Nearly 25 years on from its immaculate birth, Toy Story — like Wagner’s Ring, like John Updike’s Rabbit novels — has become a tetralogy.
Do we need another one? Isn’t it time for Woody the toy cowboy to stuff that hat on a peg and stop hanging around kids? The short answer is no. Though it springs fewer surprises, Toy Story 4 is still reliably fab. The animation now has such a painterly exactness it may as well be real rain/stubble/tarmac up there on screen. As for the cartoon characters, they project their own truth too, even the newest toy fashioned from a plastic fork-cum-spoon. ‘I can’t believe I’m talking to a spork,’ says Woody, nicely subverting Toy Story’s central idea that the imagination can take us all to infinity and beyond.
Amazingly there are still new stories to mine in the relationship between a child and its menagerie of playthings. This installment brings us the theme of the midlife crisis — that critical tipping point when the solid citizen begins to feel the chill wind of his own irrelevance. It might not seem a sound premise for a movie aimed at ten-year-olds but that’s where Woody is at now. He and the gang are domiciled with Bonnie, last seen taking possession of Andy’s old toys as he headed to college. Poor old Woody is rarely plucked from the cupboard and his sheriff badge belongs to Jessie the cowgirl.
Then, on her first day at kindergarten, Bonnie wraps pipe-cleaner arms round a spork, glues on face and feet and christens the weird little figurine Forky. Forky is born with self-esteem issues – he believes his place is in the trash can — which gives Woody new purpose as a guardian. Then Forky throws himself out of the Winnebago, triggering a rescue mission.
We could probably call Toy Story 4 a #MeTooquel. The series originator John Lasseter left the project to spend more time with his conscience after admitting to ‘missteps’ at Pixar HQ. The film that rose in his wake gives proper agency to a female lead. Bo Peep (voiced by Annie Potts), whose absence from the third film is explained in the high-energy opening sequence, now reconnects with Woody and the gang at a teeming drive-by funfair. Where once she was a mere damsel in distress, here she rips off her dirndl to reveal the hot all-in-one outfit of a shot-calling can-do action girl. She zips about in a motorized skunkmobile, re-affixes her own broken arm with duct tape and gets by without a child owner to lend her existence meaning.
There is another sort of female on the prowl, a baby-faced antique doll called Gabby Gabby (mellifluously voiced by Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks) whose factory malfunction can be fixed only if she steals Woody’s string-pull voicebox. Her lair in the glass cabinet of a dusty antique store is guarded by a scary dummy called Vincent. The film’s only real baddie, he’s the spit of the creepy ventriloquist’s puppet who messed with Anthony Hopkins’s head in Magic (1978).
There are sundry such geeky nods to film of yore – buffs who keep stacks of Cahiers du cinéma by the loo will enjoy compiling their Wikilists. The truth is that the DNA of all cinema is here — romance, adventure, terror, joy, beauty, light and sound (Randy Newman’s soundtrack is yet another peach). As for Woody, voiced by the very last of the trad American movie stars, Tom Hanks, he is now as much of a Hollywood hero as any cowboy incarnated by Gary Cooper or John Wayne or Clint Eastwood.
There’s less for the brave dumbass spaceman Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) to do — he is kept busy by the befuddling concept of an inner voice. But new toys join in: a jive-talking pair of fluffy fairground prizes called Ducky and Bunny, a cowardly stunt rider known as Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves). His climactic motorcycle leap is a photocopy of that iconic moonshot from ET. This wondrous franchise can still reach for the sky.
This article was originally published in The Spectator magazine.