“Toy Story 3” seemed like the end of the line for Woody, Buzz Lightyear and Company. Andy, the young boy who loved and cared for them (just as much as they loved and cared for him) put away childish things and headed off for college, leaving his toys on the curb. As it turns out the end of their time with Andy was the beginning of a new life with spunky five-year-old Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw).
These days Woody (Tom Hanks), the gangly pull-string cowboy doll who was Andy’s favourite, sits, unloved and unused in Bonnie’s closet. He may be gathering dust bunnies but he takes his job very seriously. Woody passionately believes that he and the other toys play a crucial part in the upbringing of their child, so when it comes time for Bonnie to go to orientation day at kindergarten he tags along. When a boy bullies her, taking away her arts-and-craft supplies, Woody leaps into action, rescuing some crayons and odds and ends from the garbage for her. Brushing aside her tears she makes a toy out of a spork, a pipe cleaner, some googly eyes and a wooden ice cream spoon. She names it Forky (Tony Hale) and soon they are inseparable. Trouble is, Forky is in the midst of an existential crisis. ”I am not a toy,” he says, “I belong in the trash.” When Forky gets loose during a family road trip, Woody sees it as his duty to track him down and return him to Bonnie. With the help of pals Space Ranger Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), cowgirl Jessie (Joan Cusack), goofy T-Rex (Wallace Shawn) and others including a doll with a broken voice box (Christina Hendricks), Woody goes on an adventure and learns what it really means to be a toy.
Like the other entries in the “Toy Story” franchise, “4” doubles down on themes that other recent kid’s films have taken pains to avoid. Loss, moving on, unrequited love (yup, toys can fall in love) and good vs evil sit alongside the more traditional leitmotifs of friendship and loyalty. The movie can’t really be described as dark, although the ventriloquist dummies are the stuff of nightmares, but it has a level of emotional maturity that is part of Pixar’s trademark.
Part of that is likely due to the investment we have in these characters. Adult members of the audience have been watching these films for twenty-five years, literally growing up with Woody and Buzz and the kindly voicework that comes along with them, particularly from Hanks whose voice has the same effect as a cuddly warm blanket. As animated characters they are free to explore deeper emotional troughs, I think, because they look like toys. If this wasn’t animated, if the characters weren’t made of rubber and plastic, their travails may not be lessened but they might be less palatable for kids.
The main story focusses on Woody and his self-realization but he’s supported by a raft of new characters. Keanu Reeves plays Duke Caboom, a small plastic motorcycle daredevil from Canada (Who’s the Canuck with all the luck? Who’s the greatest of the Great White North?). He’s heroic in his own way, a wannabe champion with a funny and (here’s that word again) poignant backstory.
Forky’s journey is McGuffin that drives the plot forward. The story isn’t really about him but his search for purpose is a good fit for the “Toy Story” universe. Hale’s voicework brings a fun sense of confusion—Forky is a Frankenstein character, a child discovering the world—that keeps his character interesting and amusing.
Best of all is Hendricks as Gabby Gabby, the vintage doll who was “defective out of the box.” She has the widest arc of any of the characters, (MILD SPOILER) from villainous to sympathetic, and the tone of Hendricks’ voice is both menacing and doll-like.
“Toy Story 4” doesn’t feel like a classic in the same way the original did (and still does) but the laughs and the heart-tugging moments feel earned because Pixar place story and character ahead of the frenetic action so often showcased in other films for children. It is essentially an action/adventure movie, less complex than “1,” “2” and “3,” but there is an undeniable poignancy and yes, adult fans may even shed a tear or two as the long running story comes to a conclusion.