Writers: Andrew Stanton, Stephany Folsom (screenplay and original story), Josh Cooley, John Lasseter, Valerie LaPointe, Rashida Jones, Will McCormack, Martin Hynes (original story)
Cast: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Annie Potts, Tony Hale, Christina Hendricks, Keegan-Michael Key, Jordan Peele, Madeleine McGraw, Keanu Reeves
Running time: 100mins
What’s the story: With Woody (Hanks) increasingly becoming sidelined during Bonnie’s playtime, he wonders what the future holds. When the young girl’s homemade toy Forky (Hale) is lost during a family holiday, he takes it upon himself to reunite them.
What’s the verdict: As we currently reside in the darkest timeline, trepidation about a Toy Story 4 is understandable.
Toy Story 3 tied an Oscar-winning bow on the then-trilogy and left no eye dry back in 2010. Part 4’s trailer resembled something more straight-to-home-ent than the expert writing and characterisation we now expect.
Was Toy Story about to have its own Crystal Skull? No, no, no and a fourth time no.
We may have forgotten what happy endings look like, but in Toy Story 4 Pixar has delivered a joyous series capper. A film that tickles the ribs while warming the heart, firing endorphins with its imagination and humanity.
And action scenes to rival Endgame.
The brilliance of Pixar’s near 25-year-old franchise is how it weaves deceptively profound ruminations on what this life stuff is all about into briskly told comedies. Comedies aimed at kids but leaving all ages giddy with excitement.
This time around it is what’s next for those whose purpose is no longer relevant. Do they get cast aside or learn new skills? Is there a tomorrow if they fail?
All this is told through Woody schooling newcomer Forky (Hale) on the importance of toys to kids. Namely, Bonnie (McGraw), owner of Andy’s toys at the end of part 3 and now a kindergartner. But the sentient spork she creates is convinced he is disposable, meaning Woody must repeatedly thwart Forky’s attempts to become one with the recycling.
An end of summer holiday to a state park sets the various stages – camper van, playground, dusty antique shop – for a quest to reunite Bonnie with her plastic BFF, and for the gang to find their place in the world.
Co-writer and Pixar veteran Andrew Stanton is a master at this storytelling. Screenwriter on the first two Toy Story movies (and original story on part 3), he also co-wrote and directed Wall-E, that other animated masterpiece of character and emotion.
He and co-screenwriter Stephany Folsom achieve a similar meld here, relatable to both tots and grown-ups. Bonnie’s kindergarten induction is pitch perfect tremulous, while adults will sympathise with the middle-aged Woody’s plight to reinvent himself in a world passing him by.
Yes, there are niggles. The first act draws heavily on the Buzz/Woody dynamic of the original movie, as the ragdoll lawman attempts to convince Forky he is a toy. There’s a twist in that technically he isn’t, but with eight credited people working on the original story, the déjà vu is surprising.
Buzz does not see much screentime until midway through, while the regular gang are mostly absent.
But the gold outshines the flaws.
The swift elegance with which the film establishes new characters – Christina Hendricks’ on-the-shelf Gabby Gabby doll, Key and Peele’s sideshow plushies Ducky and Bunny, Keanu Reeves’ tortured Evil-Knievel-alike Duke Caboom – will be taught in film schools. They may all share a common goal (a kid to take them home), but none are underwritten.
Plus, where Endgame’s feminist tack-on fell flat, Toy Story 4 shows how female empowerment can satisfyingly grow out of a story. Be it small moments like Bonnie promoting cowgirl Jessie to sheriff or a subplot featuring Annie Pott’s Bo Peep showing Woody what life beyond playtime holds (and turning her skirt into a cape).
Director Josh Cooley is feature film debuting here, but as a co-writer of Inside Out, he knows story structure. Unfurling the plot through action and reaction, the 100-minutes zip by.
Characters are literally rescued from the shelf, leaps of faith are both actual and metaphorical, for one character to move on a part of them is left behind to help others. And there’s a good scrap with a cat. Plus, a cadre of ventriloquist dummies as freaky as that clown in Inside Out.
We’re calling it now: next spring, the Toy Story franchise will be returning home with a second Best Animated Feature Oscar (remember the category didn’t exist at release of the first two films).
For those of us who saw the original Toy Story in cinemas, watching the visuals here is stark reminder of how long ago was 1995. Cooley’s achievement is to ensure the photorealistic rendering does not spoil the illusion. Something he achieves by keeping characters cartoony (albeit lovingly textured) and the backgrounds more lifelike (check out the rain in the opening scene).
What was distracting in The Good Dinosaur here works beautifully. Indeed, this may be the first film where dust on a plug elicits gasps of wonder.
Background Easter eggs abound for the eagle-eyed (and eared, with nods to The Shining and Taxi Driver on the soundtrack). Also, stay seated until the very last credit has rolled.
All that remains is to say, predictably, Hanks, Allen, Hale, Hendricks, Reeves, Key and Peele and the rest of the vocal cast deliver the delightful dialogue with relish.
As this five-star gem draws to a close, one character says, “I’m glad I got to see you again.” Us too.