TOY STORY 4 (Movie Review)

**1/2 out of ****
Rated G

(for general audiences)
Released: June 21, 2019
Runtime: 100 minutes
Directed by: Josh Cooley

Starring (the voices of): Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Annie Potts, Joan Cusack, Tony Hale, Christina Hendricks, Keegan-Michael Key, Jordan Peele, Wallace Shawn, John Ratzenberger, Blake Clark, Kristen Schaal, Madeleine McGraw, Keanu Reeves, Bonnie Hunt, Jeff Garlin, Jay Hernandez, Lori Alan

The Toy Story saga has had a great, historic run, but it’s time to box up this franchise for the attic.

Serving as a feature-length encore to what had been Toy Story 3’s perfect trilogy conclusion (right down to how it bookended the series with the exact shot it opened with: a blue sky, dotted by puffy white clouds), Toy Story 4 is a decent enough movie in its own right but, in the context of its superior forebears, a completely unnecessary one.

I mean, we’ve basically seen this movie three times before.

For the fourth time in as many adventures, Toy Story 4 throws Woody, Buzz and the gang into A) a rescue mission that inevitably prompts B) an existential crisis of purpose and personal identity. The details change but that formula remains redundantly the same, and there’s only so many times these entries can play the same beats before audiences are ready for something else.

Thankfully we’re given just enough novelty here to keep us engaged if not giddly enamored. It comes in the form of several new characters and the reimagining of an old one, plus the specific concept of helping a kid (Bonnie, the toys’ new owner) make it through her first big life transition: starting kindergarten. These additions adequately serve as a fresh coat of paint but, unfortunately, it’s on a rehashed narrative structure rather than an inspired architectural remodel.

Regardless, the new characters are well-conceived, each a funny and lively addition with, of all things, the villain Gabby Gabby (an outdated mid-century doll with a broken voice box, voiced by Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks) being the most emotionally layered among them, and also the most heartbreaking.

The most prominent newbie is Forky, a plastic spork that Bonnie crafts into a makeshift toy during her first day of school. Tony Hale (Arrested Development, Veep) infuses Forky his charming, clueless innocence and earns a lot of giggles in the process, but it’s Jordan Peele’s and Keegan-Michael Key’s reunion that earns the biggest laughs as the plushy pair Bunny and Ducky. Annie Potts’ Bo Peep is given an energizing action makeover as well, even if it’s largely to serve as a catalyst for Woody’s arc.

The time needed to give these new toys their due (which also includes a Keanu Reeves-voiced stunt cyclist and some creepy marionettes) comes at the expense of the old supporting crew. That makes for a less satisfying sendoff than, say, Avengers: Endgame.

Marvel made the effort to not only serve every vital character but actually make the whole mission a rewarding nostalgia trip of the MCU’s landmark meaningful moments. Toy Story 4 doesn’t attempt anything nearly as ambitious, instead choosing to keep its tear-jerks to the events at hand.

For as retro as the plot is, Pixar continues to advance its visual standard nearly a decade since Toy Story 3. Many aspects of this ersatz promo for Disney’s Toy Story Land theme park are as photo-real as anything we’ve seen from the animation genre, yet the character designs (thankfully) maintain their cute, adorable cartoony-ness.

Nevertheless, for as visually impressive as Toy Story 4 is, its story and themes are almost entirely superfluous. It will put a smile on people’s faces and provide a satisfying, poignant goodbye, plus it’s as safe a choice for families that you’ll find at the multiplex, but Disney –  despite the inevitable kajillion bucks this global juggernaut will haul in – should resist the urge to churn out a Toy Story 5. That temptation would be better satiated by a Bunny and Ducky spinoff.

Beyond that, Pixar should get back to investing in the kind of original, deeply personal, and richly thematic tales that have elevated the genre to new heights, boasting a sophistication that Pixar’s competitors have yet to match. If the tease for the surprise title Soul is any indication, we’ll get exactly that one year from now.

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