I have a pet theory that we’re conditioned to see trilogies as the natural shape of cinema stories. If a film is successful enough to warrant a sequel, it’s usually successful enough for another; there’s plenty of precedent in modern cinema, especially when those films become cultural events. Three parts, three acts in a greater whole – three movies just feels right.
Which brings us to Toy Story 4. Just a couple of years after Woody, Buzz and their friends were gifted to a new kid, we rejoin them as Bonnie heads off to kindergarten. Like many toddlers, her most beloved friend becomes one she builds herself – Forky, a spork with two googly eyes and manic pipe cleaner arms. Instantly imbued with consciousness, Woody takes responsibility for Forky. When they go on a road trip with Bonnie’s parents, ending up in the idyllic town of Grand Basin, Woody is tasked with teaching Forky (Tony Hale) his purpose as a toy – and finding a new one for himself.
The plot, such as it is, revolves around getting all of Bonnie’s toys back to her family’s RV before they get back on the open road – classic Toy Story. The whole thing is complicated by the arrival of Gabby Gabby, a broken toy with ventriloquist dummies for henchmen, who hangs out in an antique store and covets Woody’s functioning voice box. It’s a nicely creepy turn for Christina Hendricks, and it’s a relief to see a Toy Story antagonist depicted with some nuance after Sid, the Prospector and Lotso in previous instalments. Along the way, Woody runs into Bo Peep (Annie Potts, returning from Toy Story 2), who has assembled a family of other lost toys and makes her own adventures without the need for a kid.
I must confess that my enthusiasm dipped at around the middle point of the film. The scene-stealing introductions of new toys like Ducky and Bunny (voiced by Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key, delightfully misanthropic) and Duke Caboom (the inimitable Keanu Reeves) are welcome distractions, as are cultural wink-winks to the grownups in the audience (The Shining!) but the laser-focus and screwball energy of Pixar’s best is missing here. The studio is known for building their stories from the contributions of multiple writers and producers, but it may be the first time that one of their films has felt undercooked. While it’s definitely the story of Woody and Bo, it’s almost criminal that the rich supporting cast of toys are so neglected here. Tom Hanks is doing some of the best work of his career, while Tim Allen’s Buzz Lightyear gets barely a dozen lines! Don’t do him like that, Pixar.
The film comes alive when it delicately suggests the poignancy of an life where happiness is derived from the approval of children, who are loving but inherently impulsive. It’s a theme inherited from the last instalment, and elaborated upon here. Is it better to be a Bo Peep, and give up on the chance of finding another companion, or to be a Gabby, and pursue that happiness whatever the cost? It’s a a surprisingly mature story of damaged people learning to turn to the next chapter. While I wouldn’t suggest that parents leave their kids at home for this instalment (the characters are vivid, and the animation as alluring as always), younger viewers might care less for Toy Story: Woody’s Existential Meltdown.
Nobody was clamouring for a fourth trip back to the toy chest; famously, a lot of people hated the very idea of it. But even if it doesn’t compare to its forebears, Toy Story 4 takes a leaf from its own characters: it finds a reason to exist. You might not weep like you did at the end of Toy Story 3, but you’ll smile at the chance to spend some time with old friends.