Like the elastic toy Dachshund Slink, “Toy Story 4” stretches the franchise to an almost-breaking point. It explores the same themes - embracing life’s transitions. It employs the same setups - rescuing toys in peril, toys being shelved and discarded. And, it introduces new characters to trick us into thinking this rehash is all fresh when it’s just a warmed-over version of the three previous movies. Don’t get me wrong, though, the film is solidly entertaining but nothing special.
Director Josh Cooley (“Riley’s First Date?”) works efficiently from a script by Andrew Stanton (an Oscar-winner for “WALL-E”) and first-time feature writer Stephany Folsom. Their screenplay eschews the heart and emotion that were the Pixar hallmarks in favor of slapstick gags and silly send-ups (a fun “Shining” nod that no kid will get). There’s action and laughs aplenty, but that’s it. Where’s the emotional heft? The final scene of “Toy Story 3,” when Andy gives his toys to Bonnie and plays with Woody, Buzz and the gang one last time, left me in tears. It marked the end of his childhood and it’s a gut punch, no matter how many times I watch it. It felt like one final roll call … until now. And while “Toy Story 4” tries to duplicate that feeling in putting the finishing touches on Woody’s story, it comes up short. Maybe I have sequel fatigue.
“Toy Story 4” opens in prologue, showing Bo Peep (Annie Potts) boxed up and sent off to the next kid. The familiar verses of Randy Newman’s “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” play while the camera makes its way from that final scene in the last movie to Bonnie on the verge of starting kindergarten. When we catch up with cowboy Woody (Tom Hanks), astronaut Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), cowgirl Jesse (Joan Cusack) and the rest of the gang, they’re collecting dust in the closet. Even though he’s been tossed aside, Woody finagles his way into Bonnie’s backpack to make sure her first day of school goes well. Enter Forky (Tony Hale), a plastic spork-turned-toy with an identity crisis. During arts-and-crafts, Bonnie creates and adorns her new pal with mismatched googly eyes and pipe cleaners. Woody makes it his mission to ensure Bonnie doesn’t lose Forky. Guess what?
Credit the filmmakers for challenging the movie’s G-rating by going to some darker places by introducing a sinister 1950s pull-string doll, Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), who wants Woody’s voice box, and her creepy posse of ventriloquist dummies. They capture Forky and hold him captive in a glass case in their antique store abode. The ever-earnest Woody embarks on a search-and-rescue mission that starts at the family’s RV campground, continues through a colorful carnival and lands at the antique store. He’s aided in his quest by his old gal pal, Bo, hardened after seven years as a renegade toy navigating the mean streets, and several new characters. Among them, Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele voicing hysterical plush pals named Ducky and Bunny, respectively. Keanu Reeves continues his renaissance, providing voice to Duke Caboom, a 70s-style action figure based on Canada’s greatest stuntman. Giggle McDimples (Ally Maki) is a small Polly Pockets-type figurine with a big personality.
The regular crew of toys we’ve come to know and love since 1995’s original “Toy Story” - the late Don Rickles as Mr. Potato Head, the late Jim Varney as Slinky Dog, Wallace Shawn as Rex and John Ratzenberger as the pink piggy bank, Hamm, are relegated to the background. Buzz gets a smidge more screen time, but the space ranger definitely takes a backseat to Woody, who must wrestle control of his destiny. “Toy Story 4” deals with letting go and moving on, perhaps the studio should follow its own advice and stick a Fork(y) in it. It’s done.
Dana Barbuto may be reached at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @dbarbuto_Ledger.
“Toy Story 4”
Cast: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Annie Potts, Tony Hale, Keegan-Michael Key, Jordan Peele, Joan Cusack, Wallace Shawn, John Ratzenberger, Blake Clark, Don Rickles, Estelle Harris.