When new characters are introduced with each sequel and they meet our old friends, there are experiences (which usually involves some kind of rescue or rollicking adventure) which usually broadens their understanding of who they are, what their purpose is and the world around them. This third sequel does that and it thankfully offers something different enough that sets it apart from what came before it.

Director Josh Cooley, a storyboard artist who’s worked on “The Incredibles”, “Up”, and “Inside Out”, makes his feature-length debut here and injects a welcome weirdness to the franchise. It’s noticeable when we meet Forky, an unexpected character who is adorable, awkward, and unsettling all at once and it’s evident the more we get to know a pair of wise-cracking carnival stuffed animals, Bunny (Jordan Peele) and Ducky (Keegan-Michael Key). Woody and Buzz and the gang are just as surprised by these characters as we are, which makes the viewing experience all the more entertaining. We also meet a couple of Bo Peep’s friends who help Woody get Forky back to Bonnie, such as the diminutive cop Giggle McDimples (Ally Maki) and the delightful Canadian daredevil, Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves), who’s never been able to live up to his catchy commercial. To be honest, I totally forgot Reeves was in the movie until his character shows up and when he did a had a big smile on my face, because it’s just so spot-on and funny, plus the Canada jokes are hilarious.

 

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It’s unclear if these new characters are courtesy of Stephany Folsom and Andrew Stanton, who are listed as the main screenwriters – although Rashida Jones and Will McCormick (“Celeste and Jesse Forever”) were contributors at one point, as were veteran Pixar writer/directors Peter Docter and Lee Unkrich – but whoever’s responsible, they’ve added a different tone to the franchise. There’s still a certain familiarity, but the odd newness that these characters bring amps up the fun factor. These new characters can’t make up for some of the story’s flaws, like a subplot that feels like a needless and tired running gag pertaining to Buzz’s newly discovered inner voice, which he supposedly discovers in this sequel, despite how fully-developed he was in previous installments. It just feels like they’re trying to make up for this primarily being a Woody/Bo Peep story, which they absolutely don’t have to.

On that note, the standout of the movie is how Bo Peep is reintroduced to the franchise as a confident, independent and resourceful heroine to lost toys, impressing and inspiring Woody all over again. That being said, I didn’t fully buy what happens with Woody as the movie closes. I won’t get into to it, but I’ll just say it doesn’t feel earned and comes across as an excuse to tug at heart strings, in an effort to recapture the endings of “Toy Story 3″…as if it’s a prerequisite for each movie. It’s not.

Regardless of certain setbacks, “Toy Story 4” is no doubt a visually stunning animated feature, which is something we shouldn’t take for granted because it’s Pixar. The movie is very funny, partly because of it’s oddness, but mostly due to originality and comic timing. It’s also emotional and quite poignant without feeling forced. Yes, it may have been unnecessary, but at least it doesn’t feel like a cash-grab.

NOTE: This is the third time a Pixar animated feature is released without an animated short, after the first “Toy Story” and 2017’s “Coco”…which just seems odd, but maybe they’ll be one before “Frozen 2”, this fall. Don’t leave during the end credits though as you’ll be treated to more fun times with Combat Carl (a hilarious action figure voiced by Carl Weathers) and Duke Caboom, as well as Bunny and Ducky.

 

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RATING: ***

 

 

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