Sometimes a film concept reeks of studio development people sitting around a room using such industry lingo as “What are the stakes?” or “We really need to lean into the diversity aspects of this story”. With Toy Story 4, directed by Josh Cooley, who co-wrote Inside Out, you can almost hear the suits asking, “This time, could the toys have more agency?” Well, despite my having an instinct for how the sausage was made, this film is as wonderful and joyous as its predecessors, and it’s also hauntingly scary at times.
When we meet up with Woody (national treasure Tom Hanks), Buzz (Tim Allen) and company, little Bonnie keeps all the toys in her room as she prepares for her first day at school. Woody hardly gets played with anymore, but he only wishes to please his owner, who one day comes home from class with a spork she rigged with pipe cleaners, popsicle sticks and eyeballs to form a toy named Forky (Veep’s Tony Hale). Forky, however, thinks he’s trash and quicker than you can say existential crisis, he constantly hurls himself into garbage pales. Bonnie’s parents decide to take everyone on a road trip, which goes haywire when Forky jumps out the RV window to say, “Goodbye cruel world!” Forky makes a great nihilistic anarchist!
Sidetracked, Woody chases Forky down in an antique shop, which leads to a series of adventures for our toys and causes them to question their place in the world. In the past, they lived for their children, but after three films, it’s time to change things up and give the toys the aforementioned “agency”. In the store, Woody reunites with Bo Peep (Annie Potts), who leaves the nest at the beginning of the film. It’s here they encounter some of the best creations I’ve seen in this franchise with Gabby Gabby (eerily and perfectly voiced by Christina Hendricks) leading the pack. She’s an old fashioned classic doll straight out of the 1950s, and her good cheer and kind round eyes belie something altogether sinister. She’s pushed around in her baby carriage by a series of ventriloquist dummies whose frightening stare and noteworthy shuffle will give me nightmares for years to come. Let’s just say that Annabelle has nothing on this group. Gabby Gabby wants something from Woody, and it becomes increasingly clear that she always gets her way.
I won’t spoil the rest of the story, because it’s so much fun to get caught up in and enjoy. I loved the new characters such as a Canadian daredevil named Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves), as well as Bunny and Ducky (Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key), a hilarious pair of carnival toys who can’t wait to escape their fate of hanging on a game board wall. I also loved Giggle McDimples (Ally Maki), who has a loud voice for such a tiny package. Some of the returning characters, unfortunately, get a little lost in the shuffle, such as Joan Cusack’s beloved Jessie. Bo Peep seems to dominate in the strong woman department here, and it’s a shame, because, like Tom Hanks, I consider Cusack to be a national treasure too! Buzz doesn’t truly emerge until about the halfway point, but his inner voices storyline proves delightful and on theme with this story’s desire to give the toys a bigger role in their own fates.
Unlike the epic Toy Story 3, this installment harkens back to the first one with its much simpler structure and humble narrative. It gets frenetic in the last act, which seems par for the course for any studio film, but it retains its heart and purity throughout. I’ll admit to crying towards the end, which I’ve done with the other three, because these films act as Boomer/Gen X Nostalgia Generators. We watch these films with fond memories of toys with pull string voice boxes and revel in their simple beauty. The shine on the porcelain doll faces alone gave me the feels. The animation here thrills. I’ve always loved the concept of toys coming to life when their owners aren’t present and falling limp when they are. The original trilogy felt like a complete set, exploring a world of subservient toys. Toy Story 4, thankfully, doesn’t phone it in and actually has a reason to exist. Many of the toys make tough choices and play a role in choosing their own adventures. If it ended here, it would complete an immensely satisfying series, but I’d be kidding myself if I said I wouldn’t want to see Gabby Gabby and her dummies in a children’s horror spinoff!
GAY SCALE: For each review, I’ll rate the film on my 50 SHADES OF GAY SCALE to let you know how far it tips in our favor. Toy Story 4 gets a 0 out of 50. Woody and Bo Peep lead the way with a VERY hetero relationship. Even Forky is straight! There seemed to be a possibility of a Bunny/Ducky pairing in a Plushie/Furry kinda way, but, alas, it remained unexplored. If you’re expecting a Bugs Bunny does Carmen Miranda drag type thing here, you’re playing in the wrong toy box. Hey Pixar! We need an LGBTQ+ toy!!!!
By Glenn Gaylord
Toy Story 4 is in cinemas worldwide now.