You wouldn’t be wrong to wonder if Pixar was pushing its luck, cracking the toy box open again. After all, the studio, one of the last in Hollywood to truly deserve the designation of “dream factory,” already achieved something like the ideal conclusion to its flagship saga. Even those, like this cranky critic, who saw a little dramatic redundancy in the nearly decade-old Toy Story 3 would have to admit that the second sequel left Woody, Buzz, and the rest of the bedroom gang in the perfect place, after pushing them to the precipice of fiery oblivion and then on to a big, gooey farewell perfectly timed to reduce anyone who grew up on these characters to puddle form. Who but the stakeholders at Disney needed more? Let sleeping slinky dogs lie.
Yet Toy Story 4, Pixar’s new whirligig technological marvel, isn’t some cheap cash-in, a breakable Happy Meal prize subbing in for the artisanal craftsmanship of its predecessors. For all its dubious necessity, the film taps back into the bittersweet magic of the most existential of family-friendly franchises, where life is tough and then you get boxed away in the attic, or donated to charity, or thrown on the landfill. The Toy Story movies are breathless, state-of-the-art entertainment contraptions that also happen to be, at heart, tragicomedies of neurosis about the inner lives (and fears and desires) of sentient playthings. The basic pleasures of this fourth installment may be at once more hectic and more shopworn, but the film preserves, at least, the pathology of its series: that anxiety about finding meaning and your own place on the shelf.
Is there a more hilariously sad identity crisis than Buzz Lightyear’s realization, in the first Toy Story, that his grand purpose—his whole raison d’etre—is to subject himself to the capricious whims of a child? If it can be believed, Toy Story 4 offers up a more pathetic creation, emphasis on the create part. Voiced by Tony Hale, in a strangled Buster Bluth yelp, Forky is a plastic spork with paste-on googly eyes, pipe cleaner for arms, and a burning certainty that he’s not a toy at all but just plain old garbage, meant to be chucked out. He’s the handiwork of Bonnie, the button-cute toddler who became, in essence, the new Andy at the end of Toy Story 3— the one child our factory-made protagonists live to elate. In his primitive stick-figure approximation of a physique and downright suicidal obsession with his own disposability, Forky’s also a kind of grotesque parody of the other toys and their needs. One might even call him God’s greatest mistake, with God in this case identified as a sweetly oblivious kindergartener.
Smartly, Pixar has always kept the central metaphor of Toy Story malleable and imperfect; one can see any number of relationships—familial, romantic, or otherwise—in the toys’ undying devotion to their owners. In Toy Story 4, the subtext gets weirder and messier. Woody (Tom Hanks), the aging but ageless cowboy doll, ends up assuming the role of makeshift parent for Forky, mostly out of fear that he’s outlived his usefulness to Bonnie. (He’s still a bit hung up on Andy, too—just one of the many emotional tensions pinging across this 100-minute movie.) Woody’s tireless guardianship eventually leads him, during a family road trip, to the film’s two primary settings: a small-town thrift shop and the loud, flashing carnival across the street. Curiously, the shop becomes the more treacherous, labyrinthian backdrop, complete with narrow passageways behind shelves, a ravenous house cat, and even the film’s equivalent of the bustling Star Wars Cantina, tucked into a pinball machine.
It’s during the extended pit-stop that Toy Story 4 reintroduces an estranged player, a figure from Woody’s past: Bo Peep (Annie Potts), the porcelain shepherdess doll given away by Andy’s mom between the second and third installments. (The film opens with a flashback to that night, an affecting parting exchange in an apocalyptic rainstorm that shows just how sophisticated computer animation has gotten, in its capacity to render both environmental and emotional texture.) Bo Peep was never the most three-dimensional of the toys in Andy’s room, but in Toy Story 4, Potts reinvents her as a take-no-shit nomad survivor, liberated by life on the road and her lack of attachment to any one child. For Woody, increasingly tied up in his responsibilities to both Bonnie and her/his “child,” Bo Peep’s blissful self-sufficiency offers an alternative outlook. This is, in other words, the first Toy Story movie to challenge the franchise’s gospel, its enduring faith in the lopsided bond between a kid and their “inanimate” playmate.
Certainly, Bo Beep is among the more adjusted of the neurotic, living figurines capering through Toy Story 4’s busy, lightning-paced plot. True to its name, the film keeps throwing new toys at the screen, like a kid racing down the aisle on a shopping spree. Keanu Reeves, memed star of the moment, lends his unmistakable Zen cadence to Duke Caboom, an amusingly Canadian stunt-driver action figure. And Jordan Peele and Keegan Michael Key also show up to perform tireless improvised shtick as conjoined, carnival-prize stuffed animals who fantasize—in the film’s most inspired running gag—about giving up the ruse and pouncing on their human overlords. But this being a Toy Story movie, they’re all occasionally melancholy creatures, hung up on the kids that once owned them or the ones that never did. This includes the film’s nominal villain, a baby doll (Christina Hendricks) who lords over the antique shop like a deranged heiress, haunted by her loneliness, and commands a small squad of speechless ventriloquist dummies. She’s plenty creepy, but also a shadow of past antagonists—just another bitter object of no affection.
Capably directed by first-time Pixar helmsman Josh Cooley, from a story with no less than six credited authors (including Rashida Jones and Will McCormack, who reportedly conceived of the romantic-reunion angle of the plot, several drafts back), Toy Story 4 is so fast and light on its feet that it’s easy to ignore that it’s a pretty minor adventure—the least substantial of the series, so far and by far. The sense of danger, of being small and vulnerable in a human’s oversized world, doesn’t entirely come across. And parents and kids alike headed to the movie in search of their own reunion may be disappointed by the marginalization of the core ensemble: Woody’s enduring fear of being replaced by someone/thing shiny and new gets an ironic realization in the way Toy Story 4 relegates Rex, Hamm, the Potato Heads, Jessie, and the rest of the original cast to the literal backseat. Even Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), Woody’s original competition for adolescent affection, doesn’t have a whole lot to do, though there’s at least a touch of philosophical tension to his subplot, in which the thick space ranger confuses his preprogrammed catchphrases for an ethical navigation system, the “inner voice” his cowboy buddy is on about.
It’s probably for the best that no one involved here tried to match the fatalism and even pensiveness of Toy Story 3; there would have been no topping that film’s twin climaxes, the moments when Pixar forced its most beloved creations to nearly meet their maker, then to say goodbye to the boy who gave their lives meaning. Toy Story 4 is a breezier affair, up to and including an ending that feels a few hankies shy of full tearjerker, landing on a note of conclusion that the movie barely seems to pretend will really hold this time. Yet the relatable insecurity the series has always located in its pint-sized heroes—the quality that makes them more human than the humans they worship, regardless of what their manufacturing stamps read—worms its way into every stray crack and crevice of the G-rated material. Toy Story, in other words, remains a uniquely existential crowd-pleaser. In this case, it’s also a pretty strange one, co-headlined as it is by a utensil with a death wish. We’re not in Andy’s room anymore.