For a film franchise, 24 years is middle-aged, bordering on elderly. Nearly a quarter-century after the first Toy Story, the fourth installment, which hits theaters later this week, feels a bit tired.
If earlier films in the franchise were about loss and abandonment and saying goodbye to childhood, this one is pretty much just about getting from one physical-comedy gag to the next. The set pieces that deliver the gags, busy as they are, are much less inventive than they were in years past, and the way underlying themes get tossed out haphazardly without much follow-through suggests a case of writing by committee. (As do the credits: Eight scribes managed to get their names on the film.)
We begin with the usual: Woody (Tom Hanks) trying to save a suicidal spork. “Forky” (Tony Hale), who keeps trying to throw himself in the garbage, is a neurotic, mentally challenged toy put together by Woody’s kid, Bonnie, and Woody and Forky get separated from her. They must find their way back to their kid!
Or not. She doesn’t seem to care. She has lots of other toys. I’m not sure what the point of Forky is apart from jokes about his googly eyed weirdness. A symbol of how anything could be a toy given the spark of its creator’s imagination? Proof that ugly things can be loved? An urgent plea for suicide hotlines to provide service to plastic utensils?
A potentially brilliant sidebar is a trip to an antique store where one of those creepy old-timey dolls — usually found these days only in horror movies — and her sinister retinue of even-more-terrifying ventriloquist dummies lure Woody into a scheme with nefarious intent. Woody, as ever a bit of a sap, doesn’t sense the danger. Music from The Shining plays. This joke could get really good . . . but instead it just fades out gradually. The creepy doll, Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), turns out to be nice, merely a bit misunderstood.
TS4 does come up with one brilliant idea, a spoof of those 1970s Evel Knievel action figures and their wind-up motorcycles, with the daredevil relabeled “Duke Caboom” and voiced amusingly by Keanu Reeves as a clueless Canadian. Duke gives the movie most of its highlights, but then again vainglorious Canadians are inherently funny. He occupies the space ordinarily filled by Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), who this time pops up only sporadically, as more of a sidekick than a rival to Woody.
Despite the film’s quick pace and breezy good nature, the overall effect is mediocre, and TS4 is easily the weakest effort in the series so far (the correct ranking of the four is, of course, 2, 1, 3, and then 4). Most of its narrative energy is expended on a question that doesn’t matter much even within the movie. As Woody and Forky try to make their way back home, someone points out that “Kids lose toys all the time.” Quite so: Kids freak out over a lost toy, just as they will bawl nonsensically about a hundred other things (“I don’t want the blue cup, I want the PURPLE CUP!!!”). But give them 15 minutes and a snack and they’ll move on. So why should we care whether any given toy gets reunited with its kid, much less care enough to sit through a movie about it? In previous Toy Story installments, we cared because the toys had feelings and would be crushed if they weren’t played with. Here, that motive is abandoned: The suggestion is that toys can be perfectly happy, maybe even more self-actualized, living on their own. The kid, in this movie, doesn’t really need the toys, and the toys don’t really need the kid. Oh.
There may be an essay in there somewhere about the culture’s ease with, and even encouragement of, social atomization, but I’m puzzled why the writers went this route: Maybe they think the storyline of abandoned toys on quests for loving owners is played out, and they’re tired of writing plangent laments for lost childhood? What I got out of the movie is so vague that I’m not sure it’s what the writers intended, but here goes: Allegorically speaking, Woody isn’t a toy. He’s more of a helicopter parent. Bonnie, his kid, has moved on from him (though she’s only five). He needs to back off and let her be. As do parents in general. The movie suggests that instead of fussing incessantly over our kids, we should let them slip off to college or Brooklyn while we retire and pack up for an active adult community in Boca, which seems to be the sort of future Bo Peep (Annie Potts) has in mind for Woody. If toys aren’t defined by their loving relationships with their kids, though, the chief premise of the whole series is undercut. It’s as if Dorothy Gale said, “Meh, come to think of it, Kansas sucks” and traded her ruby slippers for a condo off the Yellow Brick Road.
Since the writers don’t develop the idea much, though, it’s unclear whether they really meant for it, or any other point, to stick. Maybe they just sent Woody off in a new direction because they were bored. If so, I understand completely. Few ideas could stay fresh when stretched across a 24-year movie franchise. Which is why, creatively speaking, there was no need for a fourth Toy Story. It may be an essential element of Disney’s corporate strategy, but as a film it’s forgettable.