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Non-Review Review: Toy Story 4

Toy Story 4 is a lovely grace note.

Understandably, the largest tension that exists within Toy Story 4 is the question of whether the movie is “necessary”, as much as crowd-pleasing feel-good film must be “necessary.” Rather, it’s the question of whether its presence enhances or diminishes the immediately previous film in the franchise. Toy Story 3 was in many ways a pitch-perfect franchise closer, the perfect place in which to leave these characters and this world. It was bittersweet and deeply moving, striking a perfect balance between providing closure and suggesting that the adventure continues.

The real Toy Story is the toys we made along the way.

This creates an interesting challenge for Toy Story 4. Because Toy Story 3 provided such a fitting ending, it is not enough for Toy Story 4 to simple be amusing or engaging. To quote another popular Tom Hanks vehicle from the nineties, it has to “earn this.” To a certain extent, Toy Story 4 exists in conversation with Toy Story 3, and with the notable handicap of being unable to play many of the same emotional beats as strongly. “This is the epic last go-round” is a card that is difficult to play in two consecutive movies. So, quite apart from how funny and how thrilling and how clever Toy Story 4 is, it faces an uphill struggle.

It is to the credit of Toy Story 4 that it justifies itself so effectively. A lot of this is down to canny structuring; Toy Story 4 is much less of an ensemble piece than any of the two previous films in the series, focused very tightly on Woody as its focal character. This provides a nice change of pace, even compared to the fun “toys mount a rescue” template of Toy Story 2. To a certain extent, Toy Story 4 feels – in terms of tone, plot and character – much closer to the original Toy Story than any of the intermediate films in the franchise. This allows it a certain freshness and lightness on its feet.

A forkin’ delight.

However, the smartest thing about Toy Story 4 is that it understands its position. Toy Story 4 is shrewd enough to understand that it can neither ignore nor repeat Toy Story 3. Indeed, Toy Story 4 is cognisant of the fact that it must be an ending of a sort, but also a different kind of ending than Toy Story 3. The film has to both justify and distinguish itself, fitting with what came before while finding something unique to say. This is a delicate balance to strike, and it is to the credit of Toy Story 4 that it succeeds as thoroughly as it does.

Toy Story 4 exists in the shadow of Toy Story 2 and Toy Story 3, but most animated films do; they are both among the very best films that Pixar has produced, making them among the very best animated films ever produced. Toy Story 4 works well as an epilogue or a coda. It’s charming, smart, funny and very moving in the places where it needs to be. Toy Story 3 existed at the full stop at the end of the story, but Toy Story 4 draws a line under it.

Home on the range.

Thematically, Toy Story 3 was the perfect ending to the larger Toy Story franchise. Fifteen years removed from the original Toy Story, Andy is moving on and going to college. This involves saying goodbye to his beloved toys, handing them over to a new generation. Toy Story 3 threatens its core cast with obsolescence and destruction, must notably in that heartbreaking scene at the incinerator. However, it ultimately opts for a happier ending, with Andy delivering the toys to a young girl named Bonnie and inviting her to make them her own.

It was a sweet ending, suggesting the handing of childish things from one generation to another. Toy Story 3 accepted that children could not stay children forever, but with the optimistic implication that the objects of their enthusiasm and affection could be passed down to another generation that would make them their own; it’s not for nothing that one of the earliest shots in Toy Story 4 confirms that Bonnie has marked her name on Woody’s boot, replacing Andy’s old pencil mark. It was a fitting and hopeful place to leave this particular story.

This sort of thing is not his bag.

However, there was a very tangible sense in which Toy Story 3 wasn’t really an ending. It might have brought the characters a full circle, but it didn’t mark the end of their story in a practical or literal sense. The Toy Story characters lived on after the pitch-perfect ending of Toy Story 3. They appeared in short films like Toy Story of Terror! and Toy Story That Time Forgot. The characters even mercilessly shilled for corporate partners, selling broadband in the United Kingdom.

None of this particularly undermines or undercuts Toy Story 3 as an ending. None of this diminishes the joy of watching Andy deliver his toys to Bonnie, nor does it dim the warm glow of knowing that Woody and Buzz would find a new lease on life with a new kid. Indeed, it seems fair to observe that there are large numbers of people oblivious to the existence of these short films or cash-ins. However, these continued expansions to the Toy Story franchise reinforced the idea that the series wasn’t really over in any practical sense.

This is the end…

Toy Story 4 seems to exist largely to provide an even more definitive conclusion to this adventure, to draw the shutters down. After all, time marches on. The actors who appeared in Toy Story are almost a quarter of a century older than when they first voiced their iconic characters. Don Rickles passed away two years ago, before recording his roll in Toy Story 4; the production team had to stitch together his dialogue from outtakes from the earlier films. Wallace Shawn is seventy-five years old. John Ratzenberger is seventy-two years old. Even Tom Hanks and Tim Allen are both in their sixties.

As such, a large part of the appeal – or the “justification” or the “necessity”, such as those terms might be applied – of Toy Story 4 lies in providing a more definitive conclusion than the ending of Toy Story 3. This is not to suggest that the ending of Toy Story 4 is “better” than or that it is “fixing” the ending to Toy Story 3. Indeed, the biggest issue with Toy Story 4 is that it cannot hope to match the emotional intensity of the conclusion of Toy Story 3. After all, it would seem cynical to hammer those emotional beats so heavily after Toy Story 3 did it so effectively.

A lot of Buzz around this one.

Nevertheless, there is something very sweet in the ending to Toy Story 4, something that feels strangely more definitive and conclusive about the way in which the story wraps up. To a certain extent, it also feels like it reflects the times. Toy Story 3 was released in 2010, which seems almost a lifetime ago. It was a relatively optimistic conclusion to the story, imagining that one generation of children might be willing or able to pass their toys to the next generation, to move on and accept that what once brought them joy will now bring joy to an entirely new generation of kids.

To a certain extent, this reflected the manner in which popular culture seemed to be working. At that point, Christopher Nolan was in the middle of his own Dark Knight trilogy, which offered a cinematic take on the Caped Crusader for an entirely new generation. The previous year, director JJ Abrams had rebooted the original series of Star Trek as a summer blockbuster, to critical and audience acclaim. The following year, Rise of the Planet of the Apes would breathe new life into a property that was arguably well past its sell-by date, handing an old property to a new generation.

Put away childish things…

Toy Story 3 seemed to play as a metaphor for these transitions, built on the understanding that sometimes the old toys had to be passed down to a new generation, and that sometimes it was necessary for older fans to move on. This was not a theme unique to Toy Story 3. Indeed, one the strongest themes of Toy Story 2 was the idea that toys existed to be played with, rather than preserved. Woody might trace his roots to a beloved forties/fifties television show, but he didn’t belong to the obsessives or the collectors who would trap him in a glass box. He belonged to the kids who would play with him, make him their own.

Toy Story 3 was optimistic about this process of transition. However, the intervening decade makes that optimism seem downright naive. The past few years have demonstrated that fans are often reluctant to share their toys with others. This happened in a number of cultural spheres. The Gamergate movement within videogames, an aggressive reaction to more diverse voices within the community. The absurd culture war that broke out over the women-centric and girl-friendly reboot of Ghostbusters. The toxic absurdity around Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi.

Park it there.

Toy Story 4 never tackles any of this directly, and never embraces overt cynicism. Nevertheless, there are a few small nods to the idea of shifting times. Early in the film, Woody is quietly disheartened to discover that Bonnie doesn’t love him in exactly the same way that Andy did. In one early sequence, Bonnie takes off Woody’s iconic sheriff’s badge and places it on Jessie, so that her playtime can have a female sheriff. It’s a sweet and lovely sequence, a subtle acknowledgement that toys don’t get to choose how their owners play with them.

Woody is never angry or embittered. If anything, he just seems tired. Woody seems genuinely exhausted for a lot of Toy Story 4, struggling to adapt to the reality that things are not the way that they used to be. At one point, embarking on a rescue mission for a lost toy, Woody reflexively shouts, “We have to get back to Andy!” His colleague inquires, “Who’s Andy?” Only then does Woody realise that he meant to say “Bonnie.” Later, another character explains Woody’s life story, in particular the reality that Andy gave Woody away to Bonnie. “I don’t think he ever got over it,” the character muses.

Keep on motoring.

Toy Story 4 is the franchise’s most overtly Woody-centric installment since the original Toy Story, if not ever. Even Toy Story 2, which devoted its primary plot to Woody’s interactions with Jessie and Stinky Pete, focused heavily on the mission led by Buzz to recover the lost cowboy. While Toy Story 4 retains the familiar “rescue of a lost toy” plot from Toy Story and Toy Story 2, the object of the rescue mission is intentionally broad. Woody spends most of Toy Story 4 trying to rescue “Forky”, a figurine hastily assembled from a fork and some pipe cleaners by Bonnie. “Forky” is a hazily-defined character; he is barely even a toy.

This allows Toy Story 4 to focus intensely on Woody. Even Buzz is largely relegated to a broad comic relief subplot that seems to revert the character to his “lovable, arrogant, possibly dangerous idiot” persona from the original Toy Story, built on his inability to understand the concept of a metaphor as he literally applies Woody’s idle musings about listening to his “inner voice.” While this characterisation does little to flatter Buzz, it means that Woody gets to take centre stage. Toy Story 4 isn’t about “Forky” or Buzz. Toy Story 4 is about Woody trying to figure out his place in the world.

Lightyear’s ahead.

This allows for a return of some of the more complex characterisation of Woody in the original Toy Story. As introduced in Toy Story, Woody was one of the more interesting protagonists of a mainstream American animated film. Woody was friendly and well-intentioned, a natural leader who took care of all those in his care. However, Woody was also arrogant and ego-centric, insecure and emotionally fragile. Woody measured his self-worth in his utility, and so that self-worth was easily undermined when he was nudged out of the spotlight. This didn’t make Woody a villain, but it made him a flawed character.

This characterisation was largely brushed aside in Toy Story 2 and Toy Story 3, in order to accommodate stories less overtly about Woody as a character and more engaged with broader themes. Toy Story 4 returns to the earlier and more complex characterisation of Woody from Toy Story. Of course, Woody is a more mature character by this point, and less prone to acts of pettiness. However, Woody is still a character who longs for a purpose, who believes that he performs a vital function, and measures his own importance by his ability to fulfill that purpose.

Look out!

So when Bonnie’s attention drifts away from Woody and towards “Forky”, Woody reacts by assuming the role of guardian and protector. Some of the film’s best slapstick sequences involve Woody desperately trying to keep “Forky” out of the trash and to ensure that he remains in Bonnie’s care. “Bonnie needs Forky,” Woody explains to his fellow toys of his zealous protection of the homemade curiosity. He never quite articulates the unspoken implication; that as long as “Forky” needs Woody to keep him safe, then Bonnie still (even indirectly) needs Woody.

This allows Woody a fully-formed character arc in Toy Story 4. There are echoes of his basic character arc in the original Toy Story, as Woody is forced to reckon with his own selfishness and arrogance. However, there is also a surprising tenderness. Notably, Toy Story 4 defines heroism not through action or daring, but instead through compassion and acceptance. Woody must accept that bringing “Forky” back to Bonnie is not really about him, but about Bonnie. He must accept that other voices need to be heard.

The light at the end.

The focus on Woody within Toy Story 4 allows the film to capitalise on Tom Hanks. Woody is a character who arguably only really works because of Hanks. Hanks projects a sense of wholesomeness and purity, whether described as “Hanksian decency” or in his capacity as “America’s Dad.” Although some of Hanks comedy work in the eighties had a bit of edge to it, his screen persona from the nineties has largely been rooted in a fundamental humanism. It is hard to imagine Hanks ever taking a role as subversive as Denzel Washington’s turn in Training Day, to cite an example from a comparable filmography.

There’s a solid argument that Woody is perhaps the most complicated and nuanced character that Hanks has played since the earlier nineties, the most flawed and among the most human. Barring his brief turn as Dermot in Cloud Atlas, it is hard to imagine another major Hanks character from the past twenty-five years acting as callously as Woody does towards Buzz in the original Toy Story. Even in Saving Private Ryan, the weary Captain John Miller merely witnesses the atrocities of the Second World War with disgust and disillusionment; he does not participate in them.

Plush with jokes.

Woody gets away with a lot because he is voiced by Tom Hanks and styled as a lovable child’s toy cowboy. Even in Toy Story 4, the film repeatedly emphasises how downright manipulative Woody can be, in order to get what he wants – his folksy charm masking a somewhat more cynical nature. When Toy Story 4 reunites a lost Woody with a more jaded and cynical version of Bo Peep, Woody isn’t above tugging at her emotional strings to enlist her assistance in his (highly dangerous) attempts to rescue “Forky.” Woody is a slightly more roguish character than Hanks usually plays, but it’s a fit that compliments both.

To a certain extent, even outside the obvious metaphor about fandom and intellectual property, Toy Story 4 also evokes some of the core themes of the original Toy Story. Part of what made the original Toy Story so emotionally effective was the manner in which it played as a metaphor for divorce, and the strains that this could place on the relationship between parent and child. Toy Story has frequently been read as the story of a father trying to remain connected with his son, even as a newer male role model appears in his life. (Toy Story 2 even implies that Woody was a gift from Andy’s absent father.)

A dolls house.

There’s a sense in which Toy Story 4 approaches that foundational metaphor from a different angle. In many ways, Toy Story 4 can be read as something of a romance, a tale about what it’s like to recover from the sort of heartbreak and abandonment associated with that sort of divorce. Toy Story 4 is hardly subtle about this; Woody accidentally refers to Bonnie as “Andy” and the film explicitly tells us that Woody hasn’t “gotten over” that separation. Similarly, the new character of Chatty Gabby desperately longs to catch the eye of the right child, adamant in her belief that they are meant to be together.

As such, Toy Story 4 becomes a profoundly compassionate meditation on the idea of purpose and identity. Both Woody and Gabby have to learn that such bonds are neither predetermined nor permanent, and instead accept new possibilities and opportunities as they present themselves. Toy Story 4 places a lot of thematic emphasis on the idea of “lost” toys, with the implication that it is possible to lose one’s self in such a traumatic separation. The film seems to argue for a need to accept the world as it is, rather than as one would choose to see it. Even “Forky” must accept that he is now a beloved toy and not “trash.”

More after the jump.

Toy Story 4 also returns to that parental theme from the original Toy Story, with Woody once again confronting the possibility of his own obsolescence. In Toy Story 4, Woody faces the reality that his child – it’s notable that the toys often talk of their “child” in possessive terms – may no longer need him. Toy Story 4 offers a much more conclusive take on the parental subtext than any of the previous three films. While Toy Story 3 argued that somethings continue forever as beloved toys are passed down from one generation to another, Toy Story 4 suggests that somethings must also come to an end.

These two ideas might seem to exist in opposition, and perhaps they do. However, there is something quite affecting in taking both of them together as a sort of yin-and-yang, reflecting the broad range of emotional responses to these sorts of situations. It seems likely that some audience members will prefer one ending to another, that one conclusion will speak more profoundly and emotionally to them. However, it also seems likely that some audience members will find truth in both. Although Toy Story 4 doesn’t go as all-out on the emotional conclusion as Toy Story 3, its closing sequence packs an emotional wallop.

Not a peep out of him.

This is not the only way in which Toy Story 4 dovetails neatly into the original Toy Story. Notably, Toy Story 4 is much more willing to swing wildly in terms of genre than Toy Story 2 or Toy Story 3. Both of those earlier sequels played largely within established genre templates; Toy Story 2 as a daring rescue adventure and Toy Story 3 as a prison break. In contrast, Toy Story 4 is a lot more elastic; this is notable even in how flexible the film is with the internal logic of its world, skirting surprisingly close to having humans and toys directly interacting with one another, which would seem to violate the franchise’s cardinal rule.

There is – appropriately enough – a sense of playfulness in the internal logic of Toy Story 4, perhaps reflecting the natural curiousity of audience members who would have already spent three movies with these characters. At one point, the human characters – or maybe just Bonnie – seem to hear Buzz Lightyear desperately shout something from inside a cupboard. At another point, new characters Bunny and Ducky contemplate a more direct assault on the human characters (a “plush rush”) than any of the other toys would even consider. (“Well, we’re not doing that,” Buzz tells them simply.)

Some impressive stunt casting.

The new toy “Forky” is a prime example of this enjoyable flexibility. “Forky” is fashioned from arts and crafts material by Bonnie, and comes to life as quickly and readily as any of the store-bought toys. (The film offers hints of existential horror – the first thing that “Forky” does on “waking up” is to scream in despair, and he spends a lot of time trying to return to the trash from which he was made.) There is something very sweet and welcome in this. Like Steven Moffat’s introduction of the “sonic sunglasses” in the ninth season of Doctor Who, it assures younger viewers they don’t need expensive merchandise to play along.

This flexibility carries over to tone. Toy Story 4 transitions deftly and cleanly between broad comedy and low-key horror in a manner that the franchise hasn’t attempted since the original Toy Story. At one point, Woody and “Forky” are taken on a tour of a creepy antiques story by a shuffling and silent ventriloquist dummy as an old gramophone plays Midnight, the Stars and You, perhaps best known for its use in The Shining. At the same time, the film features any number of hilarious gags in surprisingly rapid succession – notably a cameo from a collection of Combat Carl action figures, or anything with “Duke Kaboom.”

A Shining example.

Toy Story 4 is comfortable enough in its own skin to keep heightening and heightening its premise. Perhaps accepting that it cannot compete directly with Toy Story 2 or Toy Story 3 in terms of scope, the film opts for a much more nimble approach. Few twenty-five-year-old franchises can claim to be this light on their feet, moving with a disarming energy and charm that allows its emotional beats to build slowly and methodically in the background. Toy Story 4 repeatedly goes for broke in terms of pure cinematic entertainment, often feeling like the production team felt no idea was too far “out there.”

The result is endearing and triumphant. Toy Story 4 is not a “necessary” film, as much as any crowd-pleasing summer film could be deemed “necessary.” However, it is clever, funny, energetic and affecting. What more could be asked of it?

One Response

  1. Haven’t seen it yet, but I am looking forward to it. I think 1 is the weakest of the first three, while 2 is the best. Not expecting it to top 2, but hopefully it’ll land above many Pixar films of the past decade-it’s been a significantly more uneven decade than the 2000s were.

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