Rankin-Bass probably doesn’t have cause for action, but it is impossible not to feel the influence of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer in this fourth Toy Story adventure. The world Woody (Tom Hanks) stumbles on where toys go unloved and unwanted is not an island nor toy world unto itself, but a dusty antique store where toys go unloved and unwanted. For Woody, beginning to contemplate his own obsolescence and a time when no child will call him his own, the place is a revelation. If this is truly Woody’s last roundup, he goes out in a blaze of laughter and tears.
There are five types of toys in Toy Story 4: the traditional playthings that belong to one child, represented by Woody, Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), and the rest of the usual Toy Story crew; the antique store misfits that include Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), a talking doll with a broken voice box, and her army of spooky ventriloquist dummies; feral toys in the wild that any child may pick up and play with, the place to where Woody’s old friend Bo Peep (Annie Potts), now missing an arm, has fallen; unobtainable toys that are carnival game “prizes” that no one can ever win like Ducky (Keegan Michael-Key) and Bunny (Jordan Peele); and crafts, crude toys made by children themselves, in this case Forky (Tony Hale), a spork with mismatched googly eyes, a misshapen clay mouth, pipe cleaner arms, and Popsicle-stick feet.
It is Woody’s determination that Forky, the current favorite among the child Bonnie’s toys, not become lost during a family vacation that leads to the antique store and a reunion with Bo in a nearby park. Gabby Gabby, with an eye toward Woody’s working voice box, conspires to keep him near, while a Buzz Lightyear reconnaissance mission connects the toys to the carnival crew.
There is a lot of inspired hilarity in Toy Story 4. Allen’s Buzz Lightyear has some wonderful moments after misunderstanding what Woody meant when he tells him to always listen to his inner-voice if he is unsure what to do. Key and Peele delightfully reunite as the cuddly and cute and oh-so-aggressive stuffed animals who deliver some of the film’s most inspired comic moments with their vivid and cartoon-violent imaginations. Hale is both moving and howlingly funny as the little spork who is not sold on this toy business. And coming hot on the heels of John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum and Always Be My Maybe, Toy Story 4 adds to Keanu Reeves’ current moment with his brilliant and side-splitting turn as Duke Kaboom, a Canadian Evel Knievel-like stuntman toy who can strike a lot of poses but can’t quite nail his stunts.
But this is a Pixar movie and one that deals with a key moment in childhood, at that, when a child either outgrows or grows bored with a toy. It is set aside, never to be played with again. It happens to all toys sooner or later – the Island of Misfit Toys is real, only its residents aren’t just faulty; some are playthings that were once cherished only to be abandoned. That is what Woody is facing. Bonnie plays with him less and less and sometimes leaves him alone all day in the closet. She prefers a spork to his company. In Woody’s drooping posture, in his expressions, the toy’s sadness is evident. When he opens his mouth to speak, the poignancy is complete. This is Hanks at his best, suggesting the weight of the world resting on that little doll’s shoulders.
But cowboy Woody is not a pessimist by nature and he is a problem solver. What Toy Story 4 wrestles with is what comes next when you realize the life you’ve always known may not work anymore. It is a familiar situation and not just to toys. How Woody faces his future is at the heart of Toy Story 4 and it is his sometimes faltering steps to plan his tomorrow that is the beating heart of the movie. –Pam Grady