I was skeptical heading into Toy Story 4, wondering what the series had left to say. I conveniently forgot how I had the same feeling about the last two films in the series as well. I should have known better — Pixar has made its name a byword for good filmmaking, but if you take only the Toy Story films, the consistency of the quality delivered here is even more astonishing than the studio’s track record as a whole. How do they do it? Some of it is probably because they’ve made only four such films spread out over 24 years, and because they are Pixar and can resist pressure to rush out product so they can take care over details, and because this series is considered the flagship and they don’t want to do anything to cheapen it. Still, you don’t make good movies merely by wanting to make them. Some storytelling angel presides over this series.
The story picks up with the toys comfortably ensconced with their new owner, a little girl named Bonnie (voiced by Madeleine McGraw). She frequently ignores Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks) in favor of the other toys, but then during her orientation day of kindergarten, she makes a toy out of a spork, some fake eyes, pipe cleaners, and sticks, and calls him Forky (voiced by Tony Hale). With Forky as her new favorite toy, Woody decides that his purpose now is to protect him — not an easy job, since Forky keeps trying to run away and climb into trash receptacles. When Forky escapes from a moving RV during a road trip, Woody chases after the fugitive utensil, followed by Buzz (voiced by Tim Allen).
Much like the film he’s in, Forky cleverly straddles the line between funny and creepy, with his rudimentary vocabulary and his determination to become a piece of garbage. “I was made for soups and salads and possibly chili before being thrown away,” he says. “I am not a toy!” Forky’s presence also inspires a new Randy Newman song called “I Can’t Let You Throw Yourself Away.”
It’s a bit of a shame that Forky is largely shunted off to one side for the second half of the film, but he and Woody spend much of the story at an antique shop that’s ruled over by a 1950s-vintage doll named Gabby Gabby (voiced by Christina Hendricks), who has been gathering dust on the shop’s shelf because her talking mechanism is defective. She’s willing to cannibalize Woody for his voice box, and while her desperation to be some child’s toy makes her pitiable, her mute doll minions make her terrifying, too. (Between the Child’s Play reboot and the upcoming Annabelle Comes Home, this seems to be the week for movies about scary dolls, but neither of them figures to top this one.) First-time feature director Josh Cooley, who has done some voice work and animation work for the studio’s previous films, gleefully uses the setting to send up horror-film techniques in a kid-friendly way.
One of the strengths of this series has been its ability to add new characters who contribute. While Gabby Gabby is a compelling figure, we also have a proudly Canadian motorcycle daredevil action figure (voiced by Keanu Reeves) who has to overcome his performance anxiety. Even better are a stuffed duck and bunny sewn together at the hands (voiced by Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele) who spend all their time plotting to assault the old lady who runs the antique shop (voiced by June Squibb). Their delusions of grandeur lead to a magnificent joke in the closing credit sequence that you’ll want to stay for.
The emotional hook here comes from Bo Peep (voiced by Annie Potts), who hasn’t been seen since 1999’s Toy Story 2. In contrast to all the other toys who live to be attached to a child owner, Bo is now running a band of owner-less misfit toys. She cherishes her freedom and pitches Woody the radical notion that after so many years as a selfless vessel for children’s fantasies, he might deserve a little time to himself. The finale may be a bit drawn out, but that storytelling angel is on hand to make sure that this installment, like all the others, reaches closure in a way that seems wrenchingly perfect.
Voices by Tom Hanks and Tim Allen. Directed by Josh Cooley. Written by Andrew Stanton and Stephany Folsom. Rated PG.