Toy Story 4


Opening Friday, Jun. 21

The Toy Story franchise’s basic premise is grounded in the secret lives of our industrial toys, their basic personalities formed at the factory but yearning to be more. In time, however, Toy Story spawned its own retail reality. Woody and Buzz Lightyear aren’t just animated avatars. They’re actual toys you can buy for your own kids. But 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.

Forky (Tony Hale) goes from being rubbish in a trashcan to being a girl named Bonnie’s kindergarten art project. A spork adorned with googly eyes, Popsicle legs, and pipe-cleaner arms, a quivering Forky comes to life devoid of any conception of being: Instinctively, he tries to cast himself back into the garbage whence he came. But Bonnie loves him more than her old toys and those she inherited from Andy before he left for college at the end of Toy Story 3, including Woody, Buzz, and the rest of the gang. 

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. Woody is often left in the closet as Bonnie pins Woody’s badge onto Jessie (Joan Cusack), the sidekick cowgirl. So often the savior of the group, Woody 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 hurls himself out the window of a moving RV during a family vacation, it triggers 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 (and by extension, 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 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, the lonely Gabby Gabby hopes to harvest Woody’s voice box to replace her defective one, believing that it’s the only thing separating her from a child’s desire.

When Woody finally finds Bo Peep, the once-demure figurine is living an independent life of adventure with other lost toys. She’s traded in her flowing dress and bonnet for a pants suit, her shepherd’s crook now used as a “Bo” staff. Meanwhile, needing to give Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) something to do, director Josh Cooley teams 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 misses a chance to break new ground, but it ultimately lands on the truth about its central character.

Support independent journalism. Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle.