‘Toy Story 4’ Review: The Struggle For Purpose

Woody and the gang are settling in with Bonny, but Woody is no longer the favourite toy, nor the head of the room. As Bonny starts kindergarten she makes a new friend out of a plastic fork. “Forky” is now a toy and alive. Woody must teach Forky the value of being a toy, whilst coming to terms with his new position in Bonnie’s life.

Toy Story 3 benefited from being the last instalment of the Toy Story franchise. Everything about it had a sense of finality, of things drawing to a close. Many wondered why this fourth part was necessary, and it’s still unclear if this is meant to be the proper, proper ending to the series or a way of extending it. It certainly feels like an end to Woody’s story, and these movies have always been all about Woody. The film’s lack of a clear purpose actually mirrors Woody’s journey. 

Here Woody is dealing with empty nest syndrome and it’s very clear that the toy-kid relationship is analogous to parenthood this time. What do parents do when their children grow up? Woody tries to assume the same responsibilities with the next generation but finds himself ill-equipped to do so and so must consider other lifestyles and who he really wants to be. It’s still a profound message for a family film, though unlike it’s predecessors, this might be more for the parents benefit than their kids.

The familiar supporting cast all take a back seat in this one. Rex, Mr and Mrs Potato Head and even the characters from Toy Story 3 spend most of their time in the car, with a handful of lines between them. Far more time is spent with our new band of lost toys, including Bo Peep. Bo, a very thin character in the original trilogy, is certainly given a revamp. The new Bo is much more assertive, independent and action-oriented. She’s joined by an affable group of lost toys, of whom Keanu Reeves’ Duke Caboom and Key and Peele’s Ducky and Bunny are the clear standouts.

It’s only whilst watching this film that it occurred to me just how difficult it has been to keep Buzz relevant in these stories. His character arc was completed at the end of the first film and he’s never really been challenged in the same way since. Instead, the sequels kept finding ways to reset him to the oblivious spaceman he was at the beginning of the first film. Similarly stumped, this film opts to have him become obsessed with his own voice chip (which has held up remarkably well over the last twenty-five years) as a guiding force. It’s fairly amusing, but it’s a shame nobody could think of anything to do with this character after the first film.

The antagonist of the film is immediately recognisable as such. The Toy Story sequels had a tendency to try and surprise audiences with twist villains, but here Gabby Gabby is revealed to be the antagonist almost immediately, with her hilariously terrifying ventriloquist dummy henchmen. She’s an interesting if familiar villain to this franchise. She just wants to be loved by a kid and is willing to go to any length to see it happen. The resolution of this story might be the strongest and most affecting moment of the film.

There’s a very funny darkness to Toy Story 4. The ever-anxious Forky looks unsettling, and his strange appendages are often a source of comedy. He’s a creation reminiscent of Rick and Morty, with much of the comedy stemming from the blunt horror of his strange existence. The antique store in which most of the story is set is bleakly reminiscent of Sid’s room. It’s frightening in a very entertaining way.

Something I’ve noticed in Disney movies since Coco is that the sophisticated their textures become, the more unsettlingly uncanny the action is. We are now able to distinguish between the texture of Woody’s ‘flesh’ and that of Bo Peep. The environments are almost photo-realistic and then CGI toys run through them. This is most apparent with the human characters. The skin textures are looking very convincing now, but the people are all still shaped like cartoon characters. It’s like those creepy pictures of what The Simpsons would look like if they were real. Never-the-less this is still a very bright and welcoming world.

It may take a while to get back into the spirit of a Toy Story film but this undeniably a charming and entertaining entry. Perhaps that’s enough to justify its existence. It has a sweet message of life after kids and rediscovering adventure in old age. It’ll also make you laugh a few times along the way.

Four Stars

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