Written by: Utibe Gautt Ate
Disney Pixar’s latest computer-animated feature is an entertaining saga.
Toy Story 4 seems aimed at those of us who grew up with the franchise that first graced silver screens twenty-four years ago. However, it also re-opens the story for an entirely new generation.
The best thing about it is the new characters — especially Ducky and Bunny, two carnival doll prizes stuck to a game booth wall. Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele reunited two years after their Comedy Central show Key & Peele ended to voice these brightly colored, energetic plush creatures. Undiluted, the fullness of their iconic humor is on display so that the audience is convinced they’re the real stars of the show.
Of course, the film also catches up with its stars of old, Woody and Buzz Lightyear, reprised respectively by Tom Hanks and Tim Allen, as well as Andy’s other former toys. Now the gang’s in a new room with Bonnie, their new kid. She’s got her old toys, she’s got her new toys, and she’s also starting a different life phase — first grade. She’s not very interested in Woody, and it’s the first time he’s not his kid’s favorite. As he learns to navigate this stage in his life, the film seeks to answer the question, where does Woody belong? What’s his purpose?
To help him along the way, he’s surrounded by his old pals, Ducky, Bunny, and several other newcomers. Japanese-American Wrecked actress Ally Maki joins the ensemble as a noticeably Asian Giggle McDimples. She’s a plastic figurine from the 1980s toy line of the same name. For most of the film, she sits atop Bo Peep’s shoulder as if she were her pet. Though Maki’s Giggle is a vibrant, smart, and refreshing addition to the franchise, she has very little screen time. The fact that her role as an Asian character is literally and figuratively the tiniest in the picture feels regressive and stereotypical. It’s a missed opportunity to portray an Asian character as fully her own person.
Instead, the plot centers Bo Peep (returning after an absence from the second and third films), who reunites with her former love interest, Woody. There is also Gabby Gabby, a new female character. She’s a talking 1950s pull-string doll, voiced by Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks. Unlike Giggle, these women are prominent and strongly influence the story’s trajectory. They’re also toys that look like humans, which highlights another problem in the movie. Out of the eight new characters, it’s only the white ones that closely resemble people: specifically, Bo, Gabby and newcomer Duke Caboom, a 1970s toy based on Canada’s greatest stuntman, voiced by Keanu Reeves. That they resemble humans makes it easier for viewers to relate to their emotions and to see themselves within these toys. However, was it so hard to imagine dolls that resembled people of color?
Fortunately, composer Randy Newman returns to score a terrific soundtrack that helps to define what all the characters are feeling. Traditionally, his lyrics and melodies have been so integral to the franchise, it’s impossible to think of one without thinking of the other. Here his music once again reinforces the powerful idea that within their treasures, children can find true friends. Even though they are inanimate objects, toys can be vessels used to express a child’s deepest emotions.
The track “You’ve Got a Friend in Me,” is reintroduced, as well as two new ones: “The Ballad of the Lonesome Cowboy,” which cuts to the heart of Woody’s challenges since leaving Andy’s room, and “I Can’t Let You Throw Yourself Away,” a song about Forky, Bonnie’s new favorite toy, that VEEP’s Tony Hale brings to life. Forky was made from a spork and other pieces of trash the girl discovers at school. He’s confused as to how and why he’s alive and continually attempts to return to his original home, the trashcan. Newman’s tune reminds us that in an animated picture, he can make you feel the real flesh-and-blood emotions a character experiences.
Quite beautifully, through the music and the narrative, this Toy Story rendition once again explores themes of belonging and purpose. Bonnie loses interest in Woody, leaving him mentally and emotionally “lost.” Aimless Ducky and Bunny, stuck to a carnival wall year after year, have never experienced a child’s love. A changed Bo Peep is kid-less, so amongst the others, she’s seen as a “lost toy.” Gabby believes that if only she had a working voice box, she could belong to a child again. Bonnie’s beloved Forky gets separated from his kid and his new friends and winds up a hostage in a creepy antique shop.
Unlike his pals, the spork has no fancy buttons, no technology. He was entirely drawn up from his kid’s imagination, inspired by her desperate need for a friend on the first day of school. Forky’s presence draws attention to a lovely yet subtle message — that a child can love a simple toy handmade from trash as profoundly as anything bought in a store. It’s a message that feels reminiscent of Walt Disney and his original animations. Those long-ago images were sparse by today’s cinematic standards but told incredibly imaginative, simple, emotionally true stories. It’s too bad here that the Disney message gets lost in what turns out to be another action-packed blockbuster. Sadly, Forky’s power is relegated to the sidelines, and we’re mainly left with a story about a lonely white cowboy and his long lost love.
Toy Story 4 arrives in theaters June 20th.