Movie review: Toy Story 4

(image courtesy IMP Awards)

Belonging is one of the most fundamental needs we have as a species.

If you’ve been any attention at all to Pixar’s superlatively-good Toy Story series, you will have come to appreciate that it’s pretty fundamental to toys too.

Time and again in Toy Story, Toy Story 2 and Toy Story 3, we have witnessed what toys will do in the pursuit of the holy grail of being owned, loved and played with by a child, and why it matters so much to them to not simply exist and be valued (which is what Woody and the Roundup gang were offered in the second instalment in the series and what Andy offered Woody by taking him alone to college in number three) but to be known and cared for.

If you thought everything that could be said about this all-important driver of life had been said, then you need to watch the unexpected fourth entry in the Toy Story series which brings veracity and truth to this most basic of dynamics in ways that will make you laugh, cry (get those tissues ready) and roar with delight.

Centering once again on Woody (Tom Hanks) – Buzz (Tim Allen) is there for support as always but his is more of a support role this time around, the writing playing on his inherently goofy ability to go off on hilariously odd left-of-centre angles; this time, treating his pre-programmed stock-standard phrases as signs of an “inner voice” – Toy Story 4 takes the gang far further than they have ever been before, physically and emotionally.

Now firmly in the hands of Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw) who plays with collection of toys with imaginative passion and verve, which all kinds have in multitudinous profusion, Woody, Buzz, Slinky Dog (Blake Clark), Mr and Mrs Potato Head (Don Rickles and Estelle Harris respectively), Hamm (John Ratzenberger), Rex (Wallace Shawn), Jessie (Joan Cusack) and Bullseye are firmly ensconced in the the very young girl’s playtime fantasies.

Well, almost all of them are.

Woody, so used to be the main toy, the one most loved and cared for, the one treasured above all others, a status which conferred on him a leadership role which he prized, is now much further down the totem pole of childlike affections.

In fact, there are times, far too many in fact, where Bonnie relegates him to the wardrobe, taking his sheriff star on him and affixing it to Jessie, leaving him behind with other neglected toys who, rather humourously but also enormously poignantly, are obsessed with whether he has a dust bunny yet and what he plans to name it.

Yes, dust bunnies may make you cry in Toy Story 4 because they represent the loss of the very thing Woody has always value above all others – being the most important thing in his child’s life.

(image courtesy IMP Awards)

You could say it’s a selfish impulse but then that would be damning all of us with the same need-to-be-valued brush.

Sure, it may manifest in some self-centred ways, and to be fair that simply gifts Woody with the kind of humanity that the series has always celebrated in every toy, but it comes from an entirely selfless place, one that has seen Woody throw himself out windows (which he does in the opening sequence of the film which takes place nine years previously and explains, crucially to the narrative, where Bo Peep, voiced by Annie Potts, disappeared to), leap into trash bags, go running pellmell around luggage transport systems and rubbish tip incinerators, and run the risk of being lost from Andy forever.

Bonnie simply doesn’t need him in that way, and it guts Woody to the core.

So when Bonnie, desperately distraught about going to kindergarten orientation, creates Forky (Tony Hale) out of trash (itself an act of Woody’s selfish generosity with his time and love) and in the process gives him life, he moves heaven and earth to ensure that the brand-new plaything in Bonnie’s life sticks around for the duration.

He knows, even if Bonnie’s parents (voiced by Lori Alan and Jay Hernandez) and the other toys don’t, that Forky, possessed of an hilarious need to go back to the trash from whence he first came, is key to Bonnie coping with this profound new transition in her life.

How does he know this? He’s not only been there for Andy in similar situations but he’s been through it himself, a number of times in scenarios temporary and permanent and he understands why Forky matters.

The other toys question the lengths Woody goes to keep a newly-born and naive Forky safe, lengths which include more than a few risky, near-death experiences out of the RV in which Bonnie and her parents have gone on vacation for a week, but Woody knows that Forky is important and that he has to be made aware of why toys, even accidental ones matter, are some important to a child.

He finds a way, finally, to get through to Forky – the way he does it is both manic and endearing – in a sequence that for all its potent emotional meaning will have you convulsing with laughter.

Put simply – Forky is a hoot, a twisted, idiosyncratic, eccentric, near-demented hoot of a creation who is gifted with some sizzlingly-funny lives, some heart-tugging moments and an emotional arc that powerfully illustrates how a toy’s life can change when they come to understand, in the very depths of, in Forky’s case at least, his paddlepop feet, pipecleaner arms, googley eyes and spork body.

Even better than his delightfully off-kilter manic character is the fact that Forky is allowed to have a full-blown existential crisis; if you didn’t think utensils could question the very nature of their reason for being, come and meet Forky, and you will believe, with much giggling and guffawing, but YOU … WILL … BELIEVE.

(image courtesy IMP Awards)

In a way, Forky’s arc from doubter to true believer triggers off Woody’s own questioning of why he’s on this earth.

Secure in Andy’s need for him, there was no need for any the slightest hint of self-questioning doubt, but now, with Bonnie well served by Dolly (Bonnie Hunt), who finds Woody’s constant butting-in to her leadership role difficult, and no need for his once-near-omnipotent oversight, his lack of security in his own reason for being is palpable, though Woody will not, WILL NOT, acknowledge that.

That is, until the RV pulls into Grand Basin and Woody sees Bo Peep’s empty lampstand in the window of Second Hand Antiques – unbeknownst to him, Bo is now a gung-ho, capable “lost toy”, free of an owner and able to do as she pleases – and realises how much he misses the toy (and more importantly, romantic interest) who was taken from him with no warning whatsoever.

Dragging Forky in with him, Woody encounters a strange world where a 1950s doll with a broken voicebox mechanism, Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) rules over the shelves with an iron fist, aided and abetted by creepy as hell ventriloquist dummies who move with all the facial warmth and elegance of a zombie on a bender.

They are, for all their creepiness, hilarious, part of a pattern of charactarisation through the film which relies just as much on the demented and the twisted as the quietly heartfelt and sweet.

Case in point are two new toys, joined at the paw, Ducky and Bunny (Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele) whom Buzz encounters when he’s found lying in the fairground Bo Peep now calls home, who move with the rapid fire momentum of stand-up comics determined to nail a routine.

They also gloriously, mirth-inducingly unhinged, their sole response to pretty much every situation being what they call a “plush rush” which is every bit as violent as it sounds.

Like all toys, and even Gabby Gabby who appears nasty but actually hides a very vulnerable, narratively-critical heart, they simply want to belong; its their way of getting there that will have you clapping in demented glee. (As will Bonnie’s unicorn Buttercup (Jeff Garlin) whose hope for salvation at one point rests solely on Bonnie’s dad going to jail; it’s gleefully twisted and you will love his recurring oneliners on the theme.)

Newcomer Duke Kaboom (Keanu Reeves), a motorcycle-riding stuntman who mercilessly send up the Evil Knievel toys of the ’70s, is also a delight, as clueless as they come, and possessed of an ego the size of the grand canyon and an off-kilter streak that adds all kinds of humour to a film that, for all its serious themes and intent is very, very funny.

While she’s hardly a new character, the reappearance of Bo Peep unleashes a critically-important new narrative trajectory for Woody, as well as giving us the pleasure of the company of some more delightfully demented toys such as Combat Carl (Carl Weathers), sheep sidekicks Billy, Goat and Gruff and Little People toy Giggles McDimple (Ally Maki).

Toy Story 4, which gives Woody a happily ever after (though it will surprise you in the best of all ways) is a triumph and a delight – as heartfelt and emotionally-intelligent as its predecessors, it possesses an hilarious physicality and a deliciously dark demented streak that is perfectly in sync with its lighter and sweeter moments, with every last part of this near-perfect animated feature seizing your heart just as completely and irrevocably as the three films that came before.

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