It would be easy to be cynical about Disney reviving one of Pixar’s most enduring franchise brands for another outing.
To all intents, the ending to the third Toy Story movie in 2010 felt like a full stop to the arc of Woody, Buzz Lightyear and the rest of the gang, as Andy grew out of his toys and traded them to Bonnie.
Yet here we are, nearly ten years on, and back in the cinema to see their adventures, some 24 years on from when Toy Story launched Pixar’s computer-animated wizardry into the public consciousness.
Three movies have followed, with spin-offs, video games, food company tie-ins and the lot following. Indeed, a TV show with the main new character in this movie is already in the works for Disney’s forthcoming streaming service.
Curiously, considering it would be easy to be cynical about Toy Story 4 as a story that exists to exist, this is a movie that largely plays with existential questions and what it means to exist in the way the toys in this franchise have done.
Most of this is largely down to said new character who gets his own spin off Disney+ TV show, who appears a little way into the movie.
The film is set two years on from Toy Story 3, the toys have settled into a new life with Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw), although Woody (Tom Hanks) has not adjusted well to being on the back-up list after being Andy’s main toy.
Woody sneaks along to Bonnie’s first day at kindergarten, and covertly provides her with tools to make something in her arts and crafts project. Made out of a spork, pipe cleaners, googly eyes and a broken lollipop stick, she christens the creation Forky and calls it her friend.
Soon enough, Forky (Tony Hale) comes to life and seems to experience a full-on existential crisis from the get-go, taking every chance to try and hurl himself into any nearby bin.
When Forky then jumps out of a window on a road-trip and Woody follows, it then leads on a big adventure as they cross paths with returning character Bo Peep (Annie Potts), who was separated from the gang during the film’s prologue.
Along the way, Woody also meets a new range of supporting characters, including the closest the film has to an antagonist in Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), plus stuntman toy Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves).
Meanwhile, in his own mission to get them back, Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) ends up in the company of wise-cracking fairground plush prizes Ducky (Keegan-Michael Key) and Bunny (Jordan Peele).
As is always the way with Pixar, there is no shortage of beautiful things to look at on screen. Some 24 years on from the original Toy Story, the computer animation process has become more life-like and slicker, leading to the creation of a very handsome movie.
The story is a bit more sprawling then Toy Story 3’s tale of abandonment, and in all truth isn’t as tight as Toy Story 2, which is arguably the best structured plot.
What it deals with is interesting in itself, bringing with it strange ramifications for what it has meant to be a toy – particularly one not intended to be one. It leads to Toy Story 4 being a film a curiosity, where it uses animation to fully embrace an existential crisis that eventually rubs off on Woody, and does it in quite an interesting and fascinating manner.
It helps that Hale, well known for his role of playing the likes of Arrested Development’s Buster Bluth and Gary from Veep, truly sells Forky. He is a diverting presence at the heart of the film, fully selling his awkward adjustment.
The scenes played out that are dominated by him and Hanks are particularly watchable. Having largely shared co-billing with Allen’s Buzz throughout the franchise, this is a film Woody dominates. As well as Hale, Hank also has a great on-screen pairing with Potts, who fully sells the return of Bo Peep reborn as a toy gone feral, and in turn provides a fascinating insight into how that would work.
The new characters also add something. Gabby Gabby’s development is fascinating, while Ducky and Bunny are great fun, as indeed, is Duke Caboom as part of Keanu’s career renaissance. The argument can even be made that even with it being a kids film, it delivers a higher laugh ratio than many recent adult comedy flicks.
By contrast, it does feel like the old gang – including Buzz Lightyear – don’t really get so much to do, with the characters introduced in Toy Story 3 that have stuck around getting even less, even if each play their part in the film’s closing moments.
There may be arguments about whether Toy Story 4 is an integral entry in continuing the franchise, and indeed if Disney/Pixar are better off parking it here. But it is still great fun, grappling with surprisingly heavy questions while still keeping some of the old fun of talking toys running around. Its a highly engaging production, and one that on its own merits, feels very much worthwhile.