Nine years after Andy said goodbye to Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) and the rest of his toys, the gang are back at it in another adventure. But after the transcendent third instalment, is another turn on the merry-go-round really worth it?
The metaphor of the Toy Story films has always been the toys as parents, informing the core existential crises that drive each episode. The first asked what it meant to be a good “toy”, the second and third hinted at what lies ahead once the toys’ kids have outgrown them. Picking up soon after the last film, the toys’ new kid Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw) may still be a pre-schooler, but her growing disinterest in the older toys is proof that the grisly fate the toys dodged in their last adventure can only be deferred for so long.
As ever, Woody is struggling with not being the number one toy in town, his saltiness at his waning authority even bordering on megalomania. This is most clear in his new quest to integrate newcomer Forky, played with an endearing, confused mania by Arrested Development’s Tony Hale. The early Toy Story films pitched the cocky spaceman Buzz Lightyear as deluded, but the true narcissist of the piece has always been Woody, no more so than here.
Though Woody remains centre frame for the film’s duration, the film brings psychological depth to its supporting cast that arguably exceeds that of even the mighty Toy Story 3. The film’s de facto villain, Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) is rendered sympathetic through a compassionate understanding of her pathology, while Bo Peep (a throaty, magnetic Annie Potts) resurfaces as this summer’s best-developed heroine. The film is on less sure footing with its structure. The first act is a breathless retread of familiar locales and bits – the bedroom, the school classroom, the ninja-like shuffle under cover of lunchbox – while the second and third acts are caught in a cycle of Woody and co getting lost, refound and then lost again.
Nevertheless, the narrative carousel on which the toys are caught is plumbed to great effect by the visual department; the night-based, colourful lighting that Pixar developed so beautifully in Coco is in full effect here, with the film’s carnival setting offering much opportunity to show off the animation studio’s frankly jaw-dropping talent. The artistry and care that Pixar brings to every frame remains a joy to behold, from the lovely blink-and-you’ll-miss-them sight gags, the voiceless creepiness of the ventriloquist’s dolls who act as muscle for Gabby Gabby, and Keanu Reeves’ typically loveable turn as stuntman Duke Kaboom. Toy Story has never looked so radiant, so scary, and yes, so magical.
Coming off one of the best trilogy closers ever, director Josh Cooley and the film’s team of writers must have known another go around would be met with scepticism. Instead of ignoring this, they use it to drive the story with the carousel as a visual metaphor for Woody’s endless cycle of existential crises. The toys of the series have always been defined by their purpose of caring for children – the question Toy Story 4 poses is what sort of meaning can they derive once that purpose has been fulfilled.
Are we defined by our children, by our jobs? What awaits us after those things are over? Touching on mental health, trauma and obsession, these questions underpin Woody, Forky, Bo Peep and Gabby Gabby’s journeys. While the film rarely approaches the existential gut punch of Toy Story 3’s conclusion, the various answers each of our heroes arrive at are among the most moving of the quartet.
Toy Story 4 is now in IMAX cinemas nationwide.
Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell