,The 4th film in a franchise. A sequel released almost a decade after the previous entry. A series that’s run for almost 25 years. Any of these pieces on their own would give most filmgoers pause. Mix them all together and it looks like a recipe for disaster. How is it then that Toy Story 4 isn’t just one of the best films of the year, but also possibly the best of the quadrilogy? Simple. When a film is filled with this much heart, humor and care, it’s hard to find an equal. Leave it to Disney and Pixar to buck the trend and turn a few desperate seeming parts, into something truly special.
After the tumutulous and emotional third act of Toy Story 3, the former playthings of Andy’s, have settled into a groove with new owner, Bonnie. While everything seems great on the surface, Woody worries quietly about his new place in the order. Namely being put in the closet, in favor of pal Jessie being instated as the new “sherriff” in town. Woody couldn’t be happier for the redheaded rabble-rouser, but being sidelined is new for him. Desperate to stay relevant (even though it may get Bonnie in trouble), he tags along to her first day of kindergarten. When he sees her ostracized and alone, he leaps into protective mode. An act which causes Bonnie to reach a decision that sets this whole world on its head: she “makes” a new friend.
Enter Forky (Tony Hale). A spork with googly eyes, loose pipe cleaner arms and popsicle stick feet. On the page it seems like a weird gimmick. A utensil brought to life, via a child’s love. It’s preposterous. Ridiculous. More than a little insane. Yet, Forky is the linchpin to the movie’s overall success. Director Josh Cooley (Inside Out) and writers Stephany Folsom (This is Jane) & Andrew Stanton (who’s had a hand in all four stories) manage to add unexpected layers of warmth to the strange creation. Forky is something of a wet sponge, able to take in everything around him and grow from it. He does so with unexpected kindness and weight, while jittering nervously all over the place. Endlessly making him a joy to watch. That and Tony Hale’s various utterings of “trash”. In a feature that’s filled with many winning performances, his work stands above the rest.
The only problem is, Forky starts out single-minded and frightened. Like the other toys, he instinctually knows his purpose. Which here means being continually drawn to waste bins. Of course, Woody takes it upon himself to keep the ticking time bomb out of danger, as the family readies to embark on a road trip, via RV. Letting him out of sight for a moment, Forky hurtles himself from the speeding vehicle. Horrified, Woody follows suit. A loyalty always to the safeguarding and protecting of his “kid” guiding him. The selfless act naturally backfires, sending the mismatched pair on a long journey to meet back up with everyone. A perilous trek that takes them through an antique store, a carnival and into the arms of the long-lost Bo Peep (a returning Annie Potts). Along the way learning that the more you think you know about life, the less you really know.
As with any Toy Story film, things are only as good as the new batch of side characters introduced. Usually brought in to help the heroes on their adventure. Here, in its fourth entry, they may have their best crop yet. There’s Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), a doll from the 50’s with a defective voice box and her menacing throng of slack-jawed ventriloquist dummies. Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves) is Canada’s greatest stunt man, whose life was stunted the day he was unpackaged. Finally there’s scene stealers Ducky (Jordan Peele) and Bunny (Keegan-Michael Key). Two carnival prizes connected at the paw, who harbor some possibly homicidal tenancies. With such a roster, someone has to draw the short straw, handing over a bit of their screen time. While that unfortunately falls to the stable of long standing characters. Don’t fret though, as they still get their moments to shine.
If there’s any question as to the darker or more serious undertones to the film, one only needs to prick up their ears. Randy Newman turns in his best score yet. With a tight group of melodies that reflect the past, just as much as they heighten the action on display. His normal jovial and jaunty pieces are present, but there are a few numbers that more closely hue to his work on Penny Marshall’s Awakenings. A fantastic score, that for too long went brushed under the rug. Simply as as most tend to think of him as a songwriter, not a traditional composer. The work is fantastic, juggling tones with as much ease as the rest of the film. It’s merely another piece that highlights what a complete package Toy Story 4 is.
Anytime a new Toy Story feature get bandied about, it’s been met with a fair bit of hand wringing. “Who needs this?” “Wasn’t the last film good enough?” “Is this just a cash grab?” Regardless the litany of questions that may crop up, the finished product more than speaks for itself. Each time proving to be far far better than anyone could have hoped for. Toy Story 4 hits this mark and surpasses it, several times over. It’s the best ending any fan could’ve hope for. To the point where this will easily earn a spot on most people’s “best of” lists, for 2019. As far as pure endearing entertainment experiences go, you won’t find many better than this.