Finding New Value in Old Toys- Woody, Buzz, and the Gang Make an Inspired Return.


Second Chance Antiques.  It’s not just a store name, it’s not just the primary location of this film, it’s what it’s about.  

Second chances- new beginnings- and what we do with them and how we accept them, is a welcome central theme.  And antiques… that can pretty much describe the entire on-screen cast at this point.  Not only has it been nine years since the previous Toy Story film, it’s been twenty-four years since the very first, now-classic film was unboxed in theaters.  That’s enough time to render even then-brand new Buzz Lightyear a qualifying candidate for antique store shelves.   (His voice buttons and wings still work…!)

With a trilogy wrapped up that is widely and rightly considered to be just about as perfect as can be, it’s understandable that longtime fans might be anxious about a fourth film derailing the streak.   Happily, then, this critic and longtime admirer of all things Buzz & Woody is overjoyed to report that Toy Story 4 is not just good, it’s inspired.  Though disgraced Toy Story originator John Lasseter is essentially scrubbed from the project, his remaining longtime cohorts and the next generation have taken to this material so inherently that he is not missed.  

Those still reeling from the emotional wallop of Toy Story 3 needn’t worry about a repeat on that level.  Rather, Toy Story 4 arrives at a middle ground between that and the familiar lost toy tales that exemplify the first two movies as well as the very worthwhile Toy Story of Terror TV special.  Toy Story 4 is a very funny movie, but never at the expense of its messages, and crucially, vice versa.  

Though the trailers and preview clips have played up some of its louder and unsubtle elements (Keanu Reeves as an Evel Kinevel stunt motorcycle toy knockoff; Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key as smart-mouthed carnival plushies), as though Pixar had abandoned dignity in an effort to compete with the obnoxious likes of Blu Sky Studios and DreamWorks Animation for children’s attention, only the newer characters exhibit such qualities- and to knowingly hilarious effect.  The classic cast remains unaltered.  Here’s hoping we see them all again.

As always, Tom Hanks stars as the voice of venerable cowboy toy, Woody.  Once occupying a place of honor with young Andy, Woody, now having been passed along with the rest of his playtime companions to little Bonnie, finds himself chronically disregarded.  Whatever newness there was when Andy tearfully handed him over to her has evidently worn off, as Woody collects his first ever dust bunny.  Nevertheless, he valiantly understands that Bonnie is his primary priority.

Following a flashback depicting Woody’s heartbreak upon the sale of gal pal Bo Peep (Annie Potts), we catch up with the gang in their new home, Bonnie’s room.  Bonnie is getting ready to begin kindergarten, a major step that’s causing no shortage of trepidation.  During orientation, she crafts a new toy from a spork, some pipe cleaners, clay, and a few cheap stick-on eyes.  Thus is born Forky (Tony Hale), a funky creation with self-esteem issues so intense that he can’t stop hurling himself into the subjective comfort of the nearest trash can.

When Forky gets lost when the family vacations in a small town (complete with a carnival), Woody’s sense of duty kicks in, and off he goes to retrieve him.  “Bonnie needs Forky to get through kindergarten!”, proclaims Woody.  On his mission, though, he finds something- someone- else.  The former lamp unto his crayon-scribed feet, Bo Peep herself.  Could this be… a second chance?

Having liberated herself from the neglected toy shelves of Second Chance Antiques, Bo Peep and a few other rugged deserters now prowl the land freely, having found purpose in simply living life free of children.  Though the old chaste spark between Woody and Bo is still there, an ideological rift has occurred. 

And even as Buzz (Tim Allen, of course) philosophically inquired about Woody’s “inner voice”, another toy has her eye on acquiring that very literal thing.  A vintage “American Girl”-style doll called Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) realizes that his pull-string voice box was likely manufactured in the same factory as her broken one.  If she could get her creepy ventriloquist dummy henchmen to retrieve it for her, then maybe the shop-owner’s granddaughter would accept her as her precious favorite toy…

The aesthetics of Toy Story 4 are among the most detailed and pleasing to come out of Pixar in quite a while.  That’s high praise, considering that even the studio’s least accepted film of the past decade, 2015’s The Good Dinosaur, was rife with eye-poppingly lush scenery.  This film, though, is in easy contention with that other 2015 effort, Inside Out, as Pixar’s best since Toy Story 3.  In any case, it’s nice to know that after all these years, and through many changes, the caretakers of this treasured franchise understand the value of what they’ve got.  And even so, when the time is right, they’re still more than willing to pull it down off the shelf and play with it… maybe even in new ways.