Review: 'Toy Story 4' spins its wheels but does the job
Latest chapter in beloved franchise not up to previous installments but still better than most of its contemporaries
Finding your purpose, embracing your destiny and accepting your mortality are mature themes for a children's film, but "Toy Story 4" handles them nimbly while still managing to be a colorful family adventure.
If it feels flabby in its midsection, well, that is a "4" in its title. And Woody, Buzz Lightyear and the gang, nearly 25 years after "Toy Story" laid the groundwork and set the bar for the computer animation genre, are beginning to collect a few dust bunnies, a joke "Toy Story 4" makes before anyone else can at its expense.
But the "Toy Story" movies — and Pixar movies across the board — come with different sets of expectations than other computer animated films, and compared to the "Secret Life of Pets" of the world, it's a shining beacon of originality.
Against the series' own high bar, however, "Toy Story 4" doesn't measure up. There's nothing here that compares to the slow conveyor belt ride toward the incinerator in 2010's "Toy Story 3," as haunting and striking a sequence as the series has ever managed, which dealt honestly with death in a way that most modern children's films avoid. "Toy Story 4" does contemplate the nature of existence in frank ways, but it spends a lot of time spinning its wheels with a narrative that leans heavily on new characters and forsakes the camaraderie of the original "Toy Story" gang.
Chief among these new characters is Forky, a plastic spork with a pipe cleaner for arms, a broken popsicle stick for legs and a set of mismatched googly eyes for peepers. Forky is created by Bonnie, the incoming kindergartner who has been passed down the box full of toys we've come to know and love, and this janky new creation — assembled from spare parts found in the trash — comes to be her new chosen favorite.
Forky, like the rest of the toys, becomes sentient when he meets Woody, again warmly and compassionately voiced by Tom Hanks. Except Forky longs to return to the garbage bin from whence he came, and has no concept of life or desire to live a life outside of a trash can. It's up to trusty ol' Woody to convince Forky, voiced with constant fret and worry by "Veep's" Tony Hale, of not only his own value, but his value to Bonnie. It's a rocky road to acceptance, as Forky longs to, essentially, commit suicide. So here we have a discussion of what it means to exist and be alive, heady fare for a movie co-starring Slinky Dog. (Who is underused, as usual.)
It's unfortunate, then, that "Toy Story 4" winds up spending a good portion of its running time in an antiques shop where a doll named Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), aided by an army of creepy ventriloquist dolls, looks to take Woody's voice box to make it her own. She longs to become complete so she can find purpose, and hopefully love, in a human owner.
A rescue mission is launched, aided by Bo Peep (Annie Potts), who has become a well-traveled independent soul since being separated from the remainder of her pals. (Think of her as a less hardened version of Charlize Theron's character from "Mad Max: Fury Road.") She enlists the help of a confidence-challenged Canadian daredevil action toy, Duke Caboom, voiced with one too many "whoa's" by Keanu Reeves.
Meanwhile, the rest of the gang is holed up in an RV at a carnival, where Bonnie and her parents are visiting during a summertime road trip. Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), saddled with little to do in Andrew Stanton and Stephany Folsom's busy script, meets up with a pair of tough-talking plush carnival prizes, Ducky and Bunny (Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, respectively), whose delusions of grandeur lead to fantasy sequences that eat up a lot of screen time. The final third of the movie becomes an extended action sequence, its constantly moving parts overcompensating for the soul that typically makes the "Toy Story" films worth the journey.
First time feature director Josh Cooley, a co-writer on the Oscar-nominated "Inside Out" script, keeps things from getting dull, and cleverly invokes horror movie tropes with the dolls inside the antiques store. Yet for a series that once took us to infinity and beyond, "Toy Story 4" lacks rocket fuel, and feels more like a side adventure than a full-fledged "Toy Story" journey.
Is it time to leave the gang behind? "Toy Story 4" gives a pretty good out to the series. Everyone grows up and moves on from their favorite toys. It's a part of life and the lesson the "Toy Story" movies have taught us all along. Now would be a good time to put it into practice.
'Toy Story 4'
Rated G: Nothing objectionable
Running time: 100 minutes