Past the Popcorn provides South King Media with exclusive reviews of Theatrical and Home Video entertainment. We aim to dig just a little deeper than the surface of what we watch.
Released in 2010, Toy Story 3 felt like a fitting finale for characters that audiences have been emotionally invested in since the franchise debuted in 1995. So when Toy Story 4 was announced, it was somewhat surprising… though maybe not as surprising when you consider that the third movie was the highest grossing film that year.
At the time of the announcement, the immediate hope was that 4 would not just be a cash grab. After all, Pixar has not been as consistently successful in its Disney phase as it was back when the first two chapters of the series came out. Fortunately, any fear of a drop-off after the powerful third chapter disappears within the opening minutes of Toy Story 4’s running time.
The movie opens with a flashback to nine years before the events of the third film and provides the backstory as to why Bo Peep was not present for the events of that movie. Then a montage of playing with Andy throughout the years brings us up to that emotional moment when Andy introduced his toys to their new owner, Bonnie. We are only about three minutes into this and already the eyes are tearing up.
Woody is struggling with the transition to being one of Bonnie’s toys. Whereas he was always one of Andy’s favorites, he finds himself further down on his new kid’s priority list when it comes to playtime. But he is determined to be there when she needs him, so when a scared Bonnie is told she cannot take a toy to her kindergarten orientation, Woody stows away in her backpack. A free spirit at home with her toys, Bonnie is shy and reserved around her classmates. But aided by a stealthy Woody, she finds joy in creating a toy out of a spork, a popsicle stick, and some googly eyes. She names her new creation “Forky.”
Bonnie loves Forky and does not want to go anywhere without him, but Forky is not so keen to the idea and is constantly attempting to escape. Woody makes it his mission to keep Forky near Bonnie, but his efforts lead to him being separated from the rest of the gang while Bonnie’s family is on a roadtrip. Trying to get him and Forky back to her, Woody stumbles across an antique shop where he spots Bo Peep’s lamp in the window. Hoping to find her, he ends up in the clutches of a domineering, but broken doll with an eye on Woody’s functioning voicebox.
That is the set up for what becomes a rescue-the-toy plotline which the Toy Story franchise has used frequently, but again they manage to make the story feel so unique that we don’t even really notice that we are treading on familiar ground. The movie feels fresh throughout its 140-minute runtime and is filled with stunning animation, exciting action scenes, incredibly heartfelt character beats, and lots and lots of big laughs.
Not only do we get to spend quality time with our favorite existing characters like Buzz and Woody, as well as the heroic return of Bo Peep, the movie also introduces us to some fun new characters, given voice by an A-list cast. The former sketch comedy team of Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele reunite to play Ducky and Bunny, respectively, two stuffed animals attached at the hand who help Buzz search for Woody after he helps them escape from a carnival game’s prize wall. The last time the pair starred together was the 2016 comedy Keanu, whose title cat is named after Keanu Reeves, who also shows up in Toy Story 4 as Duke Caboom, Canada’s greatest toy stuntman. And then there is Christina Hendricks as Gabby Gabby, the closest this movie has to a villain. She, especially, does an excellent job of making her character both menacing and sympathetic.
The most important new character, though, is Forky. Voiced by Tony Hale, Forky is a hilarious addition to the toy box, but there is much more to him than immediately meets the eye. One thing the Toy Story movies have always done really well is mix serious, adult themes in with all the fun animation and comedy. In this case, the character of Forky is essentially the franchise’s first suicidal character. He considers himself to be trash, literally, doesn’t believe that he belongs with the rest of the toys, and is constantly trying to throw himself away. The first act of the movie is Woody trying to protect Forky from himself and show him how loved and important he is to Bonnie. Woody, too, is struggling with depression in this movie, as he questions his usefulness after it becomes increasingly clear that he is less important to Bonnie than he was to Andy. The second and third acts of the movie really focus on Woody and his need to find a purpose in life again.
These are difficult subject matters to take on, but Toy Story 4 manages to weave them so well into its fast, funny, and adventurous storyline that those not looking for any deeper meaning in their animated movies can easily just enjoy all the fun. But it is there right under the surface for anyone interested in getting a little more meaning out of their movies about toys coming to life. It is an excellent balancing act by first-time director Josh Cooley and his team of screenwriters.
Toy Story 3 may have felt like the perfect ending point for its characters, but Toy Story 4 shows that it was only the beginning: the beginning of a decade that has now been bookended by Pixar masterpieces. This fourth chapter is every bit as emotionally affecting, exciting, funny, and captivating as any of its predecessors, lending serious credence to the idea that the Toy Story franchise may just be the most consistently wonderful franchise in movie history.
Toy Story 4 opens today at the AMC Southcenter 16, the AMC Kent Station 14, the Century Federal Way, and Regal’s Stadium Landing 14 in Renton.