There are those of us (myself included) who would argue that the first three Toy Story episodes stand as the finest trilogy in Hollywood history, and for us Toy Story 4 was a nerve-wracking prospect. Nine years ago, Toy Story 3 seemed to be the perfect farewell to a perfect series, so another instalment was about as welcome as a moustache and sunglasses painted on the Mona Lisa. We needn’t have worried. It’s clear within minutes that the new cartoon, directed by Josh Cooley, will be as gorgeously animated and as generously sprinkled with jokes as Pixar’s best work, and any lingering misgivings melt away in the warm glow of seeing Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks), Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) and the rest of the loveable, misfit gang back together. 

It’s a smaller, less moving, and mercifully less traumatising entertainment than the last one

On the other hand, if Toy Story 4 doesn’t tarnish the series, it doesn’t polish it either. It’s a smaller, less moving, and mercifully, less traumatising entertainment than the last one, less satisfying in its plotting and less provocative in its themes. But it does start promisingly. Now that the boy from the previous three Toy Stories, Andy, has gone to university, the toys he grew up with belong to Bonnie, a little girl who usually leaves Woody in the cupboard while she plays with everyone else.

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To make matters even more stressful for the highly-strung cowboy doll, Bonnie has to go to nursery school, and her parents insist that she leave her toys at home. Woody, of course, stows away in her backpack, but Bonnie constructs a friend of her own out of a white plastic spork, a red pipe-cleaner and a wooden lollipop stick. She names this freakish creation Forky (Tony Hale), and, to Woody’s surprise, not only does he come to life, he becomes Bonnie’s most treasured possession. As unlikely as that last twist might seem, it isn’t impossible: my own daughter was once distraught when she lost her favourite toy, Spoony the plastic spoon.

As in Pixar’s Up, the most powerful part of Toy Story 4 is its opening 15 minutes. It is here that the film articulates the gut-pummelling anxiety a parent feels when their child first goes to school (admittedly, an anxiety which Pixar addressed in Finding Nemo, too), and here that it asks questions about identity and independence – and how exactly these magical playthings can walk and talk, anyway. You could say that Toy Story 4 plays with these ideas. But, like a bored child, it soon discards them and sends its characters off on a madcap adventure, just as Up did. Straight after Bonnie’s return from nursery, she and her parents go on holiday in a rented camper van, taking her toys with them. Forky bleats that he is “trash”, and keeps throwing himself into bins and out of windows, a pseudo-suicidal habit that is both hilarious and macabre.

Forky bleats that he is “trash”, and keeps throwing himself into bins and out of windows

Woody does his best to persuade this tortured soul that being a toy can be as rewarding as being a disposable utensil, but he is distracted by the sight of a small-town antique shop. Sneaking inside in search of his lost love, a Bo Peep figurine (Annie Potts) who was in the first two Toy Story films but was absent from the third, Woody falls into the clutches of Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), a damaged doll who has designs on his pull-string voice box. He escapes, but Forky doesn’t, which means that it’s time for one of the franchise’s signature rescue-mission plots.

Toy Story cartoons are never far from being horror movies, and in this one the chills are provided by the vintage ventriloquist’s dummies who are Gabby Gabby’s hulking bodyguards. The balancing humour comes from Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves), a Canadian Evel Knievel-type figure, as well as two bickering fluffy toys (voiced by Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key), and Bo Peep herself, who has been reinvented as an acrobatic action heroine to rival Rey in the latest Star Wars sequels. The problem with all of these extra characters is that they crowd out the jittery dinosaur, the grumpy piggy bank, and the other Toy Story regulars we have come to know and love. Even Buzz Lightyear is handed a minor supporting role, although there is a superb running joke about his “inner voice”.

Another issue is how complicated and repetitive the plot is: the heroes, and the ten credited screenwriters, put an exhausting amount of time and trouble into rescuing a plastic spork who doesn’t really care about being rescued. The stakes simply aren’t high enough to justify their efforts. The difference between this Toy Story and the others is that Bonnie made Forky a mere two days earlier, and so his recovery doesn’t matter much compared to Woody’s battles to be reunited with Andy. Indeed, the film comes close to acknowledging this shortcoming when Bo Peep refuses to help retrieve Forky from the shop. “Kids lose toys every day,” she says. “She’ll get over it.”

She certainly will: my daughter hasn’t mentioned Spoony in years. Ultimately, Toy Story 4 is about Woody learning that toys may not be as precious to children as he likes to think, but it can’t delve too deeply into that thesis without undermining the premise of the entire series, and so it settles with a muddled, compromised message: some toys are important and other toys aren’t important; some toys need to be with children and others can get along fine without them.

When Toy Story 3 came out, newspapers reported that grown men were stumbling out of the cinema in tears. As wondrous as Toy Story 4 is in many ways, the strongest emotion it elicits is pity for Bonnie’s parents, who have their driving holiday ruined by Woody and his interfering pals. If only the toys had left Forky in that antique shop, the whole family might have been happier.

★★★★☆ 

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