Toy Story 4 (2019)

Dir. Josh Cooley. Starring Tom Hanks, Annie Potts, Tony Hale

Toy Story 4 is like the reverse ship of Theseus. In the original problem, the physical ship rots away and is replaced piece by piece, and the question is primarily whether the naming of the ship, or the spirit of the ship, is what makes it the ship of Theseus. In Toy Story 4 all of the elements are here, immune to rot or time. Absolutely everyone has returned to voice their characters, the quick and the dead alike. Woody (Hanks) is not so different than the way he’s been before, still a saver of toys after all these years, still a little manic when he feels he isn’t getting his due. The toys are, as ever, not particularly good at staying with their little person, and escapades thus ensue. These are the hull, the rudder, the anchor, the keel. But the soul of this particular ship is gone. What about the rivalry and friendship between Buzz (Tim Allen) and Woody, which is at the heart of the first two movies, lost in the third movie, and sent to Davy Jones’ locker in this one? What about the yearning, equal parts wanting and responsibility, that these toys feel to their kids? In the first three movies, getting back to Andy is paramount because he’s family. In this movie, returning the benighted Forky (Hale) to Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw) is a purely cognitive choice Woody tries to foist on his folks, a way to get their shy kid through kindergarten. What has become of the existential dread that these toys, especially Woody, feel, and what of the course they ran from irrelevancy to old age to death?

The thoughtfulness of those concepts have been replaced primarily with noise, with flashier animation, and with a number of tasks to complete that don’t add up to a story so much as they add up to levels in a video game. Every Toy Story movie has involved the toys scooting around while people are there, desperate not to be seen; it adds an element of mystery to the stories, and a tacit urgency as well. It’s a significant plot point throughout Toy Story, a chance for some really outstanding mayhem in Toy Story 2, and at the root of the brief horror elements in Toy Story 3. In Toy Story 4, being found out by humans is used entirely for humor. Bo (Potts) and her gang ride around in an RC car shaped like a skunk that drives people away; Ducky and Bunny (Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele) imagine, in cutaways, throwing themselves at the old woman who runs the antique shop so she’ll give them a key. The toys skulk as much as they ever did, but the fact that no one ever really has to worry about being seen is a sign that we’re playing with a new set of rules, rules which ultimately leave less room for what made these movies genuinely interesting in the first place. Certainly the animation breaking barriers mattered in 1995, just as how detailed and attractive it is now in 2019 matters. Just as the Wright Brothers flying their little plane in 1903 proved the concept, and Lindbergh crossing the Atlantic in 1927 proved it again on entirely different scale, so too do the advances of twenty-four years in CGI animation show a vast and wonderful change. We’ve all seen the pictures of how different the characters (especially Bo Peep) are with the distance of time and technological improvement, and it’s certainly a credit to the animators that they’ve been able to make the toys recognizable to their original shapes and much better looking at the same time. Yet as laudable as all that terrific animation is, it’s no replacement for the vibe that’s been lost in the movie.

There are about twenty toys in this story with names who talk and appear in more than one scene, and then there are more who have names and don’t talk who you have to keep track of anyway, and then there are several toys who talk who have names who only appear in one scene as a gag. There’s never a doubt who any of them are, which I think is a credit to the people making the movie. On the other hand there’s definitely a crowding effect, like watching standstill traffic pile up in some metropolis. In 1995 you could still see a taxi driving around without wondering about how its company survives without VC money. In 2019 you might still see a taxi, but they are drowning under the weight of competition from Uber and Lyft. In other words, the number of characters has proliferated beyond what Toy Story 4 can wield, and the supporting cast that was much of the joy of the first two movies is pared down in much the same way that taxis are now. (I mean, it doesn’t help that Don Rickles and Jim Varney are dead, but they replaced the latter with Blake Clark in Toy Story 3, and they’ve jumbled up enough of Don Rickles’ recordings to give Potato Head a couple lines.) More of the laugh lines belonging to Trixie (Kristen Schaal, who is always Louise Belcher if I can’t see her lips move) or Buttercup (Jeff Garlin) or Ducky and Bunny than Rex (Wallace Shawn) or Slinky or Hamm (John Ratzenberger). There’s nothing inherently wrong with dropping some of these characters we’ve come to care for so much down to the third-string after two and a half decades, but it’s certainly as big a reason as any that that I’m making a ship of Theseus-style comparison. On the whole, Toy Story 4 is fine, but even after rummaging about for an hour and a half, it has none of the brilliance of its first antecedent, none of the warmth of the second, and none of the stakes of the third. At present there are something like 1.7 billion reasons for this movie to exist; none of those are cinematic.

Woody’s choice to leave the toys he’s known for all these years and join up with Bo as a vigilante force connecting carnival toys with kids is fitting, I suppose, as after four movies his “saving people thing” has come to equal Harry Potter’s own complex. It’s definitely delivered to us as what should be an emotional moment on the same level as Pixar’s other attempts to set our feelings on fire, although it’s complicated by a number of factors. The one that comes to mind first to me, fair or not, is that Pixar hasn’t been able to create that kind of emotional devastation since 2015, and that it certainly feels like they’ve lost their touch. But there are certainly others that are contained within the movie. The first is that the choice is fairly easy. Woody has always been pretty finicky about how much he’s played with. In the first movie, even dropping from Andy’s number 1 to Andy’s number 2 is enough to send him into a set of borderline homicidal hissy fits. In the second, he decides for a few moments to take his ball and go home, to decide that it’s better not to be played with at all than it is to suffer the iniquities of falling out of style. It only makes sense that with Bonnie dumping him (and seemingly him alone?) that he would enter whatever gig economy at the fairgrounds that Bo Peep has discovered in her life with the lambs, hoping to find purpose beyond waiting in a closet and hoping that Bonnie will pick him to play with. When he and Buzz share that goodbye, we can presume (I DUNNO, CAN WE) that it’s forever, and that’s sad. But the movie undercuts that as well, because it really has been twenty years since we’ve seen Woody interact with a Buzz who speaks the same language as him. If this is so meaningful, then why wouldn’t the movie give the two more time together? Woody’s time is spent with Forky almost from the beginning of this movie, this White Rabbit who sends our pullstring Alice down yet another rabbit hole. It’s not two best friends who give each other warm wishes on the way out the door, but a pair of coworkers sharing a drink right before the other is transferred across the country; somehow, “You’ve Got an Office Buddy in Me” just doesn’t hit the same way.

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