toy story 4
review by james mccleary
In many respects, Toy Story 4 is yet another showcase of the astonishing technical and creative prowess of Pixar Studios. The animation is sublime, the new characters are charming and the gags are at once both deeply silly and subtly clever, yet the film is ultimately a frustrating experience. Part of this is due to the fact that the original trilogy is widely considered to be one of the greatest film trilogies of all time, a standard which Toy Story 4 cannot quite match. The original Toy Story broke new ground for emotionally resonant animated storytelling, while Toy Story 2 defied the odds by recapturing that magic and elevating it to new heights, and Toy Story 3 stuck the landing to near-unanimous acclaim. The burden of continuing this airtight series is ultimately Toy Story 4’s undoing, as it is faced from the offset with the task of justifying its own existence in a franchise with a clear cut beginning, middle and end, and unfortunately it isn’t entirely successful.
Most of what works about Toy Story 4 is contained within the first hour. After a deeply touching prologue set nine years in the past, the film catches us up to the present via a stunning montage which is worth the price of admission alone. From here, the film centres itself around a new character named Forky (Tony Hale), who is assembled from the contents of a rubbish bin by Bonnie, the toys’ new owner. Forky is a nervous wreck whose self-destructive nature is the source of several of the film’s best gags. The undesirable responsibility of keeping Forky alive is given to Woody (Tom Hanks), who is currently undergoing something of an existential crisis himself. Inevitably, the pair end up separated from the group during a disastrous road trip, and are faced with the seemingly impossible task of finding their way back to Bonnie in one piece.
Woody’s arc is the beating heart of the film, and Hanks is exceptional in this reprise of a twenty-four year old role, though some may be disappointed to learn that the rest of the original ensemble are relegated to glorified cameos (beloved characters like Hamm, Rex and Mr Potato Head have a cumulative total of about half a dozen lines), with Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) and Bo Peep (Annie Potts) being the only other returning characters to get any substantial material. The majority of the central characters are new creations, ranging from the unstable yet lovable duo of Ducky and Bunny (Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key), to the scene stealing Canadian stuntman Duke Kaboom (Keanu Reeves), and with the exception of Woody the film seems to be infinitely more interested in exploring these new characters than delving any deeper into the original group. In this respect, the film feels more like a spin-off in the vein of Monsters University than a direct sequel, which becomes problematic as it enters its more dramatic second half, where it attempts to provide closure for the series as a whole.
There is a lot to like about Toy Story 4. The cast are all at the top of their game, the animation is breathtaking from start to finish, and many of the film’s earlier sequences even manage to achieve the same balance of whimsical set-pieces and sweet character beats that made the franchise so endearing in the first place. However, the film ultimately falters when it comes to delivering a definite ending to the series, as it becomes increasingly difficult to shake the feeling that we’ve seen all of this before. This is most evident during a pivotal scene towards the end of the film’s second act, when several characters who have been on this journey since the beginning inexplicably appear to regress and forget the ethos they learnt to live by over the past three films in order to generate the sort of manufactured drama that Pixar at its best has proven more than capable of rising above. Consequently, the film’s convoluted third act feels like a shallow retread of the franchise’s previous entries, settling into a frustratingly familiar rhythm for its grand finale rather than venturing into new territory, and thus failing to reach the emotional heights of its predecessors.
Toy Story 4 will open in Irish cinemas on June 21st.