Toy Story 4 is one of the breeziest films in the Pixar canon, serving as an epilogue that takes the beloved characters in interesting, if albeit conclusive, directions. Although it lacks the emotional heft and tight storytelling of previous franchise installments, it's nevertheless a highly enjoyable, and extremely funny, farewell to the cast and their world.
The feature directorial debut of Josh Cooley, a veteran Pixar storyboard artist, Toy Story 4 pushes aside much of the established supporting cast to focus heavily on Woody (Tom Hanks). While the rest of Andy's former toys were never fully accepted by Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw), Woody has begun to pick up dust in the closet. Anxious to rediscover his purpose, he dedicates himself to teaching and protecting the newest addition to Bonnie's collection: Forky (Tony Hale), a plastic fork that Bonnie created from trash during arts and crafts.
The film spends most of its time looking at Woody, and what happens after his character arc concludes. Following Toy Story 3, his purpose was more or less fulfilled. But he's still around, and not sure about what to do next. His mission to help Forky is an extension of that drive, leading him to even jump out of an RV during a road trip in an attempt to keep Forky as Bonnie's newest, most important toy. But their journey takes them to a small town with a visiting carnival. Here, Woody encounters his old love Bo (Annie Potts) and the friendly but threatening Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks).
Woody's desperation is juxtaposed against both characters: Bo has become proudly lost, and dedicates herself to helping other forgotten toys to get played with as a means of moving past her own abandonment issues. Gabby, meanwhile, has spent her existence sitting in an antique store, having never been played with. She's a tragic reflection of what Woody could have been, leading to one of the more interesting parallel arcs in Pixar history, and potentially the most complex antagonist in any Toy Story film.
Hanks shines, imbuing Woody with a world-weary enthusiasm that suits the character and his age. The film is less concerned with the supporting cast, however, with classic characters like Jessie (Joan Cusack) and Rex (Wallace Shaw) receiving only a handful of lines. Even nominal co-lead Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) is relegated to the sidelines, with his mission to help Woody transfomred into pure comic relief. The film also introduces a host of new toys, including stuntman action figure Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves), Bo's dedicated partner Giggle McDimples (Ally Maki), and literally attached friends Ducky and Bunny (Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele).
Each of those characters is more focused on being a funny aside to the main plot, and none receives a fully formed arc. Only Caboom shows any true growth, even if it's only brief and, to be honest, very silly. Key and Peele are also hilarious in their roles, earning some of the biggest laughs. As a whole, Toy Story 4 is the funniest entry in the franchise, almost at the sacrifice of any real narrative tension.
The stakes in Toy Story 4 are considerably lessened from previous films. It tackles a similar "search, rescue, escape" beat that Toy Story 3 did, with diminishing (if funnier) results. Gabby isn't nearly the villain that Lotso was; she's designed as a contrast to Woody and his arc -- and, in that regard, she succeeds. Hendricks makes her compelling, a worst-case scenario for toys that feels genuinely tragic and strangely human.
But this is very much Woody's film. Everything else is side dressing to his attempts to reunite Forky with Bonnie, and the exploration of his relationship with a more proactive and engaging Bo. The animation is stellar, as is the direction from Cooley. It's all well-produced, but is more focused on providing a pleasant send-off to the characters that helped to define Pixar than it is to telling a story that needed to be told.
Toy Story 3 was an emotional conclusion to the journey of Woody, Buzz and the rest of Andy's toys that not only won Best Animated Feature but was even nominated for Best Picture. It was a perfect end to the series. Toy Story 4, more than anything, is merely an epilogue. It provides a conclusive ending to their story with a smile, a hug and a joke. While it's not wholly necessary, given the strong film that preceded it, but Toy Story 4 is a sweet and silly coda to one of the best animated movie franchises of all time that will delight fans one last time.
Directed by Josh Cooley, Toy Story 4 stars Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Joan Cusack, Keanu Reeves, Annie Potts, Don Rickles, Estelle Harris, Wallace Shawn, John Ratzenberger, Jeff Pidgeon, Blake Clark, Keegan-Michael Key, Jordan Peele and Tony Hale. The film opens June 21.