★★★★ - THE GUARDIAN
Last year, I wrote about my (unfounded) fears that Mary Poppins Returns might trample the memory of a movie I fell in love with as a child. I felt a similar anxiety about Toy Story 4, after arguing that the first three movies formed cinema’s first “note-perfect trilogy”. Despite being in my early 30s when Toy Story came out, I feel like I’ve spent a lifetime with its characters, not least because they’ve been with me throughout my children’s lives. The finale of 2010’s Toy Story 3, with its echoes of the last chapter of The House at Pooh Corner, just seemed so… final; a sublime evocation of the bittersweet sorrow of growing up that probably meant more to adults than children.
What could another instalment possibly add? Did we really need to know what happened next? For the first movement of Toy Story 4, I found myself concluding that the disheartening answer was “probably not”. Woody and Buzz et al are still wonderful creations, and time spent in their company is rarely wasted. But riffs about new owner Bonnie starting kindergarten and once-favoured toys getting left in the cupboard smack of old ground being retrodden.
Things pick up when Bonnie makes a new friend – literally. Fashioned from a disposable food utensil and some pipe cleaners, Forky (voiced with nervous gusto by Tony Hale) raises existential questions about the toys’ consciousness that I had previously brushed aside under the umbrella of “imagination”. Made from bits and bobs (rather than fashioned in a factory), Forky thinks he’s “trash”, and wants nothing more than to escape to the safe oblivion of the waste bin. Like the doomed Magrathean sperm whale conjured up by the infinite improbability drive in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, he has been granted the absurdist gift of life, whether he likes it or not.
However, it’s not until that hoariest of narrative devices – the “family road trip” – brings Woody into contact with an old acquaintance that Toy Story 4 really finds its spark of life. Part of a bedside lamp that previously graced Andy’s sister’s bedroom, Bo Peep was an incidental character who became an absence after being given away to a new owner, foreshadowing the fate of more familiar players. Now she’s back, having reinvented herself as an ass-kicking renegade, striking out with a ragtag band of lost toys. With her return, Toy Story 4 finds its mojo, and discovers the secret of its own existence…
Along with the rebirth of Bo Peep (to whom Annie Potts lends real oomph), this latest instalment also introduces a swath of new characters, most notably mustachioed motorbiker Duke Caboom. Voiced in wonderfully dorky tones by Keanu Reeves, Duke is painfully unable to perform any of the daredevil jumps depicted in his TV commercial, something that will strike a chord with anyone who owned an Evel Knievel stunt cycle toy in the 1970s. Then there’s Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), a scary-smiley pullstring doll with a defective voice box who has never known love, and her army of ventriloquist dummies who look like escapees from the 1945 British horror portmanteau Dead of Night. All come together in the deliciously creepy confines of the Second Chance Antiques Store.
Meanwhile, a chaotic travelling carnival finds cuddly toys Ducky and Bunny (Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele) tacked to a booth wall, unwinnable prizes in a rigged game that weirdly reminded me of the Flesh Fair cruelty from Steven Spielberg’s AI: Artificial Intelligence.
And therein, I think, lies the true heart of Toy Story 4. Whereas the previous movies, for all their playful fantasy, were ultimately about very human separation anxiety, this latest instalment focuses more specifically on the abstract issue of what it means to be “alive” – sentient, yet obsolete – and to take control of your own destiny. For the first time (it seems to me), the story really is about toys per se, rather than about children or their parents.
Of course, none of this occurred to me while I was actually watching the film, which (once it found its feet) had me laughing and crying like a child again. The visuals are as astonishing as we have come to expect from Pixar; slapstick gags land with choreographed precision, heartstrings are tugged with practised ease, and dark clouds hover just close enough to remind us all how much we love the light.
As the houselights came up (tip: stay to the very end), I was left with a sense of relief that a treasured memory had not been trashed. And now, I’d like it to stop, before anyone gets hurt.
-MARK KERMODE, THE GUARDIAN