“Toy Story 4” Review!

I had a lot of trouble deciding what to say about this movie in a non-spoiler review – I was left completely speechless after the film ended, and for about twenty minutes I still had virtually no words to describe what I had just seen. I was tempted to say that the experience was surreal: watching a franchise that is a dearly beloved part of my childhood…come to an end. But, while it certainly felt surreal at times (how is this happening? This can’t be happening? I’m not actually watching this happen onscreen in front of my eyes? Those were some of the thoughts running through my head while watching), I’ve decided that what was actually most shocking was that this movie, the final chapter in more than twenty years of Toy Stories, didn’t feel entirely final.

Don’t get me wrong: the movie is a very satisfying conclusion to the stories of our protagonists, especially Sheriff Woody (Tom Hanks) and Bo Peep (Annie Potts), who are given the fullest character arcs – for an ornament attached to a lamp, Bo certainly manages to make up for lost time in this movie: somehow, despite the fact that she’s only gotten a handful of lines and a few minutes of screentime in all three previous Toy Story movies combined, she doesn’t feel like a new character; even though, when you think about it, she really ought to. Woody’s story is definitely concluded here as well – the movie’s ending is appropriately poignant and tear-jerking, but it’s fair. It allows you to cry while also reminding you why you should be happy: even if it is hard to feel at all happy.

But what I’m trying to say is that, even as we say goodbye to the individual toys, the Toy Story feels like it’s still going strong – a little more than halfway through the movie, the realization hit me hard: there are a billion topics and themes that could be explored through the eyes of any one of these characters. I can’t even explain exactly how or why this light-bulb went off inside my head, but it completely changed the way I was watching the film: it no longer felt like I was waiting for the inevitable sob-fest and emotional farewells at the end – it felt more like I was watching a new beginning. I think that feeling will wear off as the realization dawns that this is indeed the final chapter, but at least for these blissful moments it’s enough to keep me from crying my eyes out.

All this is not to say that Toy Story 4 feels inconclusive or unfinished: the movie, in fact, is probably one of my favorites in the franchise – still a little behind Toy Story 2. It’s definitely the saddest and funniest installment. There are gut-wrenching emotional scenes (as in, the very first scene of the movie), and there are hysterically funny jokes and running gags. I’m just having a very hard time explaining: and maybe it’s because these movies mean so much to me, on a personal level. I love all of them – except Toy Story 3 – and I love all the toys. All I really needed from this movie were real, satisfying endings to the stories of our main characters: namely Woody, Bo Peep, Jessie (Joan Cusack), and Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen).

I got half of that.

I would be lying if I didn’t admit that Jessie and Buzz don’t really get the endings I had in mind for them: their stories don’t end badly or anything, just not as well as I’d hoped. And I think that’s probably just my own opinion – but I feel like both characters could have gotten more screentime, more attention, than they received in this movie: Buzz was a huge onscreen presence in the first film, and Jessie’s character arc was a major focal point of the second. But Toy Story 4 really has no time for either of them. They have their funny moments, of course, and Buzz even has the beginnings of what looks like an entire subplot, but it just ends up leading right back to Woody and Bo Peep.

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My biggest fear going in, though, was that new characters like Forky (Tony Hale), Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves), and the comedic plushy-duo Bunny and Ducky (Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key) would hog the spotlight and distract from our main cast of regulars. Having seen the film, I’m just sorry that all these new faces come in too late to be part of that main cast: all four are wonderful, creative and hilarious additions to the franchise. Peele and Key especially get some fantastic moments, when they parody Peele’s own horror movies in a family-friendly, laugh-out-loud manner. Reeves actually has surprisingly little screentime, but just enough to make his character feel worthwhile rather than obnoxious – compare and contrast that with Toy Story 3, in which all the new toys seemed to be constantly stealing valuable moments away from our actual heroes (looking at you, Ken). Sadly, the characters we knew from the first three movies were clearly never going to get that much screentime at all – Rex, Hamm, Slinky Dog, and the Potato Heads do basically nothing at all: I don’t think Mrs. Potato Head (Estelle Harris) even got a single line of dialogue. Even the new toys from the third movie only get a few good moments: specifically, Buttercup (Jeff Garlin) and Trixie (Kristen Schaal). One random character who turned out to be incredibly annoying was Dolly (Bonnie Hunt) who acts sweet on the surface, but is really bossy and not at all empathetic with Woody’s own metaphysical crisis.

As always with the Toy Story films, the villain is superb: Toy Story 4 showcases the series’ first female antagonist, defective antique doll Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), who has made it her mission to kidnap Woody and steal his working voice-box for herself, so she can finally make it out of the dark, dusty store in which she lives. I could sympathize with her pain: the cobwebs in that place were horrifying, even if animated.

The animation is reason enough to see this movie on the big screen: there are times in the film when you think you’re watching a live-action film – especially in the first scene, when it’s raining, and a certain toy is stuck in a gutter, about to be washed away into oblivion; and also for one brief moment, glimpsed in the trailers, where the antique store owner’s cat is stretching in the sunlight – that cat looked eerily real.

That’s pretty much all that I feel comfortable discussing in a non-spoiler review. Obviously, a lot of stuff happens in this movie, and there were a couple of really exciting plot-twists that had me at the edge of my seat (there was also one shocking moment when Bo Peep’s sheep drop to the floor that I felt needed to be mentioned: if you don’t gasp out loud in the theater when you see it, you’re cruel and heartless). I think the movie is really a fantastic film, pushing the limits of what can be done with animation, and I’m pretty confident it will win Best Animated Feature at next year’s Oscars. I’m just not entirely sure how I feel about it as an ending to the franchise yet, because, as I said before, I’m satisfied but I’m not…well, I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’m still expecting something more, and I don’t know what. A Toy Story 5 isn’t happening. I know there will be a Bo Peep miniseries on the Disney Plus streaming platform, alongside a series focused on Forky, but those aren’t really piquing my interest yet: I feel like, if anyone was cheated in this movie, it was Jessie and Buzz. I want a Disney Plus series about them, not the spork! (No offense, Forky).

Well, that’s all for now, at least until I start writing my spoiler review: hopefully my feelings and emotions are clearer by then. But for now…so long, partner.

Movie Rating: 9/10

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