‘Toy Story 4’ searches for meaning, with mixed results

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“How am I alive?” one character asks another near the end of Toy Story 4. The question was not expressed as disbelief that they had survived a dangerous situation—it was a literal query into why they exist at all. “I don’t know,” the other character responds, slowly, as if the question is one they had never even considered.

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This sort of existential inquisitiveness is what has kept these toys interesting across the 20-plus years of the franchise. There is an inherent tension in the structure of their lives between their singular devotion to playing with their kids and the secret, independent lives they lead when the humans are away. If their purpose is to make these kids happy, what is the value of their lives when the kids aren’t around? And what becomes of them when that fundamental cruelty of their lives occurs, that their kids grow up and leave them behind? The Toy Story franchise’s willingness to engage with these sorts of questions in a meaningful way is what gets me to show up to the opening weekend of the fourth film of an animated children’s franchise.

Toy Story 4 picks up these philosophical ideas where Toy Story 3 left off nine years ago, and takes them in a slightly different direction: if Toy Story 3 was about the importance of moving on and coming to terms with life’s transitions, Toy Story 4 is about the need for self-discovery after those transitions. The gang is still with Bonnie, the youngster that Andy passed them onto in Toy Story 3. It’s a pleasant life for most of them—except Woody, who routinely gets neglected during playtime.

Tucked away in the closet, his life feels purposeless, until Bonnie loses Forky, a makeshift toy she created in kindergarten out of a plastic spork and who earns the love that Woody so desperately yearns for. Woody devotes himself to reuniting Bonnie with Forky, hoping that in the process he’ll earn back her love and find meaning once again.

There’s a lot more to the plot than this initial set-up, including storylines that introduce a new villain, bring in some new friends, and bring back some old ones. This is the way of this franchise: a constant forward motion, an unyielding sequence of things going wrong and the gang searching for solutions. It’s a captivating storytelling structure, and has led to some excellent action set pieces.

In Toy Story 4, though, it gets a bit exhausting, and there were times where I just wished the movie would stop and smell the roses, as it so desperately wants Woody to learn how to do. My favorite shot in the movie is one such moment, when Woody and Bo Peep pause from the mission at hand to take in the beauty that surrounds them. It’s one of a handful of visually lush images in the film; some other scenes set against the fluorescent lighting of a carnival are similarly awe-inspiring. Too often, the movie is too busy hurtling toward the next scene to fully indulge in the beauty at hand.

This overstuffed narrative also drowns out some of the ensemble players. Toy Story 4 is really Woody’s story; even Buzz feels shortchanged. (Don’t even get me started on the criminal underuse of Jessie, possibly my favorite character of the franchise.) We are physically away from the gang for a majority of the runtime, and some new characters step in to fill the void. The duo of Ducky and Bunny (Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele) and Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves) are welcome enough, but they don’t add anything that feels new. The best addition, and the highlight of the entire film, is Gabby Gabby, a villainous antique store doll voiced wonderfully by Christina Hendricks. Her character is an amalgam of others we have seen throughout this franchise; she is, in many ways, an inverse Lots-o’-Huggin. But her plot line had the most emotional resonance for me, even more than most of Woody’s existential searching.

By the film’s end Woody is able to find some semblance of purpose in his life, more so than the franchise itself. I liked Toy Story 4, and it has all the emotional beats and laugh-out-loud moments the franchise is known for that make the film worth seeing. But it’s a greatest hits album: it brings back everything I love about these movies, but it all feels like things I’ve seen already. It’s a bit thin, and often felt like a Pixar Short that just kept going.

There are diminishing returns to these movies, and at this point, it is a franchise with no clear purpose. (For the record, I would rank them 2, 1, 3, 4, with Toy Story 2 leading by a wide margin.) In Toy Story 3, the toys learned that it’s important to move on. Toy Story 4 is a good movie, but it’s time to move on. Let’s hope the franchise can learn the same lesson that Woody, Buzz, and the gang already have.

Toy Story 4: 3 stars

Jacob SkubishComment