Cinematic Releases: There's a Snake in My Boot!: Toy Story 4 (2019) - Reviewed

One thing Pixar does often, and does very well, is instilling in its films a sense that change is inevitable and often frightening, but in the end can be genuinely beneficial. Animated characters are not often permitted to change – they stay the same age, they don’t usually move forward in any meaningful way beyond learning a lesson that, by the next film or episode of the series, they will have forgotten. Main protagonists, in particular, do not often receive the luxury of true change; they may gain some perspective or a little character development over time, but in general, animated stars do not find themselves at the center of monumental changes that stick.

But Pixar knows that life is continuously about changes, both external and internal, and it lets who is arguably its most beloved protagonist – Woody the pull-string cowboy doll – finally grow beyond his usual parameters, after four feature-length films and several television specials. Woody (iconically voiced by Tom Hanks for all four films) has always been the voice of reason in the group of toys we started following in 1995’s Toy Story, a supportive leader whose ultimate focus was, is, and has always been the happiness of whichever child relies on him. He has grappled with feelings of inferiority and jealousy, defining himself by his usefulness to said children. He has questioned his purpose as a toy, as a treasured heirloom, and a piece of the American cultural pie. And he has struggled with his identity as a plaything, understanding well that children do grow up, but continually needing to reassess what that means for him and others like him.

Woody is a complex character, and through the first three Toy Story movies, he came full circle and finally accepted that his role was changing in the world, and he would have to accept a lot of hefty changes in order to move forward. As a personality, he has always maintained an air of control, mainly using his particular ingenuity to find his way back to a position of prominence and leadership. This has sometimes meant that he can be very selfish or superior, but ultimately Woody just wants to feel like he matters – and this has often translated into an inability to let other toys become the favorite, to open himself to shifting places within the dynamics of the group, or give up on anyone who doesn’t quite fit in but desperately wants to fulfill what Woody himself has always felt is a toy’s greatest destiny: to love, and be loved by, a child and make them happy.

Toy Story 4 approaches Woody’s greatest character flaws with the creation of “Forky” (Tony Hale), a plastic spork with googly eyes and pipe-cleaner arms that his child, Bonnie, has made in her kindergarten class to help her deal with her fears beginning school. She becomes fiercely attached to the little mish-mash, and Woody takes it upon himself to ensure nothing bad happens to Forky during the family vacation, understanding what he means to her. While the other toys from the Toy Story films all make at least a cursory appearance, the story is Woody’s – having been Andy’s favorite toy for so many years, his demotion to extra in Bonnie’s room has visibly shaken him – so when he must rescue Forky from an antique shop to return him to Bonnie’s family RV, a reunion with a dear friend from his past forces him to face the fact that he has become obsessed with a certain way of life. 

The theme of the original Toy Story was that Woody, being both old-fashioned and firmly ensconced as Andy’s favorite toy, was that his resistance to change (then, in the form of Buzz Lightyear’s arrival in the room and replacing him as top toy) was detrimental to his relationships. Now, after nearly being sold to a Japanese toy museum, being donated to a daycare center, and finally finding his way to Bonnie’s toy collection, Woody finally has a chance to reevaluate himself and what’s important to him. Unquestionably, he loves Bonnie and wants what is best for her – but now that he is no longer the glue that binds the rest of the group of toys, he can finally begin to understand who he is outside of his bond with a kid, and what it is he really wants out of life.

Pixar has always been good at developing characters with complex inner workings, recognizably very human desires (whether the characters themselves are human or not), and conflicts that reveal flaws without undoing all the good inside. While the “villain” of Toy Story 4, a doll called Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) who believes her broken voice mechanism is what’s keeping her in the antique shop, is not nearly as menacing as Lotso in Toy Story 3, or even Stinky Pete the Prospector in 2, she exists as a mirror to Woody and his refusal to see how he’s been holding himself back from living his best life. She isn’t so much a catalyst for the conflict as she is a way for him to understand what’s really going on inside his heart, and once he realizes this, he is able to figure out what needs to be done.

As always with a Pixar film, the emotional stakes are high – but so much of this is ground that’s been covered already within this franchise. The Toy Story  series feels like it has run its course – and with Andy’s departure to college at the end of 3, it felt like it had come as full-circle as a warm hug. There was closure for the toys, and they were beginning their new, happy chapter with Bonnie – the feeling being that, even when she too grew up, there would be another child waiting to welcome our group of friends to play, and on into the future as long as they exist. The trilogy was a beautiful journey for all of them, so this fourth film, so removed from the gang to focus on Woody and even more new characters feels very strange. We have known Woody for nearly a quarter-century now, and watching him deal with the loss of his beloved Andy and learning that change moves the world forward has been a valuable series of lessons we have learned alongside him. It is an unusual way to continue the series, and it is bittersweet.

The path Toy Story 4 chooses is not as emotionally fraught as the other three films, which is possibly a result of using Woody’s experience and personality as a lens through which to filter what is happening. There are so many new characters, and the voice acting (as always with Pixar’s films) is fantastic – particularly entertaining are a pair of cheap carnival plush animals, Duckie and Bunny, who are voiced by Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele with hilarious results, and Keanu Reeves lending his voice to an insecure stuntman toy called Duke Kaboom – but it’s hard to keep up at times during the movie, and since so much of the action takes place outside the RV, the familiar characters we all know and love already are pushed into very small roles. Even Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) is reduced to a sidekick as he takes off in search of Woody and Forky on his own, and it feels as though the ensemble cast would have been better served with more to do.

It hurts to admit it, but Toy Story 4 really just feels like another unnecessary sequel to draw out the life of a dying franchise that has run its course. There are, of course, heartwarming moments, and plenty of comedy – but the lessons feel like a re-tread of old ground, and the barrage of new characters (particularly since every other film had introduced so many already) is overwhelming. We don’t get to know them all nearly well enough, and their presence pushes characters we’re familiar with into tinier roles without any chance of their own development at the expense of Woody’s – and his feels like an overdue epiphany, since he has technically gone through the same pattern of emotional beats before. And of course, the ending is left open enough that Toy Story 5 is an unfortunate likelihood. Seeing Woody, Buzz, and all the rest is like coming home to a gathering of old friends – but even old friends grow up, and take some time to simply be.

-Dana Culling