‘Toy Story 4’ retains its charm, even as the seams show

Just enough magic for a heartfelt final goodbye

Posted 6/26/19
“Toy Story” has always been a gravity-defying franchise, in terms of relying on excellent voice-acting performances, endearingly portrayed characters, richly well-realized animation and clever writing to cover for what is, at heart, a deeply dodgy premise.

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‘Toy Story 4’ retains its charm, even as the seams show

Just enough magic for a heartfelt final goodbye

Posted
“Toy Story” has always been a gravity-defying franchise, in terms of relying on excellent voice-acting performances, endearingly portrayed characters, richly well-realized animation and clever writing to cover for what is, at heart, a deeply dodgy premise. Although each film in the series teases the audience with some of the implications of what it might mean for toys to be alive, they all wisely avoid exploring those implications too seriously, adhering to the sage Mystery Science Theater 3000 credo of “It’s just a show; I should really just relax.” The whole reason I’m bringing this up is that, at four films and 24 years, it’s hard for any fantasy series to avoid addressing the implications of its own premise, and while “Toy Story 4” retains all the charm of the previous installments, the seams are starting to show. Make no mistake, it’s still fun to spend time with Sheriff Woody and Buzz Lightyear — Tom Hanks and Tim Allen make them seem like old family friends at this point — but “Toy Story 3” felt like such a perfect capstone to their shared adventures that this latest chapter seems more like an epilogue, until the return of Annie Potts’ sassy Bo Peep, who was last seen in “Toy Story 2,” and disappeared from the series in “Toy Story 3,” without any explanation until now. We’re treated not only to a retroactive bittersweet goodbye between Woody and Bo, but also a look at Bo’s fascinating life as a “lost toy” since then, which injects a whole new burst of creative energy into this series, even as it can’t help but raise the sort of questions that a kids’ cartoon about living toys isn’t equipped to answer. Perhaps more importantly, Bo’s life of independence, and how Woody ultimately responds to it, confuse the already muddled message of the “Toy Story” films, which started out as both a paean to a child’s love for their toys, and an acknowledgement that this period of childhood can’t last forever. For a film series that’s always been steeped in nostalgia, it’s a weird resolution to be told that toys need to grow up, too, but again, what would trip up a lesser series is carried off with heart by our old toy box pals here. Of course, if you’re old enough to be worried about the plot logic in a “Toy Story” film, you’re definitely too old to be the target audience. Still, even as someone old enough to be the parent of that target audience, I remain as entertained as ever by the films’ use of Rube Goldberg-level action sequences, as the toys struggle to navigate an adult world that’s way too big for them. Along the way, we’re introduced to a few new toys, with Christina Hendricks of “Mad Men” as a vintage talking doll with sinister designs on Woody, Tony Hale of “Veep” and “Arrested Development” as a handmade pipe cleaner toy who keeps suicidally jumping into waste bins because he thinks he’s literally trash, and a reunited Keegan Michael Key and Jordan Peele as a hilariously insane conjoined duo of carnival prize plush stuffed animals. Oh, and the Internet’s current boyfriend, Keanu Reeves, delivers what surely ranks among his finest comedic performances as the vainglorious “Duke Caboom,” a 1970s toy whom we’re told is based on Canada’s greatest motorcycle stuntman. Pixar, if you’re listening, there needs to be a Duke Caboom spinoff film immediately. Seriously, it’s Keanu’s best work this side of “John Wick.” If this film’s box office holds up as well as its predecessors, I don’t doubt that we’ll see “Toy Story 5” eventually, but its goodbye scene, while not quite as tear jerking as that of “Toy Story 3,” still feels like a pleasant place to close out these characters’ stories.

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