JULY 2, 2019
When I sat down to watch “Toy Story 4,” I had my arms crossed, metaphorically at least. After Pixar announced that they were going to add a fourth film to what had been the most perfect trilogy in film history, frankly I was teed off. Leave perfection alone, I thought, and believed that going back to the “Toy Story” well for a fourth time was merely a blatant cash grab, similar to Disney’s live-action remakes of animated classics such as Tim Burton’s garish “Alice in Wonderland” and his execrable “Dumbo” remake just three months ago. As the theater lights were going down, I said a little prayer to myself: “Please God, don’t let this movie be ‘Godfather 3′.”
The great news is that “Toy Story 4” is not only not a blemish on the beloved trilogy’s legacy but can stand proudly on the same level as the previous three films. I should have never doubted Pixar — yes, they’re owned by Disney, but their mindset is not the cash-grab one that their parent company has used to build their empire. Pixar’s reputation is built on not allowing a film to go into production until the screenplay is perfection. (Yes, the “Cars” movies are an exception, but I choose to pretend that they do not exist.)
When last we left Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz (Tim Allen) and company nine years ago, their owner Andy has just moved away to college, and as his family moves out, Andy’s sister Molly takes Woody’s beloved Bo Peep (Annie Potts) along with her. At the end of “Toy Story 3,” Andy bequeaths his toy collection to Bonnie, who attends a local preschool. As “TS4” begins, Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw) loves playing with her new toys — the girl-oriented toys, at least — and sticks the others, including Woody, into the closet to gather dust.
When Bonnie delivers the final indignity to Woody by taking off his sheriff’s badge and giving it to cowgirl Jessie (Joan Cusack), Woody becomes even more determined to be the kind of friend to Bonnie that he was to Andy. He hops into Bonnie’s backpack as she leaves for her first day in kindergarten to offer support, and she needs it because Bonnie is having a rough day. When a bully dumps her crafts materials into the trash, Woody retrieves them as well as a used plastic spork. Bonnie takes a liking to the spork and, using some clay and pipe cleaners, she creates Forky.
Seeing that Bonnie is giving Forky the kind of love and attention that she has denied to him, Woody nevertheless is determined to protect Forky (“Veep’s” Tony Hale) as he joins Bonnie’s toy universe because he makes her happy. Despite the skepticism of the newcomer by Woody’s fellow toys, the cowboy vouches for the fact that Forky entertains Bonnie, and isn’t that their job? Yet protecting Forky, who is absolutely convinced that he is trash and is determined to jump into any trash container he can find — by the fifth time or so, it was getting a bit much — Woody finds that it’s a full-time job, and that worries his toy friends, who begin to wonder whether, given his treks to find and protect Forky, Woody will ever come back to them safely.
When I first saw the trailer for “Toy Story 4,” I was concerned that so much of the film was centered on Forky, a character that we knew nothing about. But thanks to great writing and an outstanding voice performance by Hale who brings Forky to life, the Woody/Forky storyline draws us in so that as it nears its conclusion, we deeply care about the fate of both characters. The only downside to that being the main plotline of “TS4” is that the other toy characters that we know and love — Jessie, Slinky Dog, Rex the dinosaur, the Potato Head couple and even Buzz — are effectively sidelined, a choice that makes the film a little less character-rich than others in the series.
On a first viewing, I’m usually way too invested in the plot to notice production details, but the work in Pixar films is so striking that it’s hard to ignore them. When you see the film (or see it again), look at the detail work of the many items in the antique store scenes or how fully realized the midway games are in the carnival next door. Most striking to me, though was the amount of work that captures the porcelain shine on Bo Peep’s face. Just breathtaking work.
An enormous shout out too to Tom Hanks. We have gotten so used to Hanks’ fine voice work as Woody that we almost take him for granted with each new chapter, but by now, when he could have, he never phones it in. In “Toy Story 4” in particular, the plot hinges on how Woody responds to the many obstacles placed in his path, and the film would not have worked nearly as well had not Hanks been so committed to the character to make every line count. It’s one of the finest pieces of work that he’s done in years.
OK, Pixar, you got away with a “Toy Story” sequel this time, but please don’t do it again. Instead, make a new film as original as “Ratatouille” or “Inside Out,” and we’ll thank you. And if you dare make a “Toy Story 5,” then…..if it’s as anywhere near as good as “Toy Story 4,” I guess we’ll forgive you.