“TOY STORY 4” — 3 stars — Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Tony Hale, Christina Hendricks, Annie Potts, Jordan Peele, Keegan-Michael Key, Keanu Reeves, Joan Cusack; G; in general release; running time: 100 minutes
Once you’ve fulfilled your life’s purpose, what do you do next?
That’s the central issue facing Woody in “Toy Story 4.” But life imitates art here: It’s also the main question for Pixar’s oldest franchise.
“Toy Story 3” felt like its perfect ending: a college-bound Andy lovingly gives his favorite childhood playthings to Bonnie, a wide-eyed little girl who appreciates them as much as Andy once did. “Toy Story 3” was the franchise fulfilling its purpose. It was closure. We didn’t need another “Toy Story.”
Now, though — nine years later — we have one. “Toy Story 4” is more of a coda than a capstone. But given its strengths, maybe that’s OK.
Yes, Andy is gone, but his toys live on in Bonnie’s room. That’s where we find ourselves at the beginning of “Toy Story 4,” presumably soon after Andy donates them.
Woody (Tom Hanks) doesn’t manage the toys anymore — that’s now the job of another toy, Dolly (Bonnie Hunt). In fact, Woody isn’t sheriff anymore either. Bonnie gave Woody’s badge to his cowgirl counterpart, Jessie (Joan Cusack). When Bonnie pulls her toys out, Woody is relegated to the closet. The former sheriff has an existential snake in his boot.
Still, Woody keeps a level head. When a frightened Bonnie goes to her first day of grade school, Woody sneaks into her backpack, hoping to ensure things go smoothly. At school, he tosses some crafting supplies on Bonnie’s desk, and she turns the scraps into Forky, a spork with pipe cleaner arms, popsicle stick feet and mismatched googly eyes. Forky makes Bonnie feel safe. Day 1 of school is a success.
Things get a little, well, stickier from here on out. Forky comes to life, voiced with anxious terror by Tony Hale (“Veep,” “Arrested Development”). Forky doesn’t want to be Bonnie’s favorite toy. He wants to be trash, like he once was. But he’s become Bonnie’s safety net — the only thing holding her fragile sense of self together. When Bonnie's family takes a road trip, Woody does all he can to keep Forky from literally jumping ship, er, RV. “I can’t let you throw yourself away,” Randy Newman sings. (Heartwarming Randy Newman song: check.)
Audiences will quickly realize the parallels between Woody and Forky. Each of them wants the life they used to lead. Woody tells Forky he once had a kid of his own. It’s surprising, and a little heavy, to hear Woody frame his relationship with Andy in this empty-nester, parent-child context. And “Toy Story 4” returns to this vernacular a few times. Woody helped build memories that Andy would cherish for a lifetime. That was his purpose, and he fulfilled it. But that time is over now. Can Woody continue a meaningful existence when that very meaning is taken away from him?
For Woody, his believes his salvation lies in Forky, and what the new toy means to Bonnie. So he, Buzz (Tim Allen), a world-wisened Bo Peep (Annie Potts) and some other new characters try to rescue Forky from an antique store. Most of the film takes place here. The store is a rich, spooky, masterfully crafted world of cobwebs, cats and broken dreams. Gabby Gabby, an antique doll voiced by Christina Hendricks, lords over the store, aided by a crew of silent, hilariously frightening ventriloquist dummies. Gabby Gabby has a broken voice box. Woody’s voice box, though, is in mint condition, so Gabby Gabby keeps Forky as ransom.
Like Forky, Gabby Gabby becomes a mirror for Woody’s own flaws. She’s neglected, and will stop at nothing to regain a child’s love. Will Woody?
It’s worth noting that most of the normal “Toy Story” crew — Slinky Dog, Hamm, Mrs. Potato Head, etc. — isn’t in this movie very much. They’re stuck on the RV as Woody rescues Forky with his new friends. This might bother some “Toy Story” purists. But “Toy Story 4” (and really, the whole franchise) is all about how we face new beginnings. And the script exercises considerable discipline in how closely it sticks to this theme. It really only deviates when two plush dolls, Ducky and Bunny (voiced by Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, respectively) start cracking wise. “Toy Story 4” feels like some of Pixar's most economical storytelling. It knows what it wants to be, and what message it wants to deliver.
That message is, at its core, the same as all other “Toy Story” films. It’s about our willingness to accept new circumstances, and find fulfillment in them — to infinity, and beyond.