Toy Story 4 – a review

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Woody is the star but is almost outclassed by a new sidekick, Forky

Pixar’s genius, the brains behind the outfit, is their gift of equipping inanimate objects with all the quirks, failings, hopes and aspirations of humans, none more so than in their highly successful Toy Story franchise.

The marvel was to see how the company sustained a soaring quality of story-telling in all three of the early animations, and here, fourteen years after the last, they manage the same achievement. This, I read, is to be the last in the series but as ever, Hollywood and Disney never pass up a quick buck, so there might be Toy Story 5. I hope not. The franchise should finish on a high.

The company has maintained a consistent level of artistic invention with toys, animals, and cars. In this latest Toy Story they stick to their tried and tested formula of appealing to children and adults simultaneously, as well as the child in the adult. The young girl sitting next to me was as good as gold, enthralled by the story line until the last fifteen minutes. Checking the running time shows this episode is exactly that length longer than the others. Perhaps that was a mistake.

The story is a series of repetitious chases, thankfully each one starkly different from the last, variations that hold our attention despite the similarity of plotting. As soon as Woody and his gang rescue themselves from one perilous situation another appears out of the blue. Were it not for the mother of invention we’d soon get bored.

It feels rather odd writing about an animation which is wholly concerned with the secret lives of toys. The writing is as clever as ever, and like all good Pixar animations there is a moral or two to absorb. It shows us the sensibilities of love, ambition, disloyalty, materialism, and personal development, and yes, that’s what I get from Toy Story 4.

Visually magnificent, loaded with detail often too much for the eye to take in at once, robust storytelling, reuniting us with characters we love, showing us their life for toys beyond the toy box – they are just waiting for the right person to love them again.

Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz (Tim Allen) and the gang are happily living with their new kid Bonnie (McGraw), who makes Forky (Tony Hale) out of a spork – a spoon shaped fork – a pipe-cleaner, lollypop stick and glue on googly eyes.

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The gangs all here but with a lot less to do than before

Bonnie’s family embarks on a rented Recreation Vehicle holiday losing Forky countless times, before Forky has realised that he’s a toy, not trash.

Rescuing him, Woody gets separated from the family and stumbles into his old crush Bo Peep (Annie Potts), who is living an independent life without a kid. They also get entangled with Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), a doll who yearns to be loved, and a reluctant, hesitant Canadian stunt-rider Duke Kaboom (Keanu Reeves).

If all those names make the story sound a bit too complicated, it is and it isn’t. You just have to concentrate harder than normal.

The narrative is assembled from a series of wonderfully detailed set-pieces that take place mainly in a creepy, dusty old antiques shop and a colourful, brash, neon lit travelling carnival.

New characters include fluffy chuckleheads Ducky and Bunny (the double-act Key and Peele) and Bo’s pocket-sized sidekick Giggle McDimples (Ally Maki) – American entertainers not that well known over here.

Each character is voiced and animated to its fullest personality, and each has a large dose of attitude. Most memorable is Hendricks’ Gabby, with her personal guard of sinister ventriloquist dummies. And Reeves’ dim but up-for-it biker, a pastiche of Evel Knievel, is simply timeless. He gets some of the best lines.

Being an animation fit for the 21st century means the females are rounded characters, often smarter than the boys. Potts’ Bo Peep and Cusack’s cowgirl Jesse are strong women who don’t need a man to open doors for them. Crammed into each energetic sequence, the filmmakers weave in exploration of how it feels to be lost, lonely or useless. In the end, each one realises helping others is the greatest satisfaction of all, even if they forget to thank you.

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The love interest is provided by Bo Peep, just don’t look for eroticism

We are presented with love lost and love spurned. These are huge themes to explore in an animated movie and especially aimed at the ten year-old and upward, but in the main the writers pull it off. This film is full of subtleties and textures expressed facially as well as in words, the gags less successful. There are a few chuckles, but that’s about all.

For my part, I thought an over-dose of melancholia – the core of the work – dragged it down, and left us with too few laughs to relieve the drama. It’s more a feast for the eyes and a balm for the soul, than a series of hilarious sketches.

At their heart, the Toy Story films are about the joy and power of playing with toys that demand we use our imagination. In many respects, they are toys out of their time, old fashioned, not an electronic gadget or circuit board among them.

The invention of Forky, a cheap throw-away plastic spork is inspired, and for the animation’s length it’s misunderstanding of what he is and how he fits into the world cause us to look for human parallels as we watch his story unfold.

Written some time ago, Forky misses out on the environmental angle of a surfeit of plastic choking the natural world. He is the most cherished toy belonging to Bonnie (the kid who inherited Andy’s toys at the end of Toy Story 3), the toy she made herself, loved so intensely that she hugs him while she sleeps.

Sadly, Toy Story 4 begs, borrows and steals too much from the previous films. It sticks to a formula. It’s full of slapstick humour, adventure, and jokes about inner voices that lead Buzz Lightyear in particular on a self-reflective journey revelling in the philosophical. I saw a fine animation that should have been full of joie de vivre but instead languishes on the contemplative side of life too much to be a clear winner in the series.

  • Star Rating: Three and a half
  • Cast: Keanu Reeves, Tom Hanks, Christina Henricks, Tim Allen 
  • Director: Josh  Cooley
  • Writer: John Lasseter, John Stanton
  • Composer: Randy Newman            
  • Duration: 1 hour 40 minutes
  • 5 plus: potential classic, innovative. 5: outstanding. 4: excellent. 3.5: excellent but flawed. 3: very good if formulaic. 2: straight to DVD. 1: crap; why did they bother?
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1 Response to Toy Story 4 – a review

  1. andrew mccoll says:

    G, not having seen any of the first 3, this is probably wasted on me. And given that my only son is now 20, I’m not sure even he’d be the much into the new member of the family.

    However, I’ve just seen Rocketman, and look forward to your review if and when you get round to seeing it. In the meantime, I’m going to take up your kind suggestion of posting my own review on this comments section. Here goes…


    First off, a declaration. I’m 99% straight (that other 1% is 80% woman and 20% gay bloke) so this review should be seen through that prism. Second off, it’s the gayest film I’ve ever seen. Third off, I loved it. The most evident sign of my love for it is that I managed tae thole the open-mouth-gay-male kiss (of which there are many) without gagging. Either I’m evolving, or the characterization in the film had won over my inner bigot. Director Dexter Fletcher had evidently sat in a chair throughout with Elton John written on the back of it, and why not. A truly personal account of a life, with much input from that still living person. How John Reid and Elton’s mum and biological dad feel about it is neither here nor there. It was Elton’s story, according to him, and because of that the honesty on display (much of it self – critical) was something one doesn’t often see. The credits listed David Furnish as a producer and Elton himself as an executive, so it had the authentic stamp of an “Elton project”. Well, as much as anything he has produced can be ca’d authentic – as he comes back to time and again in the film.

    Ok, more about what it says to and about the subject later, let’s just look at the film as a distinct oeuvre for the moment. (Like everything in Elton’s life, that’s already a leap into a manufactured world).

    It’s basically a big-screen musical. With all the garish costumes and lithesome dancers you’d expect. Fletcher even closed the film with a re-working of the I’m Still Standing video from the 80s, intercut with the original video shot on the beach in Cannes. A nice touch for us oldies who remember that vid as a piece of fluff from that risible era, but now with added gravitas.

    I did actually learn some things. A lot about Elton’s life-long search for the deep love he missed for as a child. About how genuinely nice a bloke Bernie Taupin seems to have always been. But also how peripheral women have been in his life. Almost no female comes across as valuable in his life, except his encouraging granny. If you’re a woman expecting validation and empathy in this world of gay men, look elsewhere. In fact, in this reviewers eyes, it was a throw back to a world of two sexes, one of which had two sexualities. The recent world of confusing/confused post-millenial pan-genderism seems a different world. Simpler times. Back to the songs. They’re fitted into the narrative very well, and some shone light on Taupin as a lyricist who was often talking about the two of them. Goodbye Yellow Brick Road has now a depth for me that it never had before. The performances are excellent throughout, honours going to Richard Madden as Reid, a thoroughly satanic presence from outset (although that was in the writing), and Fletcher ‘s direction was as flamboyant as any old queen would enjoy. That’s the delight and also the Achilles heel of the film. For anyone over 40, it évincés a different time than today. A simpler, less tolerant, more tolerant time. When gays were gay and straights were straight. When music industry magnates were Arch-capitalists who held the upper hand. But when talent, real talent, managed to find a way through the forest.

    It’s real open-heart surgery for Elton though, and impressive in its bare-chestedness in that regard. One is reminded (often) just how unusually gifted he is musically, and of how much of his oeuvre has touched us (again, us over 40s). Thankfully, some of the unimportant memes of Mr John are not really touched upon in the film : hair transplants, Candle In The Wind, Watford FC, his charity work, AIDS, Freddie and George rate almost zero importance. Again, women expecting a Closer magazine treatment of his life should look elsewhere. Those who search a RD Laing examination are welcomed. Elton John as Philip Larkin. A serious work. Four stars.

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