Keanu Reeves says “whoa” in “Toy Story 4” and that’s not even the most profound moment of this winsome, character-driven installment to one of cinema’s most imaginative and emotional series, animated or otherwise. After the devastatingly perfect finish that was “Toy Story 3,” this somewhat unnecessary addition to the canon serves as a bittersweet coda to a conclusion that was already perfect. What this film does bring to the “Story” is an even more profound, at times troubling, exploration of the psychology of the toys, ripe, as always, for broader metaphorical applications to the human viewer.
The secret life of toys is a rich and delightful concept, since kids pretend that they’re real anyway. But if you think about it too hard, it’s really easy to start feeling pretty weird about the situation. I, for one, don’t feel the same about jettisoning old toys to Goodwill. Their private dramas and excitements are an endless source of humor, and their little methods of moving secretly through the world have given so much on-screen inventiveness and ingenuity.
The psychology of the toys is where you can really fall down a black hole as you start following things to their necessary conclusion. The idea — promoted above all by favorite toy and leader Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks) — that toys exist purely to entertain and love the kid who owns them, can actually get pretty dark pretty fast, and, in this fourth installment, some of those repressed concerns are explored.
Woody once led a life of total fulfillment as Andy’s favorite toy, and the first film begins when he fears he is being replaced by Buzz Lightyear (voiced by Tim Allen). That all gets worked out, and over the course of the trilogy, the toys look out for one another with a nobility and bravery I am 100 percent sure I could not muster. Their grace as they join hands in what they think is their final moment before mass incineration in the garbage dump in “Toy Story 3” rates as high as any other film moment for drama.
“Toy Story 4” does not reach those dramatic heights. This film finds the gang enjoying their new lives with Bonnie, and, as always, their days revolve around her attention. This is a problem for Woody, who finds himself increasingly left in the closet. He tries to accept this maturely, but when he jumps into Bonnie’s backpack for her kindergarten orientation, is he selflessly trying to help, or desperate to matter?
His devotion to Bonnie continues as he must keep the toy she makes at school, a spork-based crafts project named Forky (voiced by Tony Hale), from throwing himself back into the trash from which he came. Forky’s existential crisis as he asks who he is and insists he’s trash, just kicks of a journey of personal definition that ultimately finds Woody also asking himself who he is, if he isn’t a child’s most-needed toy.
But this is not a serious existential journey through the psyche of various toys. Or rather, it’s not only that. It is gorgeously animated, full of laughs, particularly from a Key and Peele-voiced pair of carnival-prize stuffed animals, and also boasts a wonderfully sinister antique doll with some truly creepy ventriloquist dummy bodyguards. Just watching them lurch around an antique store is worth the price of admission. And the re-introduction of Bo Peep (voiced by Annie Potts), former lamp turned free-wheeling survivalist, makes for a great new character.
I call this movie unnecessary because the first three films told such a complete story, and this functions more as a “Where are they now?” follow-up. As such, however, it is wonderful.
You will want to know if Woody ends up with the love of his life, Bo Peep, and this installment raises and answers questions about toys’ psychology that you never even knew you had. Woody’s anguish about his purpose in life will resonate with anyone who has ever put someone else’s happiness before their own and with anyone who has watched someone grow up before their eyes, even if Woody’s eyes happen to be painted on.
“Toy Story 4” is currently in theaters.
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