Twenty-four years ago, before the first Toy Story movie landed, it might have seemed hard to believe that a 16-inch toy cowboy and his band of plastic buddies would be able to tug on the heartstrings of grown adults like the pull-cord that makes Woody say “There’s a snake in my boot!”
But after the utter devastation of the sublime third part, only a fool would walk into a Toy Story movie without a packet of tissues. This fourth part – a continuation that at face value might not have looked necessary – absolutely lives up to the franchise’s very high standards. It’s inventive, surprising, hilarious, warm-hearted, gorgeous to look at, and yes, extremely emotional. And if it’s not quite as perfect as the original Toy Story or Toy Story 3 – well those are some massive cowboy boots to fill.
If Toy Story 3 closed the trilogy that was Woody’s kid Andy’s arc – at the end Andy’s going off to college and bids a heartbreaking farewell to his favourite cowboy, giving him to neighbouring child Bonnie – then 4 brings an ending to Woody’s.
Missing Andy and living with most of the gang in a new house, Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks) is struggling with his identity. He’s no longer the favourite toy, not even the Sheriff of his own toy town, since Bonnie favours cowgirl Jesse, and Woody is beginning to feel obsolete. That’s until Bonnie has to brave her first day in kindergarten and Woody sneaks into her backpack to take care of her. At school, Bonnie struggles at first, then begins to thrive after she uses pipe cleaners and a spork to create a new toy for herself, which she names ‘Forky’. But when Forky comes home with Woody things start to get very weird and Woody suddenly finds himself with a whole new purpose.
At times as adult and existential as any of the Toy Story films so far, part four starts off on a very funny, dark path as Forky, who on paper sounds like a rubbish new character, immediately steals the show driving the plot in strange and unexpected directions. Forky is genuinely brilliant and Tony Hale, best known for playing super weird one-handed mother’s boy Buster in Arrested Development, is voice-cast perfectly. His introduction is just one element of Toy Story 4 that leans (gently) in the direction of body horror. Indeed, the themes of the film overall are likely to appeal as much, if not more, to adults who’ve grown up with the franchise as youngsters today.
Woody’s having a crisis. We learn more about his tearful goodbye to Bo Peep (Annie Potts), who was absent from the third movie. And the movie’s toy antagonists are the most terrifying yet, tapping right into specific horror tropes expertly. There’s plenty here for kids to enjoy and a lovely redemptive thread about what happens to lost toys might well do parents favours in the future, but anyone who thinks of Toy Story 4 as just a children’s film is dead wrong.
As well as Forky and the baddies (we don’t want to spoil), other new characters come thick and fast. Plushies Ducky and Bunny voiced by Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele are riotous comic relief – especially in the hilarious mid-credits scenes (of which there are three). Keanu Reeves’ Canadian motorbike stunt rider Duke Caboom is funny and poignant and even a brief cameo from a trio of Combat Carl Jrs lands perfectly.
The old gang are back too, though a big cast list and a storyline which sees Woody off on a mission away from the others for much of the second act means Buzz, Rex, Jesse, Buttercup, Pricklepants and the rest are a bit underserved.
Instead, returning player Bo gets her chance to shine. Away from the gang and she’s undergone a bit of a make-over sporting trousers, kicking ass and riding round in a mechanical skunk. In fact, there’s loads of positive gender stuff going on here, with several female characters making a big impact.
If there was any real niggle with part four it’s that the plot – revolving around various rescues – does become slightly repetitive at times. But then this is a character piece at heart, a story of love of different kinds, of sacrifices and separation, growing up and of dealing with change and ultimately the meaning of life. And the closing dialogue exchange is absolutely flawless. You might not sob quite as hard as you did in Toy Story 3, but it won’t be far off.
Toy Story 4 might have sounded like an unnecessary addition to the franchise nine years after the perfect ending to a beloved trilogy but it fits in wonderfully and expands on what’s gone before. It might not be the movie we thought we needed right now. But it’s absolutely the film Woody deserves.
Toy Story 4 is in UK cinemas 21 June.