Toy Story 4

3 out of 5

Directed by: Josh Cooley

Toy Story 3 was an excellent movie.  Correcting, in my mind, much of the forced plotting and overt parent-winkyness of the first two films, it did the job of the best sequels by taking story and characters from preceding and evolving them, but it certainly also worked as well as it did because it stood on its own as a mature, funny, intelligent flick, suitable for both kids and adults without pandering to either.

But Toy Story 3 was pretty much a conclusion.  The toys had grown on their own, and had then been passed on to a new owner by their first kid, Andy, who had grown (physically and emotionally) as well.  Toy Story 4 may have been announced with “we wouldn’t have done it unless it was a great story!” claims, but there’s a tang of returning to the well, and unfortunately, as the movie essentially repeats beats from flicks 1 and 2 – although upgraded with new meme-friendly humor, and modern animation – that tang bears out.

Admittedly, all of the Toy Story flicks essentially revolve around the toys gettings lost in some way.  Separated from their owner; separated from one another.  The manner in which it happens, though, is key: it can feel organic to the story, as in 3, or it can feel like forced hijinx, as in 1 and 2.   …And 4.  Bonnie, our new owner, makes a new toy for herself, Forky (voiced with exuberance but rather boring “this will make kids laugh” dialogue by Tony Hale), and then promptly loses him when she’s taken on a roadtrip (i.e. forced plot machination) by her parents.  Woody, forever sensing his role as premiere played-with toy slipping – just as he has in all the Toy Storys except 3 – goes on a rescue mission for Forky, which relegates the bulk of the flick to the small RV vacation spot where Bonnie’s family is staying, featuring an antique shop in which Woody and Forky get trapped by new toy foe Gabby Gabby.  Christina Hendricks, voicing Gabby, gives the character a fair sense of depth through her performance, but her mustache-twirling dialogue doesn’t really cut it, and the eventual trajectory of her storyline feels rather shallow as a result.

The story thereafter is just setting up roadblocks to get Bonnie and Forky back together, comprised of near misses and comedy by way of incompetent parents, neither of which, again, feel very natural in regards to the story.  ‘Story’ is a key word here, because the main problem with Toy Story 4 – and a brief pause here, to clarify that this isn’t a bad movie, just an average one on par with 1 and 2 and thus disappointing after 3 – but one of its main issues is that it doesn’t really settle on a clear focus, which makes its central “lost toy” conceit feel more tired than it should.  There are some fascinating elements here, including the creation of Forky – brought to life when Bonnie writes her name on his foot – and the thankful reworking of a stereotyped character into a more fleshed out one, who speaks to the potential power of unowned toys…  Both of these bits could have carried the film, but their oddly sidelined, along with – just as oddly – both Woody and Buzz Lightyear (especially Buzz), who feel like they’re running along just to prop up the antics.

The movie is funny.  There are some laugh out loud bits, buoyed by a pretty modern sense of humor.  And it looks great.  It’s not an unentertaining kids’ movie by any stretch, it’s just, once again, a kids movie, and a seeming bid to reinvent the Toy Story franchise for a new generation, which I guess means starting over on the series’ maturity level as well.