The Toy Story movies are at their best when they turn into jailbreak stories. The original centered its final act around the escape from Sid’s house of horrors, and the beloved Toy Story 3 embraced the genre even further, turning a sunny daycare center into a prison for toys and a pink teddy bear into an evil warden. So it’s no surprise that Toy Story 4 falls back into the jailbreak genre. It’s just a shame that this unfocused movie never commits long enough to a single idea to do any of them justice.
Pixar waited nine years between Toy Story 3 and 4, and in that time, it’s clear that a lot of different ideas were jotted down and saved for later. By the time the movie finally arrived, we got a coming of age story for Bonnie (the new Andy); a Hitchcock-esque thriller about an evil doll (Christina Hendricks) and her ventriloquist dummy henchmen; a Mad Max-inspired action-adventure set against the backdrop of a carnival; and, yes, a jailbreak.
Just one or two of these ideas could have made for a great movie. All four (plus everything else that happens) turns Toy Story 4 into a muddled mess that’s fun to watch but ultimately unsatisfying.
Directed by Pixar veteran Josh Cooley in his first full-length movie, Toy Story 4 is still packed full of humor and heart. Seeing it won’t feel like a waste of time or money, and it won’t ruin your memory of the previous films. It just has no reason for existing besides the obvious one: money.
The movie opens with a flashback to Andy’s childhood, sometime between Toy Story 2 and 3. Woody’s longtime love interest, Bo Peep, is given up for donation, and while Woody considers leaving with her, he ultimately stays behind. Fast-forward nine years and everyone’s favorite toy sheriff is collecting dust in the closet while his new kid, Bonnie, yanks off his badge and pins it on Jessie (Joan Cusack) instead.
Then Bonnie brings home a new toy, a plastic spork with glued-on googly eyes called Forky (played to perfection by Tony Hale). Even Forky knows he’s really just trash, and it’s up to Woody to keep this animated spork from throwing itself away. The plot only gets weirder and more convoluted from there as the entire gang goes on a road trip with Bonnie and her parents, eventually winding up in a small town. Buzz ends up on display at a carnival game while Woody and Forky get stuck in an antique store controlled by an evil doll.
That might all sound like nonsense — and in hindsight, it is — but in the moment, Toy Story 4 makes sense. The plot just keeps going, constantly introducing new characters, concepts, and even genres. In the moment, it won’t bother you; afterwards, you may have trouble remembering significant details.
Of course, the real joy of these movies is the characters and the incredible voice talent behind them. Woody (Tom Hanks) and Buzz (Tim Allen) slide seamlessly back into their roles, and Tony Hale’s Forky is a welcome addition. It’s just unfortunate that Pixar seems less interested in some of the franchise’s minor roles. Fan favorites like Rex (Wallace Shawn), Hamm the piggy bank (John Ratzenberger), and Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head (Don Rickles and Estelle Harris) barely get more than a few lines each.
Toy Story 4 seems more interested in some of its newer characters, including Toy Story 3 additions like Trixie (Kirsten Schaal) and Buttercup (Jeff Garlin), who get some of the best jokes. The movie also adds two excellent new characters in Ducky and Bunny (a pair of plush animals sewn together at the hand and played by Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele), who deliver some of the best lines, including one surreal scene that had my entire theater howling in laughter. Oh, and Keanu Reeves plays a motorcycle stuntman toy — ‘nuf said.
The real star of the movie, however, is Bo Peep (Annie Potts), returning as a “lost toy” who’s embraced a life of freedom and carved out a sort of Charlize Theron in Mad Max-style existence. She cruises around town in a toy race car outfitted to look like a skunk (to scare away humans) and wields her shepherd’s staff like a deadly weapon. If there’s any justice in the world, Pixar will give the new and improved Bo Peep a spinoff movie, or at least a Disney+ show.
Toy Story 4 also raises some interesting questions about the rules that bind this universe. What defines something as a toy? And why does Forky gain sentience as soon as Bonnie slaps on those googly eyes and writes her name across the bottom of his popsicle stick feet? Later in the movie, Woody talks to Buzz about his conscience (the voice inside him that tells him what to do), a concept that Buzz seems totally confused by — leading to some funny moments where Tim Allen’s character takes orders from his built-in voice box. So do some toys have inner thoughts while others are pure id? Pixar might raise these questions, but there’s no attempt at answering them.
And ultimately, none of that matters. The point of Toy Story isn’t to tackle existential questions; it’s to make the audience laugh and then cry and then laugh again. With its passable script, excellent voice acting, and a couple of fresh songs from Randy Newman, Toy Story 4 delivers that and more. It’s just too bad the franchise doesn’t go out on a more powerful note. You know, like it did nine years ago in Toy Story 3.
Toy Story 4 releases on Friday, June 21.