Director: Josh Cooley
Stars: Tom Hanks, Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves
The BBFC certificate card for Toy Story 4 confirms that it is rated U for universal, as expected, but it also advises that the film contains ‘mild violence’ and ‘scary scenes’. A murmur ripples out across the packed cinema audience. ‘Scary scenes’? This is a Pixar film, right?
But all bets are off this time. The very existence of Toy Story 4 has made some people wary. After all, the third instalment capped a beloved trilogy with tear-jerking sentiment and provided a sense of completeness and closure. 4 is the weird, wicked offspring. The one left out of the family photos. The black sheep. And the best Pixar sequel this viewer has seen.
Because they’ve gone and made a horror movie.
Not really. But kinda. There have always been creepy bits in Toy Story movies; the idea lends itself inherently. But where the prior films nodded only fleetingly in this direction, Toy Story 4 leers with a Cheshire cat grin. There’s body horror, giant monsters, surgery, a cadre of ventriloquist dummies acting like storm troopers and one character is eaten alive (okay, only briefly, but still). Oh yeah, and its largely set at a fricking carnival.
Let me explain. Andy is out of the picture. Now, Woody (Tom Hanks) and co belong to Bonnie (Madeline McGraw); a little girl about to start kindergarten. But Woody’s out of circulation. He’s even acquired his first dust bunny. To make matters stranger, Bonnie comes home from her first day with a new… creation. A spork wrapped in pipe-cleaners that she’s named Forky, which has mysteriously gained sentience. With its googly eyes and near-suicidal instinct to return to the trash from whence it came, Forky (Tony Hale) is the series’ naive little Frankenstein monster. But Bonnie loves Forky, so it is Woody’s duty to look after… him(?).
This proves difficult. Forky abandons the group during a family outing (and, by the by, a load of talking toys in an RV screams Bride Of Chucky to me). Woody’s journey to bring Forky back to the fold leads him to an antiques store. Suspecting his old flame Bo (Annie Potts) is inside, he ventures in, only to meet Gaby Gaby (Christina Hendricks). Gaby Gaby wants nothing more than to belong to a kid, blaming her failures so far on her faulty voice-box. With her gang of aforementioned dummies, she sees salvation in Woody. No really, in him…
Like I said, no bets are off.
Toy Story 4 is a riot. If you arrive at this movie as a grown up and a horror fan, there’s a lot to love picking out sly references here, there and everywhere. But even aside from that the film is punctuated with frequent moments of laugh-out-loud comedy, and – thankfully – as much heart as ever. The DNA of what makes Toy Story work has not been abandoned here. This still all feels ‘correct’, but like Forky itself, Toy Story 4 seems like it has gained life improbably and wandered ever so slightly off course.
It looks amazing. It’s customary to comment on how, year-on-year, the studio outdoes itself technically. The opening sequence (which features the near-drowning of a radio controlled car in a rainstorm) is as photo-real as the best that they’ve managed so far, and its the minor details even in quiet scenes that impress. Dust mites in the air. A wet street that looks so ‘right’ you can almost smell the rain. In visual terms, this is the best of the bunch.
And thematically it goes to some interesting existential places. Woody defines himself through his loyalty to children. Bonnie is his new god, so to speak. But the film pries curiously into what motivates this dedication, and whether Woody’s eagerness for such servitude is self-gratifying (Buzz gets to play the clown against this thread, with a joke that comes very close to being overplayed). When Woody is reunited with Bo out in the world, his values are brought into question. Bo is proud of her status as a ‘lost toy’. The film makes a case for independence and suddenly Woody is at a crossroads. Toy Story has frequently been about letting go. This time that extends to letting go of the very notions of who you are and even why you are.
Wisely, it isn’t just our hero who gets to experience this. Gaby Gaby could easily have been set up as a token villain and played as such (especially given the film’s leanings). For a while she is, but this particular toy story (whose host of creatives includes Rashida Jones of Parks & Rec fame) humanises even its weakest of characters. And isn’t that indicative of the level of quality we usually expect from this series?
Funny, creepy and wilfully odd, this isn’t going to be everyone’s favourite Toy Story, but it is mine. Granted, it doesn’t play for the big emotional crescendo that people generally perceive as being so satisfying (particularly when thinking of Toy Story 3), but it isn’t trying to. This is a more introspective outing; thoughtful, even though it is prickly, misshapen, defined by its very unlikeliness.
And Keanu Reeves voices a Canadian daredevil toy whose last line in the film is (surely deliberately), “Woah!”.