As an audience, we have lived with the world and characters of Toy Story for going on 25 years now, enough time for the films to become a hallmark franchise in modern animation, a ubiquitous entity with characters who are household names, lines we quote, and moments that have made us shed an increasing amount of wistful tears over the years. So adept has the Pixar team become at finding the nostalgic sweet spot for these anthropomorphized playthings and skillfully upping the ante from one sequel to the next that each subsequent Toy Story iteration comes with a set of expectations that, at this point, border on formulaic. Not that said formula has made these films any less effective – to the contrary, it seems like the filmmakers have figured out a way to play the audience like a fiddle – but nevertheless, we walk into the theater once every ten-or-so years with the understanding that this new Toy Story sequel is going to reduce us to mush.
Within that established framework, Toy Story 4 is an oddball outlier in the best possible way. First time Pixar feature director Josh Cooley and a veritable Writers’ Room of creative voices behind this story and screenplay approach this fourth installment knowing the audience’s pre-conceived notion but only using it as a skeleton for a story that wants to occasionally play against expectations. What results isn’t a sabotage of everything we hold dear, but a surprising breath of fresh air. The film doesn’t take a hard-right turn from its standard trajectory – to be sure, the film is every bit the logical extension of the series’ creative adventure structure with the bittersweet thematic underpinning of self-actualization as time inevitably passes – but it’s willing to take some interesting creative detours now and again.
Referring to the film as “lightweight” wouldn’t quite be accurate – especially considering, as the franchise’s presumed closing chapter, there is plenty of emotional territory to mine among these characters many of us have literally grown up with. But this time around, the filmmakers’ approach the material from a different, skewed perspective that delivers an unexpected jolt of new energy. There is no greater example of that energy than Forky (voiced by Tony Hale), a new character so brazenly ridiculous that the film doesn’t even bother explaining how this spork with pasted-on eyes, pipe-cleaner arms, and popsicle stick feet comes to life. Created from kindergarten classroom scraps, Forky’s natural tendency is to return to the trashcan (the character dynamics here are sublimely absurd), so it becomes Woody’s (voiced, reliably, by Tom Hanks) mission to acclimate the googly-eyed utensil to life as young Bonnie’s new favorite toy.
It’s a frustrating-but-welcome return to usefulness for old Woody, as lately he’s been relegated to the closet, his existential dread triggered when he discovers he’s developed his first dust bunny. As Bonnie’s family goes on a road trip, Forky, ever the flight risk, eludes Woody’s grasp, which sends the erstwhile sheriff on an odyssey through the wide-open terrain of a state fair, where toys roam free of child ownership. Amid this adventure, Woody reconnects with former flame Bo Peep (voiced by Annie Potts), who has blazed her own trail as an independent woman-toy, not encumbered by being a child’s plaything, a life loyal Woody never considered. So turns Toy Story 4, about the transience of a legitimate toy’s efficacy and his sunset quest to keep an incarnated quasi-toy spork from leaping into a trashcan of obsolescence.
In a franchise built on the galvanizing stir of adventure and the reliable emotion of soft melancholy, Toy Story 4 pivots into a more nebulous narrative territory, driven by slightly darker pathos. Woody’s desperate need to be needed is surpassed only by Gabby Gabby (voiced by Christina Hendricks), an antique store doll with a malfunctioning pull-string voice box who sends her cadre of creepy ventriloquist dummies to swipe Woody’s still-functioning mechanism. The sense of foreboding is balanced by the film’s eccentric sense of humor, still cute enough for the toddlers but off-kilter enough to keep grown-ups on their toes. That sense of whimsy aids the overall narrative, which is more interested in flights of detoured fancy than straight-arrow adventure, not so much an episodic enterprise but a screenplay that employs a series of clever trap doors.
A change of pace for this franchise? Certainly. Toy Story 4 is not your father’s Toy Story– or, not your childhood’s Toy Story. Instead, it’s the franchise’s quirky evolution into a different ethos – still wonderful, still thrilling, still shining bright but in a different orbit. The franchise has retired to the island of misfits.