Director: Josh Cooley.
Cast: (voices of) Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Annie Potts, Tony Hale, Keegan-Michael Key, Jordan Peele, Madeleine McGraw, Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves, Ally Maki, Jay Hernandez, Lori Alan, Joan Cusack, Bonnie Hunt, Kristen Schaal, Emily Davis, Wallace Shawn, John Ratzenberger, Blake Clark, Don Rickles, Estelle Harris.
|"Yes, grab on to me. Just there. Yes. Hold my chest."|
When arguments were had about the best film trilogies of all time, Toy Story featured prominently. So why has Pixar decided to potentially ruin a perfect record by going for film #4? It's like a boxer on an undefeated streak deciding to defend the title one last time. Why risk smudging an unblemished scorecard when you could retire an untouchable champ?
Pixar used to say they wouldn't do a sequel without a truly great idea, although the diminishing returns of the Cars series suggests that wasn't always true. So it's nerve-wracking sitting ringside and watching Pixar's knockout franchise heading back into the ring one more time, especially given Toy Story 3 boasted the ideal end to a series if ever there was one.
As much as this feels like an unnecessary sequel, Pixar has done the impossible. They've turned the perfect trilogy into the perfect quadrilogy.
After a brief but important flashback, the fourth Toy Story picks up shortly after the third. Now in the possession of preschooler Bonnie (McGraw), Woody (Hanks) and his fellow toys are adjusting to their new lives. When Bonnie makes her own toy Forky (Hale), Woody realises how important Forky is to Bonnie, and takes it upon himself to help Forky fit in, despite the spork-turned-figurine craving the sweet oblivion of a trash can.
So when Forky throws himself out of a moving RV on a roadtrip, Woody decides to risk it all to rescue him - a decision that will lead Woody to question his place in the world.
The storytelling and directorial powers behind the first three films are again brought to bear here. The main characters are given strong arcs, key among them being Woody, who has always been a wonderfully written and often beautifully flawed protagonist. Here, his single-mindedness masks great depths and triggers the issues driving the film. Similarly, the return of Bo Peep (Potts), whose absence from Toy Story 3 is explained, transforms not only her previously one-dimensional character into something much more interesting, but also shapes Woody, the whole story, and its underlying themes.
Also intriguing is the nominal villain of the piece (no spoilers here). Much like Lotso in Toy Story 3, the Big Bad is given a proper arc to reflect their motivations, to the point where you will actually empathise with them, despite your initial misgivings.
As for the directing, so much stands out, but one moment deserves special mention. It comes in the flashback, which features a tricky farewell between two characters. There's a shot of two hands gripping the edge of a box, and there is so much power and meaning in that one close-up that it's referenced later in the film in similar circumstances.
It's beautiful directing in any film, let alone a "kids" film. To say so much with one tiny moment is great film-making, and it's moments like these that have set Toy Story above the rest. Think of the hand-holding in the furnace in Toy Story 3, or the wordless recollection of Jessie's past in Toy Story 2, or Buzz seeing the Buzz Lightyear commercial in Toy Story. These powerful moments of storytelling have become more and more refined as the films have progressed, but go a long way toward demonstrating what makes these movies so special as slices of great cinema.
All of this means jack to kids, at least until they get older and dig back into these films to discover new layers (which is a big part of what makes the Toy Story and other Pixar films so great). What will be important to them is the humour, pace and action, and Toy Story 4 excels in these departments.
While many of the previous comic relief characters (Rex, Hamm, Slinky Dog etc) are relegated to a handful of lines and given minimal to do, newcomers voiced by Hale, Key, Peele, Maki and Reeves more than fill the void. Meanwhile the story moves at a good clip, splitting into its subplots and tangents well, and all the while introducing innovative action sequences.
Although Toy Story 4 still comes with its emotional punch, it's not quite on the level of Toy Story 3. #4's final moments (before some great mid-credits scenes) come with weight, but comparatively it's not the same. There is a lingering feeling that this mars what was a perfectly encapsulated trilogy, and while thoroughly enjoyable and masterfully made, in the broad scheme of things #4 is a weird add-on.
But that's being picky. Any film-maker or CG animation house executive would give their first-born child for a film this good. Toy Story 4 is another remarkable Pixar achievement that examines the role toys play in a child's life, the power of difficult choices, the importance of doing what's right, finding our place in the world, following our heart, and making sacrifices.
It must be tempting for Pixar to make Toy Story 5, and on the strength of this one, I kinda hope they don't, but secretly, after four home runs, I would expect them to hit it out of the park again if they had another innings.