Toy Story 4 review: "Funny, tender and, in true Toy Story style, grown up"

(Image: © Pixar)

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To infinity and beyond is not an ethos anyone wants applied to the Toy Story movies. The original trilogy is nigh-on perfect, with 2010’s Toy Story 3 (only the third animated film to date to score a Best Picture nod) putting an impeccable cap on the story arc shared by cowboy doll Woody (Tom Hanks) and his human owner Andy (John Morris). So why revive the franchise nine years later?

Well, the great thing about the creative bods at Pixar is that they love movies every bit as much as you do. Meaning that Toy Story 4 is neither superfluous nor a cash-in. All the way back in 2010, in fact, Pixar announced there might be opportunities to return to the beloved characters in the future, but only when the time, and story, is right. This is that time, that story. Because while Toy Story 4 doesn’t quite hit the dizzying highs of the trilogy, it has been lovingly fashioned to offer a tale that is at once separate and a continuation – a canny mix of fresh and familiar.

We open with a flashback that explains Bo Peep’s (Annie Potts) absence from the previous film. “Woody, I’m not Andy’s toy; it’s time for the next kid,” she says, at once setting up the finale of Toy Story 3, when Andy gifts Woody, Buzz (Tim Allen), Jessie (Joan Cusack), Mr. Potato Head (the late Don Rickles, included via archive recordings), Rex (Wallace Shawn), Hamm (Pixar mainstay John Ratzenberger) et al to a little girl called Bonnie (Emily Hahn), and establishing one of the key themes of Toy Story 4 – a toy’s selfless duty is to bestow love and support on whoever owns it.

Only Woody, it transpires, is having a hard time with Bonnie (now voiced by Madeleine McGraw). Not only is he frequently left in the closet when she selects her playthings, he’s no longer “running the room” when humans are absent – Bonnie’s long-serving rag doll Dolly (Bonnie Hunt) has that job. Then, on orientation day at kindergarten, Bonnie makes a new toy out of a plastic spork with a pipecleaner for arms and a snapped lollipop stick for feet. She names him Forky (Tony Hale) and he becomes her main comfort at a trying time. Only Forky doesn’t exactly want the job. Wishing only to return to the trash from whence he came, his sudden sentience mushrooms into a full-on existential crisis.

Toy Story 4

(Image credit: Disney/Pixar)

It’s Forky’s kamikaze actions that lead to a thrilling and sometimes terrifying (there are jump scares here worthy of Sam Raimi, and a cunning nod to The Shining) adventure involving an RV, a carnival, and a creepy antique store. Naturally, new toys join the throng along the way and there are standouts: bickering funfair fluffies Ducky and Bunny (regular comedy partners Keegan Michael-Key and Jordan Peele); sinister doll Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) and her ventriloquist dummy henchmen; Polly Pocket-alike Giggle McDimples (Ally Maki); all-action man Combat Carl (Carl Weathers, reprising his role from 2013 short Toy Story Of Terror); and, best of the bunch, Canada’s answer to Evel Knievel, stunt rider Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves, hilarious), whose chutzpah camouflages a bone-deep inferiority complex because he can’t live up to his commercial. But at the centre of all of the swirling faces and fine-tuned set-pieces is a love story between Woody and Bo – funny, tender and, in true Toy Story style, grown up.

Not all of Toy Story 4 lands, with Buzz Lightyear somewhat pushed to the sidelines to allow for Woody and Bo to star in their own romantic comedy. In striking out for a new direction, the film feels almost like an extended Toy Story short, or perhaps the equivalent of one of the spun-off Star Wars Stories. But it’s immaculately rendered, the animation a step up from the trilogy yet always feeling at one with the established world, and there are, as ever, resonant themes. With Woody pouring all of his courage and heart into protecting Forky, teaching him to be a toy so that Bonnie will be happy, we’re left to ask: does Bonnie need Forky or is it Woody who needs Bonnie? And then there’s Bo, who’s been “independent” (ie not owned by a child) for seven years now, her fortitude strikingly at odds with Woody’s great fear, exhibited throughout the movies, of being “lost”.

Also in true Toy Story fashion, this fourth instalment ends with a kick that Bullseye could only dream of, sure to send kids and adults alike blubbing for the exit. Sure, nobody wants ‘to infinity and beyond’, but Toy Story 5 now seems like a rather good idea. 

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Editor-at-Large, Total Film

Jamie Graham is the Editor-at-Large of Total Film magazine. You'll likely find them around these parts reviewing the biggest films on the planet and speaking to some of the biggest stars in the business – that's just what Jamie does. Jamie has also written for outlets like SFX and the Sunday Times Culture, and appeared on podcasts exploring the wondrous worlds of occult and horror.