Review: Toy Story 4 (Josh Cooley, 2019)
Since Toy Story (John Lasseter, 1995) hit cinema screens worldwide in November 1995, audiences have witnessed a series of dramatic changes within the animated medium, particularly in Hollywood. Having signed a contract with Pixar Animation Studios in 1991, Disney were initially hesitant to give the very first computer-animated film about a collection of toys the same commercial backing as their traditional cel-animated features. Until, that is, they saw the toys come to life. The Toy Story franchise continues to prove to audiences and critics alike that telling a story for children (and their parents) can entwine serious topics and real-life issues into an adventure family film narrative. The latest (and final) installment of the successful series, Toy Story 4 (Josh Cooley, 2019) offers audiences accustomed to the characters a new tale of fun escapades, the importance of family and friendship and how to deal with change. Toy Story 4 is exciting, emotional and a satisfying end to the Toy Story franchise, taking the audience on a hilarious fun-filled journey with a creepy twist we aren’t accustomed to judging from the previous films. Although Toy Story 4 may be an unexpected addition to the franchise, offering a new ending for Woody and friends (including Bo Peep), it’s an artistic and heart-warming piece of animated cinema that I am looking forward to watching again and again (Fig.1).
Toy Story 4 finds Woody the Cowboy, Buzz Lightyear and the whole gang from Toy Story 3 (Lee Unkrich, 2010) back with owner Bonnie as she is about to start Kindergarten. Woody finds himself becoming overwhelmed by this seismic shift, whilst outwardly claiming to be experienced in ‘taking care of his kid’, as he remembers the hardships of looking after previous owner Andy. Time has passed since Andy was Bonnie’s age, and the film suggests that maybe Woody just needs to allow for things to change as owners grow up. This is a recurring problem for Woody throughout Toy Story 4, as he navigates his way through the film with some mild peril thrown in for good measure - because what’s a Toy Story film without a chase sequence, or indeed the introduction of a new toy, or even a narrative in which an old toy gets lost and needs to be returned before a fast approaching deadline? Something that Toy Story 4 confronts head on is this idea of change, reflecting on what it means to move on and find where you might fit in in a new situation.
One of Toy Story 4’s main features (and one that dominated the film’s promotional campaign - see left) is that it introduces the character of Forky. Forky is trash, not a mass-produced toy. But Woody takes it upon himself to keep Forky in Bonnie’s life - not only does Bonnie’s ownership give Forky purpose (other than being used for salad or soup), but Forky in turn allows Bonnie to relax into her new school environment. In this way, Toy Story 4 continues the series’ dual register, allowing its narrative to function simultaneously as both a children’s film and as nostalgic trip for adults. The fantasy genre has historically used childhood as a basis for its stories, but the way in which the Toy Story franchise uses it allows the viewer to explore a world that is familiar and comforting, yet without the narrative being told solely from the point of view of children. Cary Bazelgette and David Buckingham argue that:
Childhood is often seen as another world. Although it is a world that we have all visited, it has become inaccessible to us except through the distortions of memory. For most adults, there is an “essence” of childhood that is unknowable, mysterious, even magical. We can only recapture it vicariously, through the imagination and, perhaps more commonly, through accepted and conventional ideas of what constitutes childhood (qtd. in Walters 2011: 73).
Pixar’s stories typically allow children to imagine the possibilities, and adults reminisce about times gone by: Boo in Monsters Inc. (Pete Docter, 2001) dealing with the monsters in her closet; Riley dealing with her emotions for the first time in Inside Out (Pete Docter, 2015) and Jack-Jack learning what the world even is in Incredibles II (Brad Bird, 2018). This technique of centralising childhood and the process of growing up into (and exploring) a narrative is one that Pixar have perfected. However, nothing in their back catalogue of films quite deal with childhood in the way the Toy Story franchise does. As Katherine A. Fowkes argues in her book The Fantasy Film:
Toy Story was the first of a new generation of 3-D computer-generated stories that provided family fare appealing to children but also layered with adult jokes and clever intertextual references that viewers appreciated (2010: 114).
In Toy Story 4, this layering of adult concerns with iconography and story tropes associated with childhood reaches an extra dimension, as the film frequently dips into melancholic and sometimes even existential terrain. Tragedy strikes when Woody and Forky become separated from Bonnie and the gang whilst on vacation. As in previous installments, Woody rushes to be the hero and ‘look after his kid’, going after a confused Forky and safely escorting him back to the family RV to maintain Bonnie’s happiness and progress her transition into Kindergarten. Just as they find the RV next to the fairground, thus fulfilling Woody’s duty as Bonnie’s toy, Woody is stopped in his tracks by an old friend. It is at this moment that the film stops being solely centred around Bonnie and her being comforted by her toys, and allows for our imaginations to run wild.
Woody embarks on a journey with Bo Peep, who was absent from Toy Story 3, but has since had a feminist and empowering makeover (see Furness 2019), and her not-so-lost sheep in an over-the-top rescue mission. Forky, although oblivious to the situation and has not yet learnt the idea of ‘stranger danger’, has been taken hostage by a set of creepy dolls in an antique shop next to the fairground. Gabby Gabby, a talking doll from the 1950s, is the ringleader of the ventriloquist dummy mafia in the shop, who is desperate to find a child of her own having been left on the shelf for many years collecting dust (sound familiar?). Gabby has a malfunctioning voice box and is certain that with it repaired she will too be loved like Woody has been loved by Andy. Gabby, understanding the dynamic between Woody and Forky instantly plays on this to entrap Woody. With Woody being responsible for Forky’s well-being (as a parent is for their child) it’s obvious to Gabby and the audience that Woody will make all attempts to return Forky back to Bonnie in one piece before she leaves town, despite the risks to himself and other toys.
This engagement with an adult/child duality is equally reflected in the film’s visual style. The animation of Pixar often feels dreamlike with intensely bright or dark colours and this latest instalment of Toy Story is no different. The sickly-sweet colours of Bonnie’s room, toys and the fairground offer intense contrasts to darker moments (both aesthetically and tonally) that we see inside the antique shop. In Bonnie’s room, Forky is just trying to throw himself away because he is ‘trash’ but in the antique shop toys are destroyed violently by the resident pet cat. In the fairground the screen is filled with bright colours and warm hues implying happiness and warmth, compared to dark corners of the antique shops often coated with blue hues suggesting a coldness to the place. The way Toy Story 4 switches from peril to action, sensitive conversations to hilarious one liners allows for the audience to enter a dreamlike world. We find ourselves seeing a conversation between Bo and Woody about having a child and what that means for a toy’s existence/purpose in life (if you do not have a child owner, you are considered a lost toy) followed by the introduction of not-so-successful Canadian stunt man toy Duke Caboom whose signature move is posing and then crashing. Duke too had been thrown away like many of the toys we encounter in the franchise and is still searching for his place in the world, much like Bonnie is. Duke’s catchphrase ‘Yes I CAN-ADA’ is light relief, as are his poses (see right), along with Buzz’s quest to find his ‘inner voice’ whilst they embark on their stressful rescue mission to find Forky. Meanwhile the gang back at the RV cause havoc for Bonnie’s parents to try and delay them leaving town before all toys are accounted for. Audience’s trust Pixar’s animation to tell quality fantasy stories in ways other animation institutions wouldn’t get away with. Bo Peep’s new lifestyle is a far cry from her set up on Toy Story with her sheep Billy, Goat and Gruff becoming scavengers, yet it just works because why wouldn’t it? Would you really think a dinosaur toy was the voice of your sat-nav? In this realm it doesn’t matter.
Toy Story 4 welcomes back old friends and introduces new ones favourably. Reunions do not feel forced and audiences will be laughing and most likely crying once the credits are rolling. It’s a trip down memory lane, allowing children and adults alike to find comfort in the narrative and relationships we become a part of for the 100-minute runtime. It includes nods back to the previous Toy Story films, as well as brand new characters highlighting its nostalgia but placing it amongst new situations. Pixar (of course) have included their famous subtle innuendos that adults will appreciate, and children won’t even notice until they are older. It’s heart-warming and a joy to watch. Returning to the world of Toy Story is a true comfort and some much-needed relief from every day stresses, just like a cuddle with your favourite childhood blanket.
Fowkes, Katherine A. The Fantasy Film (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010).
Furness, Hannah. “Bo Peep given Toy Story 4 Feminist Makeover as She Swaps Pink Dress for Practical Trousers.” The Telegraph (June 16, 2019), available at: www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2019/06/16/bo-peep-given-toy-story-4-feminist-makeover-swaps-pink-dress/.
Walters, James. Fantasy Film: A Critical Introduction (Oxford and New York: Berg Publishers, 2011).
Hannah is a writer and avid cinema goer who specialises in Fantasy & Reality theory and spectatorship. She received her BA(Hons) from King's College London in Film Studies in 2014. Although currently working full time, Hannah is currently reading around Queer Theory and Feminist Theory in her spare time whilst continuing her interest in the above. Originally from Teesside she lives in London with her partner and pet cat Bmo. Her twitter is @hnewmansmart in case you also like animation, cats, cinema or Harry Potter.