Film Review: Toy Story 4

The usual gang of toys navigate existential crises as they meet new (and old) friends while on a road trip with their new owner, a young girl named Bonnie, in the fourth film in a series that still manages to offer moments of surprise and delight.

By: Mandy J Watson
Posted: 21 June 2019
Category: Reviews Comments View Comments


Toy Story 4 posterI was hoping to have an easy movie review to write for once but unfortunately there's a lot to unpack and analyse in Toy Story 4 - and not all of it is good.

First, a quick synopsis as it's been a long time since we last saw a film in this franchise: Toy Story 3 in 2010, specifically, in which Andy's toys are accidentally donated to a day-care centre instead of being moved into storage in the attic and the toys spend the bulk of the film trying to get back home. In the process they meet a young girl at the centre named Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw) who Andy (Jack McGraw and John Morris) eventually donates his toys to.

Toy Story 4 quickly zips back nine years to remind us of this, as well as show us what happened to Bo Peep (Annie Potts), her sheep, and her lamp, which was a set of porcelain toys that belonged to Andy's sister Molly and which weren't featured in Toy Story 3 even though in the first two movies Bo had been portrayed as a love interest for Woody (Tom Hanks), the talking sheriff who is Andy's favourite toy and who is the protagonist of the Toy Story series. We learn that the Bo Peep set was sold to a toy collector and we see the toys and lamp go on to their new home.

Woody introduces Forky to the other toys in Toy Story 4

Two years later Andy's toys have settled in as Bonnie's toys and Woody sneaks into her backpack when she is sent to a kindergarten orientation day as he worries that she may feel overwhelmed. There he covertly helps her to settle in and, in the process, she makes herself an arts-and-crafts toy out of pipe cleaners and a spork, which she names Forky. Forky (Tony Hale) becomes sentient but believes he is trash, while at the same time he becomes Bonnie's favourite toy and emotional support system, and Woody and the other toys are forced to manage his constant attempts to get into rubbish bins or be thrown away as he tries to work through his existential crisis.

Meanwhile, as there's still a week before actual kindergarten starts, the family decides to go on a road trip in an RV, with all the toys in tow. They end up in a town with an antique store and carnival, where they run into the film's toy antagonist and her aides, as well as a number of "lost" toys (many of whom have reconsidered their purpose as toys and don't consider themselves to be "lost", while others are permanently stuck in feeling like failures) and toys that are carnival prizes who are desperate to be won so that they have a home to go to.

Bo and the sheep remerge in this mix and, honestly, this character is the highlight of the movie. Bo has gone from being delicate and demure to an independent, self-reliant woman of action who hussles, solves everyone's problems, and has connections everywhere, and who is content to live free with her friends as they help lost toys who want to have owners find a new home.

Woody, Bo Peep, and Giggle McDimples in Toy Story 4

The crafting and writing of Bo's character is incredibly topical and on point, even going as far as to subvert her shepherd's crook (which was all planned, written, and animated long before PETA got a bee in its bonnet about it), which she uses throughout the movie as a self-defence weapon, as a zipline hook, and literally, at some points, to herd idiot male characters (but never the sheep, PETA). In fact, there are times when you can almost hear her sighing, on behalf of exasperated women everywhere, at the constant management of men that she has to engage in in order to navigate various issues, such as their inability to manage their feelings properly, their fragile senses of self-worth, their existential crises, or their singlemindedness in their thinking that doesn't allow them to see that their courses of action might contain conflicting greater-good outcomes that need to be weighed and which, consequently, won't be beneficial to everyone.

The sheep (I am hesitant to call them "Bo's" sheep as they have become just as independent as she has) also get more screen time, including another topical moment in which Woody misgenders them, to their annoyance.

(As an aside, Mattel is marketing a 3.5 foot "Disney Pixar Toy Story Bo Peep Action Staff" for children aged four and older so that they can "feel like Bo Peep" and recreate their "favourite adventures with Bo Peep and her powerful action staff" (emphasis mine).)

Woody, at times, is one of these characters who requires herding, although he doesn't lose his charming empathy, which is a characteristic that is just as important to highlight, and it's all fantastic self-awareness on the part of the guardians of all these characters that even the franchise's most beloved character still has flaws that can be explored.

Buzz Lightyear meets Ducky and Bunny in Toy Story 4

On the other end of the scale we have two new characters, bright and fluffy stuffed animals named Ducky (Keegan-Michael Key) and Bunny (Jordan Peele) who speak in African American vernacular English. They're introduced as the comedic sidekick duo (a negative trope for black characters) and the first scene sees them using violence to solve a problem (another negative trope for black characters). In fact, their entire "schtick" is about "comedic" violence. In some cases they actually partake in moments of violence against other characters; in others they only make suggestions of increasingly violent solutions to problems that the other characters quickly reject. Either way they are one dimensionally about violence and it horrified me and really lessened my enjoyment of the movie.

It is asking a lot of the audience, even North American audiences but especially any international audiences who will be listening to the film's original voice track, to be aware that these two characters are voiced by the comedy duo Key & Peele, which is known for subverting (or not subverting and just reinforcing, depending on whose argument you side with - and it is an ongoing debate) racist tropes and stereotypes through satire. For the majority of filmgoers, and especially all the children to whom this movie is presumably targetted (I'm not even sure anymore, to be honest), they're going to hear two characters speaking African American vernacular English whose idea of solving every problem is to use violence. They're going to see these characters being used as the comedic relief. They're going to internalise these negative stereotypes. It may have been that the intention was to subvert them but it's not clear to me that that really is true. If it is, I think the attempt failed spectacularly.

A number of other new characters have also been introduced. There's the antagonist, Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), who is a talking doll with a manufacturing defect in her voice box that results in potential owners always rejecting her. Unfortunately she and her associates end up being far less menacing than her introduction would lead you to believe and I was quite disappointed as there was a lot of dark that could be dipped into but the film chose to stay away from it.

Duke Caboom, Canada's greatest motorcycle stuntman toy, in Toy Story 4

There's also a miniature female police officer named Giggle McDimples (Ally Maki), whose character introduction is the funniest moment in the movie, who is allied with Bo and her efforts to help lost toys. She may be tiny but she's integral to several moments in various caper-like plans in the movie. Finally, there's Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves), a Canadian motorbike stuntman toy who can't get over his personal sense of failure after his stunt abilities disappointed his human owner and resulted in him being discarded.

That's the best and the worst. Everything else falls somewhere in between. The animation is gorgeous but it seems unnecessary even to mention that when it comes to Pixar movies. The antique store is especially impressive, although we'll only be able to discover most of what's there once the film is made available for home video and on streaming platforms. (There are Easter eggs from other Pixar movies, for example, because the animators had to populate the store with so many items that they pulled models from their archives.)

It's also quite welcome that the movie doesn't feature a barrage of over-the-top action sequences, nor the neverending freneticism that's characteristic of most action movies and animated movies these days, all of which I find to be exhausting, but it did have pacing issues - due to, among other reasons, so many (male) characters having so many existential crises - and there were brief moments in which I actually felt bored (much to my surprise).

All the toys are back in Toy Story 4

What I quite like about Toy Story 4 is that I've had - and will have, as more people see the film - more conversations regarding the characters in this movie than anything else I've watched this year (Avengers: Endgame, in comparison, resulted in a lot of discussion around filmmaking and storytelling decisions, but not the characters) because, amazingly, a bunch of animated toys have given me more pause for thought than all the human drama intertwined in the other movies I've seen this year.

Ultimately Toy Story 4 is a good movie but it has problems and, unfortunately, I suspect that the vast majority of filmgoers will just heap universal praise upon it and not interrogate the nuances. It's a fitting (potential) end to the series, as it asks us to contemplate purpose and re-examine it along with the characters, and works perfectly as a stand-alone movie too so you should watch it even if you haven't seen the others - but think about what you are seeing as you do so.

Toy Story 4: Official Site, Facebook, IMDB, Instagram, Twitter, Wikipedia, YouTube

Toy Story 4 was written by John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, Josh Cooley, Valerie LaPointe, Rashida Jones, Will McCormack, Martin Hynes, and Stephany Folsom (original story) with a screenplay by Andrew Stanton and Stephany Folsom, was directed by Josh Cooley, and stars, as the voice cast, Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Annie Potts, Tony Hale, Keegan-Michael Key, Madeleine McGraw, Christina Hendricks, Jordan Peele, Keanu Reeves, Ally Maki, Jay Hernandez, Lori Alan, Joan Cusack, Bonnie Hunt, Kristen Schaal, Emily Davis, Wallace Shawn, John Ratzenberger, Blake Clark, June Squibb, Carl Weathers, Lila Sage, Don Rickles, Jeff Garlin, Maliah Bargas-Good, Jack McGraw, Juliana Hansen, and Estelle Harris.

The press screening was courtesy of Disney. Rating


Tags: Screen, Speculative Fiction

The trailer contains one minor spoiler.

[ YouTube link ]

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