Pixar Finishes the Decade Strong With ‘Toy Story 4’

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(2019—Director: Josh Cooley)

— by Renard N. Bansale

Low ★★★★★
(out of 5 stars)

“Being there for a child is the most noble thing a toy can do.” — Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) to Sheriff Woody (Tom Hanks)

 Potential spoilers below

1995’s Toy Story remains both a childhood monument for a majority of the past few generations, not to mention a technological milestone in the history of cinema as the very first 100% computer-animated film. The world was blessed to later receive two excellent sequels, first in 1999 with Toy Story 2 and then in 2010 with Toy Story 3. Toy Story 3’s premise and harrowing finale struck the perfect emotional chord with those who had grown up watching the first two movies and who were now entering or were about to enter college. The goodwill surrounding the threequel culminated in it becoming just the third—and, as of this review, most recent—animated Best Picture Oscar nominee.

Who would’ve foreseen that the sequel-tending 2010s of Pixar Animation Studios would be bookended by two Toy Story entries?

Toy Story 3 gave the world an unforgettable ending to a former trilogy, planting a seed of skepticism towards this fourth installment. As such, it was most wise for director Josh Cooley and screenwriters Stephany Folsom and Andrew Stanton to start by flashing back to when Woody (Tom Hanks) last saw Bo Peep (Annie Potts). Already, this flashback establishes Woody’s lifelong struggle for purpose—to cling to his kid, even when the kid no longer wants or needs him, or to move on and eventually become “lost” at daycares public parks and/or traveling carnivals, at least alongside his romantic interest. All these are on top of the flashback looking visually crisp with its photo-realistic rainy setting and lighting, especially on the porcelain Bo Peep. In fact, regarding the cinematography in general throughout the runtime, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a CGI-animated film with enough confidence to pull off genuine close-ups and whip pans in a way that almost feels like live action. The “floating” camerawork of many effects-driven features often indicates the artificiality of it all, so I wholeheartedly welcome every other visual effects/animation studio reaching that point of excellence to allow for more grounded cinematography like Pixar demonstrates here.

From there, Toy Story 4 turns into one of the most deft and nimble sequels I’ve ever encountered. A major factor is the presence of multiple causes for urgent action. Whereas previous Toy Story entries had some timer that only kicked in during the third act, Toy Story 4 juggles a handful of them: There’s Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw) entering kindergarten in a week, which causes Woody to spring into action and set the plot in motion by covertly joining her at orientation without telling the rest of the toys. Then, there’s the road trip and multiple stops (and thus little sub-timers) along the way, which soon forces Buzz (Tim Allen), Jessie (Joan Cusack), and the others to make sure that Bonnie and her parents don’t leave absent toys like Forky (Tony “I’m Trash!” Hale) and Woody behind. While many of the “lost toys” of Grand Basin, the movie’s primary setting, shall remain in the public park, Bo Peep and a few others intend to join the passing traveling carnival and see the world while helping connect other toys with new owners along the way. This limits Woody’s time to have them as allies in his mission to retrieve Forky from Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks).

Gabby Gabby, now that I think about it, lacks the timed urgency predominant among the rest of the characters. Rather, she has spent years at the antiques shop, waiting for the granddaughter of the owner to take her in. Gabby believes this won’t happen until she repairs or replaces her voice box, and now Woody suddenly provides her with that chance. Unlike the villains of the middle two installments, the tragedy with Gabby is how she hasn’t fallen over the edge into pure evil, but rather has elected to linger at the edge, believing that that’s all she has left. Of the hero-villain dynamics throughout the Toy Story series, this might be the most thematically intertwined. It won’t appear clear at once to audiences, but this same tragic element characterizes Woody’s mission to bind the initially-resistant Forky to Bonnie. It also shows in Woody’s lack of desire to become like Bo Peep’s “lost toy” friends who, while relishing the “lost toy” life, tend to get triggered by any mention of “having/had a kid” (e.g., Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves), Bunny (Jordan Peele), Ducky (Keegan-Michael Key)). Toy Story 4 executes this balancing act of asking “Who are you once your one life passion is taken away from you?” tremendously well and, again, with peerless technical excellence from start to finish.

Many of us used to think that there should never be a Toy Story 4. Pixar’s transitioning leadership dared to go against that mentality, as they dare to go against any such thing as long as there is a worthy script that rises to the occasion. The 2010s have also shown the studio when and where to trust their more daring instincts. Pixar’s next five film projects—next year’s Onward and Soul, along with three unknown others (as of this review)—will be original. Still, would I welcome a Toy Story 5 in the distant future? In time and with a bold, mature premise that honors the characters and their world, of course I would. For now, though, I’m most content to leave these beloved characters here, with deep fondness and lasting gratitude, to infinity and beyond. 

Parental Note: Toy Story 4 has been rated…

  • G by the MPAA “for general audiences”;
  • 12A by the BBFC for “very mild violence” and “scary scenes”;
  • A-I (General patronage) by the Catholic News Service for containing “characters in peril and some potentially frightening scenes”; and
  • +2 (“Caution for very young children”) by Movieguide for “a few scary scenes” and being light on violence.

Extended Premise: It has been two years since college-bound Andy donated his toys to Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw), and Sheriff Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), and the rest of the toy gang have settled into their new life. Woody, however, has noticed that Bonnie has grown apart from playing with him. When an anxious Bonnie heads for kindergarten orientation a week before school begins proper, Woody secretly accompanies her. He keeps her occupied by planting a spork and other materials near her, with which she creates “Forky” (Tony Hale) and with whom she forms an immediate bond. Forky faces an existential crisis in which he thinks he belongs in the trash, causing him to get lost during a road trip Bonnie’s family and the rest of the toy gang take before Bonnie starts kindergarten. Woody heads off to retrieve Forky, but Forky falls into the clutches of an unsold antiques shop doll with a broken voice box named Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), who will exchange Forky for Woody’s functioning voice box. Reuniting with long-lost friend Bo Peep (Annie Potts), now the capable leader of a group of “lost toys”, Woody will need all the help he can get to make Bonnie happy.

R.N.B.


About the Author

Renard N. Bansale once aspired to become an astronaut, before he found his passion in film discussion, criticism, conducting script-reading sessions of feature film screenplays, and annual Oscar tracking. Hailing from Seattle, WA, Renard graduated from JPCatholic in 2016 with a B.S. in Communications Media (Emphasis in Screenwriting) and is currently pursuing his M.A. in Theology online at the Augustine Institute.

For more movie reviews by Renard, click here 

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