TOY STORY 4 – an Alternative Lens review

Starring: Tom Hanks (Saving Mr. Banks), Tim Allen (The Santa Clause), Annie Potts (Ghostbusters), Joan Cusack (School of Rock), Wallace Shawn (The Princess Bride), John Ratzenberger (Cheers), Tony Hale (Arrested Development), Keegan-Michael Key (The Predator), Jordan Peele (Keanu), Keanu Reeves (John Wick), Christina Hendricks (Drive)

Director: Josh Cooley (Riley’s First Date?)

Writers: Stephany Folsom (Star Wars Resistance) and Andrew Stanton (WALL-E)

Runtime: 1 hour 40 minutes 

Release Date: 21st June (US, UK)

From the moment Toy Story 4 was announced, the reaction was predictable and absolutely justified. After Toy Story 3 had so perfectly tied up the series in a perfect bow, it seemed like saying anything more would just be unnecessary. Pixar’s run of sequels since the third entry has also been spotty, ranging from fun but inferior to serviceable to…Cars 2, so I’m not at all surprised by the backlash; no one wants to ruin a perfect streak. However, having now finally seen it, I’d say that the scepticism of many fans may end up playing to the film’s favour, because Toy Story 4 defies expectations yet again to prove it has more than enough reasons to exist.

After a brief but heart-wrenching prologue, the film picks up not long after the events of Toy Story 3 and once again finds Woody in the middle of another philosophical conundrum. There are certainly past themes echoed throughout the film, ruminating again on the role of toys to humans and whether they can serve a different purpose, but despite this Toy Story 4 never feels like a rehash. The plot structure will be relatively familiar to long-time fans, with the usual constant ticking clock and ever-present threat of being lost or destroyed, yet it keeps things moving so briskly and introduces you to so many adorable new characters and contemplative ideas that it’s hard to care. In true series fashion, it puts the emotional stakes above everything else, and absolutely finds new ways to make audiences cry. Though it admittedly doesn’t quite have that same sense of greater existential crisis and nostalgic finality as its direct predecessor, it wisely instead aims to drive a smaller, character-focused point home. To go too into the specifics would ruin the impact, so I’ll put it more esoterically: if Toy Story 3 was the cinematic equivalent to tearfully saying goodbye to your childhood, Toy Story 4 is like finally putting your life into perspective and realising what you actually want to do with it. That’s a lesson adults should be learning just as much as kids.

If I can muster any significant criticism for this movie, it’s that a lot of the returning supporting characters don’t get much to do; most of them don’t even leave the home point at the end of the first act. If you were hoping for a lot of screen time from the likes of Jessie or Rex or anyone not named Woody or Buzz, you may be somewhat disappointed, but in the grand scheme of things it doesn’t really matter. Toy Story 4’s narrative demands a more focused perspective, specifically on Woody, and presents him with his most significant character development since Toy Story 2. His arc directly questions everything he’s fought for over the series, and its resolution absolutely feels earned over not just this film but also the franchise as a whole. Tom Hanks has never been better as the character, with even his noticeably gruffer, aged voice feeling like a poetic reminder of Woody’s storied life. Tim Allen’s Buzz is afforded less depth, with his subplot feeling a little antithetical to some of his previous growth, but it ultimately makes sense on a thematic level if not necessarily on a logistical one. Bo Peep’s return after her absence in the third instalment has been the driving force behind the film’s existence since its announcement, and the filmmakers have done a fantastic job of revitalising her character for the modern era. Reshaped as a kid-friendly nod to the likes of Sarah Connor and Imperator Furiosa, she’s a perfect encapsulation of the film’s messages about reinvention and letting go, and Annie Potts certainly strikes the right balance between delivering a spunky new attitude and the Bo Peep we all remember.

In regards to new characters, Toy Story 4 offers plenty of them that are sure to become fan favourites. Forky is the most prominent, and Tony Hale’s panicked performance perfectly sells a character that could have easily become annoying. The film thankfully lampshades the question about how and why he comes to life, and his relationship with both Woody and the mere concept of free will is constantly amusing and heart-warming. Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele are basically let loose as themselves playing Ducky & Bunny to deliver consistent laughs, Keanu Reeves is a deadpan delight as the Evel Knievel-inspired Duke Kaboom, and even smaller characters like Ally Maki’s Giggle McDimples or Carl Weathers’ Combat Carl get ample moments to shine. Christina Hendricks’ Gabby Gabby is perhaps not as well developed or menacing as prior series antagonists, but she’s easily the most endearing and again precisely compliments the film’s ideas; if I were to nitpick, I’d just say she needed a little more screen time in the second act and she’d be right up there with Stinky Pete and Lotso.

Watching the Toy Story films is like seeing an encapsulation of the evolution of computer animation, chronicling the beginnings of the form right up to the pinnacle of what is possible in the present day. Toy Story 4 is gorgeous from start to finish, and it’s both a nostalgic delight and a reminder of how far we’ve come to see this world realised in such vibrant detail. The concept of a CG film based around toys was chosen because the plastic textures and exaggerated proportions of toys were easier to animate back in 1995, and now with modern advancements the amount of detail ever-present now makes it feel like we were watching the old movies through a layer of Vaseline. It wouldn’t be a Toy Story movie without Randy Newman music, and he once again delivers a jovial but emotionally fraught score, and the film’s accompanying song “The Ballad of the Lonesome Cowboy” is a simple country ditty that packs a lot of hidden punch and feels like an appropriate antithesis to the classic “You’ve Got a Friend in Me”.

Put aside the pessimism for a moment and embrace your inner child, because Toy Story 4 will make your heart melt all over again. Though on the surface it may seem like another trip back to the well, it is acutely aware of its own age and doesn’t try to retcon anything that hasn’t already been perfectly resolved. If more sequels (and, to a greater extent, any film riding the coattails of an established property) took the same level of care in crafting themes as Toy Story 4, we’d be complaining about franchise fatigue far less. In a summer full of sequels and remakes that have underwhelmed critically and/or commercially, it’s a reassuring sign that such a venerable series can still be excellent in this climate, and just goes to prove a point: it’s never that audiences are simply done with a story or a character or a world or a genre. People just want good movies, and if you have good ideas and put consistent effort into them, you can make a good movie out of anything and keep making them until you’ve said everything you need to.



Author: Jennifer Heaton

Aspiring screenwriter, film critic, pop culture fanatic and perpetual dreamer.

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