Fourth instalments have never been easy. The likes of Rocky IV and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home are easily outnumbered by such fourquel farragoes as Superman: The Quest For Peace, Batman & Robin and Jaws: The Revenge. These days, it is a brave studio that ventures into post-trilogy territory without a Harry Potter-style series blueprint. But Pixar, as we well know, is one of the bravest. It can afford to be, with a 15-out-of-15-star trilogy like Toy Story in its Hall Of Fame.
Nine years ago, after Woody, Buzz and their landfill-avoiding friends were bequeathed by a college-age Andy to the young Bonnie, it appeared their story had definitively ended. They’d let Andy go. Toy Story 3 was a fitting and deeply touching farewell. So you’d hope Pixar has a very good (narrative) reason to unpack these characters once more.
The strongest fourth series instalment since Mad Max: Fury Road.
In truth, Toy Story 4 doesn’t feel quite as coherent or emotionally compelling as the previous three. Where Toy Stories 2 and 3 were perfectly cut jigsaw pieces that completed a bigger picture we never previously realised was there, 4 feels distinct; less an essential new chapter than an interesting epilogue.
Woody and Buzz are no longer the buddy-act unit they were in the previous films. In fact, Buzz’s storyline feels almost tacked on here, spun around what should be a one-off gag about him finding his “inner voice” through his pre-recorded Space Ranger catchphrases. Meanwhile, Jessie, Bullseye, Hamm, Rex and co barely feature at all, with little more to do than hang back at ‘base camp’ and fret about what’s happening to Woody.
However, there is much to enjoy in what is happening to everyone’s favourite sheriff. Firstly, his new buddy act with the confused spork-turned-toy Forky, voiced by Arrested Development and Veep’s Tony Hale. Freshly created by Bonnie, he’s a loveable mess of a plaything, with mismatched googly eyes, a wax strip for a mouth and a snapped lollypop stick for feet. Unlike the other toys, his raison d’être is unclear. Woody insists he exists for Bonnie to love and play with; but all Forky wants to do is nestle in the cosy oblivion of a waste bin. Woody’s obsession with mentoring the former spork, and keeping him with Bonnie, is really the rag-doll cowboy’s way of dealing with his own mid-life crisis. He’s not as important to Bonnie as he was to Andy, and he’s getting played with less and less. But he doesn’t know what else he can do.
This feeds into Woody’s second narrative strand, which, in a bold first for this series, is a love story. With her absence in Toy Story 3 explained via a handy pre-credits flashback sequence, Annie Potts’ Bo Peep gloriously returns, reunited with Woody after having lived for years as a lost toy — and all the happier for it. She is entertainingly recast as a wry, resourceful survivor, full of grit and self-reliance, and bemused by Woody’s continuing dependence on being owned by a kid. In arguably the series’ most grown-up storyline yet, the film asks whether two people who were once very close, but whose lives have been pulled in such drastically different directions, could ever make it work again.
Not that this is trying to be a miniature plastic Casablanca (“We’ll always have Andy’s”). Like former Toy Story films, the emphasis is firmly on delivering laughs, throwing in some scares, and thrilling us with madcap action.
The laughs are primarily delivered by the new additions: Keanu Reeves as the self-doubting Canadian stunt-cyclist Duke Caboom, haunted by his inability to live up to his own ads, and Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele as carnival fluffies Ducky and Bunny, whose cute, fuzzy exteriors belie a hilariously sadistic streak. The scares are rooted in an antiques store-set subplot involving a creepily needy old-school doll voiced by Christina Hendricks, and her dead-eyed, *Goosebumps-ish ventriloquist dummy henchmen. And the madcap action zigs and zags throughout, from a striking, storm-tossed, torch-lit rescue mission, to a hairy encounter with a toy-eviscerating cat.
It might not take us to the epic highs of its predecessors — which is, to be fair, a skyscraping bar to reach — but Toy Story 4 is certainly the strongest fourth series instalment since Mad Max hit that Fury Road.