2:45 pm EDT, June 13, 2019

‘Toy Story 4’ is hilariously existential all while keeping its heart

Halfway through Toy Story 4, I realized that I had a slight problem. I’d been sent to review it but I got so wrapped up in the movie itself that I wasn’t looking at it critically. Then again, I guess that tells you everything about how much I enjoyed Toy Story 4.

When you go nine years between movies, people can forget certain events from previous films. There’s also the very real change in the audience for your films — for some of them, this is their first foray into the Toy Story universe. Their first time meeting Woody and Buzz. The first introduction to so many of Andy’s toys, to Bo Peep and Rex and Slinky Dog and the Potatoheads — characters so many people know and love and already have a history with. But writer Andrew Stanton, who’s written the other three Toy Story films, finds a way to bridge that gap neatly in an opening that brings us up to speed in a dramatic and exciting way while sucking you into the movie immediately.

One of the beauties of the Toy Story films is the lack of technology within the story, giving you no real idea of the time frame in which it’s taking place. In this universe, kids like Bonnie don’t have iPads or computers or sit in front of the TV. They play with toys. Whether it’s an attempt to not date the films or a way to show kids the fun and value in imagination and the joy of playtime, what this does is put your focus on the toys themselves and, more importantly, on the commitment and joy those toys feel at making their kid happy.

Bonnie’s happiness is paramount to Woody. If there’s a driving force in his life, this is it. He’s Bonnie’s toy. Bonnie is his kid and nothing is going to keep him from doing his job. It’s what he did for Andy. It’s what he did for Molly and he’s going to make sure Bonnie is just as happy, because that’s what a kid’s favorite toy does.

But it turns out that Woody’s days as a favorite toy and, by extension, head of the Room, have passed. Not that he’s going to let that stop him from doing his job. That commitment to Bonnie’s happiness drives everything in the film and as the film goes on, we learn both the costs and benefits of Woody’s overwhelming desire to make his kid, whichever kid that is, happy.

Things change dramatically when Bonnie makes Forky (Tony Hale) on her first day at kindergarten. His creation and subsequent existential crisis are honestly brilliant. Forky may be the purest thing in Toy Story 4. Forky doesn’t want to be a Toy. Forky’s Trash. He doesn’t know how he came into the world but he knows what he’s supposed to do and his drive to be what he was meant to be is 100% at odds with Andy’s #1 goal in life.

After all, it’s a little hard to keep a kid happy when her new favorite toy is doing everything it can not to be a Toy.

The other driving factor in Toy Story 4 is our reunion with Bo Peep and the things Bo’s been up to since last we saw her. Bo isn’t the same ceramic figure we remember. Bo’s seen some shit. Bo Peep is living in a world no other toy in Bonnie’s room has ever dreamed of. It’s a life that, frankly, scares Woody. But there’s something about it that also fascinates him.

The majority of the film takes place outside of Bonnie’s room. Most notably in the Second Chance Antiques Store and a nearby carnival. Both locations introduce us to new characters and give Pixar ample opportunities to show off its animation skills, which are just outstanding. The detail, especially within the antique store, is mind-blowing and proves that, once again, Pixar strives to set a new bar with each film.

I’m not sure I’ll ever look at an antiques store the same way again. Dark and dusty, Second Chance is where we meet Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), a doll that reminded me of Talking Tina from the Twilight Zone who’s willing to do anything to be with Harmony, the antique store owner’s granddaughter.

Gabby in Toy Story 4

Anything.

If you have a fear of ventriloquist dummies, keep your guard up while watching.

The carnival, on the other hand, is a bright riot of people and color and it’s where we meet Bunny and Ducky (Key and Peele) and Duke Kaboom (Keanu Reeves).

Keanu is fantastic. But, of course, you knew that.

Once Bunny, Ducky, and Duke show up, you may as well give up hope of catching every single line in the movie. The laughter at my screening drowned out several exchanges. Not that I minded. I’m planning on seeing the film several times and buying it when I can so I can make sure I don’t miss a thing.

But I consider that a quality problem. I mean, if you’re laughing that hard, it’s proof that Toy Story 4 is doing something right. In fact, it’s doing everything right.

Speaking of which, I need to tell you — stay all the way through the credits. I mean, all the way. Trust me on this.

Toy Story 4 brings all the nostalgia of the previous films together with a totally fresh look at the idea of what toys are, what they’re made for, and just what sort of autonomy they have in a world where they’re alive. After all, we’ve known these toys for 24 years. They’re friends. They’re alive for us. They have hopes and dreams and desires and fears and we see them as real and distinct.

We connect to these characters because, in many ways, they’re just like us. They embody so many of the questions and hopes and fears we live with every day; will people like us? What’s our purpose in life? What if we’re not useful anymore? They have the same anxieties and confidence so many of us do and we connect to these characters because we see ourselves in them — or wish we did.

But, until now, we’ve also seen them as property. They go where their kids go. They appear in the Room and meet the gang and we see them as part of their Kid’s world.

Toy Story 4 Bo Peep

Where Toy Story 4 really shines is in its choice to break that mold and question the very nature of what a toy is and what it’s meant to do. It gives these toys a choice. It gives them new autonomy. It reminds us that toys are so much more for a kid than a diversion. It reinvests us in the joy of playing and, hopefully, it shows us what we can accomplish when we all band together to help each other.

Most of all, Toy Story 4 makes you fall in love with the Toy Story series all over again. It’s a perfect goodbye to a series of films that has touched so many lives and will continue to do so for generations to come.

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