It is fitting perhaps that one of the key characters in “Toy Story 4” – the key character, actually- is made out of recycled garbage.
Because if there’s one thing we’ve learned from movies in 2019, it’s that nobody recycles quite like Disney does: “Dumbo”, “Aladdin”, “The Lion King”, “Lady and the Tramp”, “Star Wars” and “Frozen”have all been fuel for the fire of the great nostalgia machine in 2019 and have made (roughly estimated) a gazillion dollars for the media company in the past year.
Like the rest of Disney’s 2019 slate, “Toy Story 4” will be remembered as a piece of great commerce and not great art, I think.
Perhaps the biggest miscalculation in the script by Andrew Stanton and Stephany Folsom is how it sidelines old favorites and the seriously stacked roster of great character actors and comedians who bring them life. (Joan Cusack! Wallace Shawn! John Ratzenberger!) Even the great Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) is relegated to the status of sixth or seventh most important character.
This would be forgivable if any number of interesting new characters were introduced to the toy box. Instead, we are given Forky (Tony Hale), who might be the single most inane character to ever appear in a Pixar movie – or any movie, really.
Forky, you see, is a spork with googly eyes and pipe cleaner arms brought to life thanks to the love of his owner Bonnie. Since Forky would have much rather stayed in the trash can, it is up to Woody (good ol’ Tom Hanks, soldiering on as best he can) to save the day and make sure Forky stays safe and out of the local landfill.
This is, as you might suppose, a rather flimsy premise to build a film on – especially a film that’s following the emotionally wrenching and near-perfect “Toy Story 3” – and not even Hale’s mugging and funny voices can save his character or the plot as a whole.
The other supporting characters don’t fare much better. Like Hale, the comic stylings of Key and Peele, as stuffed animals Ducky and Bunny, seem a little out-of-place in this world. (They worked much better in the more antic animated “Storks” a few years back.) Keanu Reeves takes a seemingly sure-thing role as a Canadian stuntman toy and turns it into a whole lot of nothing.
In an early sign that things might take a turn for a worse, comedy legends Carol Burnett, Betty White, Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner pop in as preschool toys and don’t land a single joke.
It is also unclear why Stanton and Folsom felt the need to reinvent Annie Potts’ Bo Peep as a “girl power” character. If you’re going to change everything about a beloved character, why not just create a new character?
The script takes its sweet time -so much so that you have to wonder, like Giggle McDimples during a particularly digressive Ducky/Bunny story, “Ugh! Where’s this going?”
A few jokes land…
“You got a kid? Like a human kid, not a baby goat?”
…while others are beaten into the ground.
“Yes I Canada!”
The ending, in an attempt to emotionally one-up “Toy Story 3”, forgets the heart of this franchise- “That being there for a child is the most noble thing a toy can do”, according to doll Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks).
This isn’t to say there aren’t some pleasures in “Toy Story 4” (rated G). The animation is some of Pixar’s finest and most photoreal. From a thrilling rescue during a thunderstorm to the sunlight refracting through chandeliers in a thrift shop to a nighttime farewell illuminated by carnival lights, the animators deliver again and again.
There are flashes of the old Pixar emotion too – particularly in how the story of Gabby Gabby, the film’s closest thing to a villain, is resolved.
Hanks, Allen and the music of Randy Newman remain the soul of this franchise even as the scripts offer diminishing returns.
But even the good bits can’t keep “Toy Story 4” from being the very definition of “nostalgia porn” – It may thrill in the moment, but, as the credits roll, you’re probably going to feel a little dirty.
About the author
Stephen Dow is an award-winning journalist with a passion for film – not just consuming it, but thoughtfully and actively engaging with it. He believes that these modern myths have a lot to tell us about our world and ourselves. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.