Toy Story 4
The most remarkable thing about Toy Story 4 is that it managed to see the light of day in the first place. The series had ended, in quite satisfying fashion, with the third film in 2010. Bringing it back could easily feel like trying to drink from a dry well.
Toy Story 4 turns out to be the most reflective, existentially provocative of the series, exhibiting a philosophical depth rare for films of any sort but not uncommon from the studio that brought us Inside Out. The script upends many of the core values that the characters have lived by, and delves into notions of being “lost toys” while finding purpose without overt mission. At the same time, it questions what constitutes our being – whether we’re meant to be trash or, simply by accepting our existence, are we instead something to be loved?
Heavy stuff, perhaps, but that’s what has made these films prime exemplars that serious things could be taken seriously within the context of a highly entertaining, child-friendly setting.
The big guys are back: Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz (Tim Allen), Jessie (Joan Cusack), etc. Bo Peep (Annie Potts) returns to show that there’s life even for toys long passed over by their childhood pals. New friends like Forky (Tony Hale) and circus prizes Ducky and Bunny (Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele) add to the fun.
The central new character, Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), most embodies the conflicted state of childless toys. Her creepy air and stilted movements evoke the dolls of horror films rather than the kindly playfulness of the usual gang. However, throughout the story her character’s development shows richer themes at play beyond the stereotypical “bad guy.” Leave it to the forerunners of CGI animation to present characters in three dimensions.
Hendricks’ talent for both seduction and pathos was a key reason Mad Men earned its rightful praise, and her portrayal here embodies both those elements. At the same time, the character’s flaws, both physical and psychological, mean that she’s far more than simply a foil for our heroes. As the storyline develops, the complexity of her narrative illuminates the character elements of others such as Woody, allowing us to find different shades in an individual we’ve now seen on screen for decades that make us understand him even more deeply.
All this heaviness aside, the movie still provides plenty of hijinks and fun. Another new character, Duke Caboom (enthusiastically voiced by Keanu Reeves), is a mix of Super Dave and Evel Knievel, the ultimate Canadian stuntman. Full of bravado and self-loathing, the character easily could have been a throwaway, but instead is injected with the perfect pitch of playfulness. He quite literally leaps off the screen and demonstrates that even now there’s more fun to be found in the toy chest.
It’s easy to be cynical about Pixar simply recycling its past, especially now that the studio seems to be doing that consistently. Yet Toy Story 4 does the best of what sequels can do, enhancing what came before through rich character development while taking the storyline in new, interesting, and often surprising directions. The road to this story has been bumpy – from writers quitting, the firing of the studio head/former director, and so on – but none of these metatextual elements have sullied what truly is an elegant, exceptional film.
I’ve gone this far and haven’t once mentioned the visuals. Take a moment and revel at the sensitivity of performance from those beyond the voice actors, or the environmental team that perfectly presents raindrops or much beneath fairground rides. Even the tufts of hair on a skunk-shelled, remote-controlled car are perfectly rendered, thanks to the work of hundreds upon hundreds of artists and technicians who make this world entirely believable.
We take this magic for granted these days, just as we take for granted how hard to it must be to pull off a film as well as Toy Story 4 does. This could easily have felt like a retread. Instead, we’re treated to another finale, one that truly feels like the end of an era.