After nine years, the beloved Disney-Pixar Toy Story franchise continues in Toy Story 4. It brings back the characters that we have enjoyed and even loved in the previous films. For that reason alone, I’m sure that many people will be enthralled with the newest part of the story and love this film as much as the previous three. And everyone I have heard talk about the film has had glowing opinions. But for me the glow is a bit dimmer. Encountering Woody and Buzz (and some new characters) is enjoyable, but for me the film doesn’t reach the same heights as the other Toy Story films.
When the story left off nine years ago, Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks), Buzz (Tim Allen), and the rest of Andy’s toys had been taken to Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw). (Nine years hasn’t passed in the Toy Story universe, but there is a prologue of something in that universe nine years ago). Things are different for Woody. Bonnie doesn’t play with him as much as the other toys. She even takes his sheriff’s badge and pins it on Jessie (Joan Cussack). But Woody is determined to keep Bonnie happy. When she is apprehensive about a kindergarten orientation, Woody sneaks into her backpack in case she needs him.
When Bonnie ends up at a table alone with nothing to do, Woody gets things out of a trash can that the inventive little girl uses to craft a toy out of a spork, marker, pipe cleaner, and glue-on eyes. Thus, Forky (Tony Hale) is born. But Forky can’t grasp being a toy. He assumes he is trash, having been used already. As he keeps trying to get back into the trash can, Woody tries to educate him about the purpose of being a toy.
When Bonnie and her parents set off on a road trip, Forky tries one more time to escape being a toy by jumping out of the moving RV. Woody follows and as they work their way back to Bonnie (who is distraught at not finding Forky), the adventures begin.
On the way through town Woody sees a lamp in the Second Chance Antique store window that reminds him of his friend Bo Peep who was in Andy’s sister’s room. Sneaking into the shop, Woody and Forky encounter other toys, but the toys in the shop are ruled by Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) and her band of ventriloquist dummy henchmen. Like Woody, Gabby understands the role a toy can play in a child’s life, but she has never had that because her voice box was defective. So she has been on a shelf for 60 years, hoping for a chance. In Woody, she believes stealing his voice box will give her that chance.
As the adventure plays out, Woody is reunited with Bo Peep (Annie Potts) who is running a gang of lost toys, but for them that status has brought a sense of freedom, not the fear that Woody has always understood that to mean. Bo Peep and the others help to bring all the trials and dangers to an emotional ending.
And that ending will be satisfying for most viewers. But for me, it came up short. My first reaction was that this film stripped part of the humanity away from the characters. The value of the past films was not that we were watching toys, but that we sensed that we were watching ourselves. Woody has to deal with jealousy, with loss, with a midlife crisis. Buzz is constantly dealing with his hubris. This time around, there’s much more problem solving than personal growth–even though the story has ample opportunity to deal with personal issues. For example, Woody is reaching something akin to retirement. What is his role going to be if he’s not played with? Because he has spent his life doing the job he was built for, he must feel a bit of being lost at the prospect of being put out to pasture.
The film also raises an issue about disabilities that doesn’t quite fulfill its promise. Gabby Gabby was made with a defect. That defect has relegated her to a world without love. Her story line has a happy ending, but only after her disability is fixed. Another character, Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves), a posable action figure of Canada’s greatest stunt rider, was discarded when he couldn’t do the jumps that were in commercials. Are people’s value dependent upon their abilities or could these toys (and people like them) have been loved for other qualities they have? I wonder how someone born with a disability or deformity would find themselves in this story. Are they lovable only after being fixed?
This is a story that had the possibilities of greatness that the other Toy Story films reached. I don’t think my problem is that I’ve outgrown my love for these toys, or that I’ve moved on to flashier toys. But I think this time around they just aren’t quite the same friends that I found in the past.