At first, “Toy Story 4” seems to stumble onto the perfect antidote to the rank commercialism at its core. The franchise’s basic premise is grounded on the secret lives of our industrial-made …
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At first, “Toy Story 4” seems to stumble onto the perfect antidote to the rank commercialism at its core. The franchise’s basic premise is grounded on the secret lives of our industrial-made toys, their basic personalities formed at the factory but yearning to be so much more. In turn, however, “Toy Story” spawned its own retail reality. Woody the cowboy and Buzz Lightyear weren’t just animated avatars. They became actual toys you could buy for your own kids, and a single “Toy Story” movies became a lucrative series.
Enter Forky (Tony Hale), which goes from being rubbish in a trashcan to a young girl named Bonnie’s kindergarten art project. A spork adorned with googly eyes, popsicle legs, and pipe-cleaner arms, Forky comes to life without any conception of being. He instinctively tries to cast himself back into the garbage from whence he came. But Bonnie loves him, more than her old toys and those she inherited from Andy before he left for college, including Woody, Buzz, and the rest of the gang. In the fourth installment of an animated series that became the commercial underpinning for an entire movie studio, a child finds her truest joy from a plastic utensil she decorates using scraps.
Meanwhile, Woody (Tom Hanks) may have Bonnie’s name now emblazoned on the bottom of his boot, but the longtime alpha of the playroom is no longer the sheriff in town. Dolly (Bonnie Hunt) is the de facto leader of the group. Woody is often left in the closet during playtime, with Bonnie often pinning Woody’s badge onto Jessie (Joan Cusack), the sidekick cowgirl turned lawgirl. So often the savior of the group, Andy now worries about being cast aside himself.
Woody and Forky form a simpatico bond: Forky is trash that doesn’t want to be a toy, while Woody is a toy who’s afraid of becoming trash. Forky continues to wander off, and Woody charges himself with the task of returning him to Bonnie’s loving arms. It’s a full-time job, and when Forky casts himself out the window of a moving RV during a family vacation, it sets off another typical “Toy Story” rescue mission.
A more daring film would have delved deeper into Forky’s existential underpinning, into the essence of what it means to be a toy (see also: human). Is Forky God’s creation or God’s little mistake? Alas, after a tantalizing first act, “Toy Story 4” consigns Forky to the role of comic relief. Woody gets sidetracked by the allure of relocating his lost Bo Beep, whose conspicuous absence from “Toy Story 3” is explained/rectified during film’s prologue. Woody spies Bo Peep’s lamp in a dusty antique store, ruled by a mid-century doll named Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks). Aided by an army of creepy ventriloquist dummies, Gabby hopes to harvest Woody’s voice box to replace her defective one, believing that’s all separating her from a child’s desire.
When Woody finally finds Bo Peep, she’s embraced the life of an independent woman, living off the land with other lost toys. She’s traded in her flowing dress for pants, transfigured from porcelain plaything to Furiosa—her severed arm that constantly needs reattaching seems more than coincidental.
Meanwhile, director Josh Cooley gives Buzz (Tim Allen) something to do, teaming him with a Canadian daredevil toy named Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves, terrific), two carnival plush toys (Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, doing Key & Peele stuff), and a smattering of Happy Meal fodder. There’s an amusing running gag about Buzz treating his prerecorded voice commands as an inner monologue that always seems to steer him in the right direction. Otherwise, the latter half “Toy Story 4” proceeds amiably but inevitably until another emotional gut-punch ending. Woody goes from believing he exists for whatever kid will have him, to realizing that his greater worth is to those who need him, toys and kids alike. What might be the finale of this seminal series doesn’t break new ground, but it ultimately lands on the truth about its central character.