• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ

Toy Story 4: The beloved franchise reaches a Forky in the road

TOY STORY 4
directed by Josh Cooley

The fourth Toy Story instalment is clever, enjoyable and refreshingly weird.

The original Toy Story movies may now be considered a trilogy, but they weren’t planned that way. The 1995 original from Pixar was the first fully computer-animated feature – and the first great one, too, setting the bar for animated-feature cartoons that grown-ups didn’t need the company of children to enjoy. Its greatness was unrivalled until Toy Story 2 arrived four years later. In 2010 came Toy Story 3, the best and biggest of them all. It was, given the life-or-death emotional punch of its finale, also the perfect place to end.

After all, Woody, Buzz and the rest of the gang had been through a lot. They had now reached a happily-ever-after with a new kid. The circle of life and all that.

But now, nine years later, we have part four, which, given Pixar’s patchy record with franchises (especially on sequels to Cars, Monsters Inc and Finding Nemo), risks undermining the perfect trinity of the earlier films.

RelatedArticlesModule - Toy Story 4 movie review

Good news: it doesn’t. It’s a clever, enjoyable and oddly tangential epilogue to its predecessors, and one that induces only mild déjà vu.

It can occasionally break the spell of the toys’ secret world of the earlier films by having too many humans factor in the story. But it also knows the magic trick of the earlier movies: that in all that intricately animated action, those characters are not mere playthings. They’re telling a story about stuff that matters. Yes, friendship, family, loyalty, teamwork and self-sacrifice have always been core values in these family-friendliest of films.

This one ponders moving on in life, self-determination and the possibility of romantic love between toys (that is, ones who do not possess interchangeable parts such as Mr and Mrs Potato Head, who, of course, were just made for each other).

The story here is something of a solo quest for Woody. The toys are now owned by preschooler Bonnie, and he isn’t the guy in charge any more. It’s as if the 1950s cowboy doll with Tom Hanks’ voice, whose long devotion to Andy suggested something paternal, is a generation later and now more of a grandad.

Woody’s got some babysitting of his own to do after Bonnie creates her own toy out of a piece of disposable cutlery, a pipe cleaner and stick-on googly eyes and names him “Forky”. With his instant sentience comes an instant identity crisis – Forky was always destined for the trash, so that is where he would rather be. Becoming Bonnie’s new favourite toy freaks him out. When he escapes, it’s Woody to the rescue.

Forky is just the start to an adventure that feels as if it’s playing in a different sandpit. A family holiday winds up in a small town where a local antique store contains a clue to a long-missing toy. And inside the shop lives a vintage talking doll named Gabby Gabby, who, with her creepy coterie of silent ventriloquist dummies, soon has sinister designs on Woody.

Between Forky’s disposable-utensil-as-Pinocchio act and Gabby and the gang, there’s something refreshingly weird to TS4.

Some new characters (such as the amusing Keanu Reeves-voiced stuntman toy “Duke Caboom”) help stop the gags feeling as if they are pulling the same old drawstring – and the film does a good job of tugging the heartstrings, too, if just not as hard as the series has before.

IN CINEMAS FROM JUNE 27

★★★★

Video: Pixar

This article was first published in the June 29, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.