When a trilogy is as near perfect as the three Toy Story animated features from Disney Pixar is, the news a while ago that a fourth might be in production was understandably greeted with a huge amount of apprehension. After all, even though the series consisted of three very individual adventures, in its way it was already the complete three-act saga. It had its beginning, a middle, and an immensely satisfying end.
Each had a plot that culminated with an exciting climax (each climax a little more exciting than the one before), and for the record, each was 11 minutes longer than the previous installment. Andy was grown and his toys were now passed on to little Bonnie. The sun could finally set on the cowboy and his buddies.
Yet, now, nine years after the what we thought was the final release, there’s Toy Story 4, so it’s no surprise that many fans, yours truly among them, were nervous. After all, for whatever reason, a trilogy seemed somehow finite. We only have to glance at Jaws: The Revenge to realize how a fourth chapter can subvert something that began so well.
The film begins with a flashback. It’s the moment nine years earlier when Bo Peep (voiced by Annie Potts) was separated from cowboy Woody (Tom Hanks) and the gang during a rainstorm. The character was absent for the duration of film number three, but this introductory moment of separation reminds us of who Boo Peep was and her emotional connection to Woody. She’ll turn up again later.
Note the photo-realism of the rain during the intro. When the original Toy Story was released in 1995, those little animated details such as the leaves on the trees, clouds in a rich blue sky, the wallpaper designs in the rooms, were quite remarkable. Considering how new computer-generated features were at the time, we had to be reminded that those exterior shots were still animated. Twenty-four years later, the progressive strides taken in the art of CGI are so wide, not only do we no longer question what we see, the photo-realism of rain pouring over vehicles in the street, puddles that splash, water that drips from pipes, are all taken for granted. But stop and study. The standard of animation is genuinely astonishing.
Besides the re-introduction of a previously known character and the technical achievements of animated technology, the other thing that may strike you is the film’s new screen ratio. This is the first Toy Story feature to be presented widescreen. All three previous movies were shown in the standard screen ratio of 1:85, meaning they were something slightly wider than a square. Once released on video, they would fit snugly on TV screens of yesteryear without losing much of the picture, and no black bars at the top and bottom. But number 4 is letterboxed, giving it a ratio of 2:39. Wide screens usually indicate a more epic stature to its content. Can you imagine a Star Wars film that was not letterboxed? For Toy Story 4, the screen ratio indicates its own separation from the original trilogy, plus the wide image serves as a visual reminder that what we’re watching is no straight-to-DVD installment; Toy Story 4 is pure cinema.
The film continues with the concept that all toys are secretly alive. Sheriff Woody, Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), Rex (Wallace Shawn), Hamm (John Ratzenberger), and Mr. Potato Head (the late Don Rickles, whose voice was culled from previous outtakes and used with family permission for this film) along with the rest of Andy’s toys, are still together, but now they belong to Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw) and Bonnie, on her first day of kindergarten, has made a new friend.
As part of a class project, Bonnie has made Forky (Tony Hale), a spork with pipe cleaner arms, mismatched googly eyes, and feet made from a Popsicle stick broken in two then held together by a lump of clay. But most importantly, Bonnie loves him. But once back at the bedroom with all the other toys, Forky has an identity crisis and wants out as soon as possible. Like Buzz Lightyear in the first film, Forky has no concept of being a toy. But unlike Buzz, who genuinely thought he was an astronaut stranded on a new planet, Forky has no clue what he is. Considering he’s made from neither a spoon nor a fork but a spork, having an identity crisis is understandable. “Like it or not, you’re a toy,” Woody has to remind the new addition to the nursery.
Once Forky makes a run for it, the toys are forced to take to the road to get him back, not only for Bonnie but for his own sake. Along the way they encounter help from Canadian daredevil toy and his motorcycle, Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves, whose final word at the end of the film is a character appropriate “Whoa”), the return of Bo Peep and her sheep, Billy, Goat, and Gruff, a group of creepy ventriloquist dolls who act as henchmen, and the film’s villain, Gabby Gabby (Christine Hendricks) as a talking doll whose voice box with the pull string no longer works. Plus, though you won’t catch their names during the film, stay for the credits to read the cast list, just for the fun of it. Some of Bonnie’s toys include Melephant Brooks (Mel Brooks), Chairol Burnett (Carol Burnett), Bitey White (Betty White), and Carl Reineroceros (Carl Reiner).
It won’t take long for those who, like me, doubted the need for a Toy Story 4. Perhaps need is pushing it. But it works wonderfully, proving that when Pixar has an idea, don’t be a doubter. For personal preferences, there could have been more scenes shared between Woody and Buzz, if only for ol’ times sake, but chapter 4 is more focused on Woody trying to rescue Forky while having his heartstrings pulled by Bo Peep and his voice string yanked by Gabby Gabby. It’s already crammed with incident.
The film grips, there are no lulls, and it’s continuously very funny. It’s also immensely touching. “Being there for a child is the most noble thing a toy can do,” Woody reminds the nursery crowd. With a finale that all but guarantees a completion to the tales, Toy Story 4 should be Pixar’s final word on the matter. But then again, you can never be quite sure.
MPAA Rating; G Length: 100 Minutes