“Toy Story 4”

 

            This is a series where we don't mind sequels, because now the characters have themselvs become part of our shared pop culture.  Who doesn't love Tom Hanks' mellifluous voice as Woody, the cowboy with a conscience?  And who hasn't quoted Tim Allen's fanciful voicing of Buzz Lightyear's slogan, “To infinity and beyond!”  The original premise still charms:  the toys come to life when the people aren't around, and each toy has its own unique personality, from the insecurity of the old dinosaur to the false bravado of Duke Kaboom, the Evil Kneivel-like daredevil (voiced by Keanu Reeves).

            Yes, there's a plot, but it's really more a series of tableaus.  We're first invited to a rerun of that poignant moment when Woody and Buzz and all their buddies are summarily boxed up and given away, because the kids of the house, Andy and Molly, have grown up now, and have put away their toys.  Naturally, the toys await their assignment to a new set of kids, but some of the toys remain unclaimed, and have to deal with being without an attachment to a human.  Some handle this better than others; some feeling “lost” in their singularity, and others developing a fierce independence (is this a commentary on single adulthood?).

            Woody and his gang have a new kid now, Bonnie, but she's a lot different from their previous experience.  She ignores them for long enough periods that they develop dust bunnies.  When Bonnie reluctantly goes to kindergarten, she makes a “forky” out of a plastic spork, with pipe cleaners for arms and wooden ice cream spoons for feet.  “Forky” (the voice of Tony Hale) becomes her new favorite, even though his instinct is to keep jumping into the trash can, because that's where he feels most comfortable.  Woody tries to explain to him about how important it is that he understand how much Bonnie needs him for her comfort (is this a social commentary on how much we humans bounce between personal isolationism and social connection?).

            Of course, being Disney, there's a touch of the sinister lurking.  Bonnie's family visits an RV Park with an old antique store nearby.  Inside it is Bonnie (the voice of Madeleine McGraw), who presides over some creepy-looking Howdy-Doody dolls.  Her voicebox is broken, and she thinks if she can get it fixed, she will be claimed and loved at last.  The problem is that she wants to rip Woody's voice box out of him to fix her own (is this a social commentary about bad people taking things from others just because they can?)

            There's a couple of interesting little existential tidbits here, among all the cartoonish screenplay.  When Forky asks why he's alive, Woody answers, “I don't know.”  (Insert your theology here.)  And when Buzz Lightyear tries to figure out what to do, Woody tells him to listen to his inner voice.  Comically, Buzz tries tapping his own voicebox, where he hears things like “That's an asteroid field.” or “Return to base.”  These become like fortune-telling in the eight-ball, as Buzz attempts to follow an “inner voice” that doesn't necessarily apply to every situation.

            At the end, Woody struggles with whether his rightful place is being a toy for a kid, or following his personal attraction for Bo Peep (the voice of Annie Potts).  And how will his choices affect the rest of his buddies?

            “Toy Story 4” doesn't make the same emotional connection with the viewers as its predecessors, but it's still highly engaging, and most suitable for all ages.

 

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association