So maybe here’s where the story ends? Nearly twenty-five years after Toy Story launched Pixar into the field of feature film production and almost a decade past Toy Story 3, which seemed to provide an ideal conclusion to the franchise, the fourth full-length installment of the film series has arrived. Before my cynicism prevails (and it will), I should not that the Toy Story 4, directed by Josh Cooley, is a perfectly dandy piece of entertainment. The screenplay benefits from the narrative sturdiness instilled by the studio’s famously rigorous stress-testing (reported strife notwithstanding) and the new additions to the sprawling cast of characters are consistently inventive and delightful. The practically unparalleled emotional potency of the film series remains solidly intact, as well. The drum thwacks to the heart may not be quite as forceful as was the case with the preceding installments, but there are still skilled percussionists at work.
Toy Story 4 begins with a critical flashback revealing why Bo Peep (voiced by Annie Potts) was absent from the prior film. Perched on a nightlight lamp that was outgrown, Bo Peep and her sheep were gifted to another household, leaving a lingering loverlorn ache in the heart of venerable cowboy toy Woody (Tom Hanks). Years later, Woody has slipped down in the pecking order set by Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw), the child who inherited Andy’s toy box when he went to college. An increasingly purposelessness Woody anxious finds meaning in protecting an impromptu, plastic-utensil-based plaything named Forky (Tony Hale), crafted by Bonnie to hold off sadness on her kindergarten orientation day. Hectic adventures follow, notably including Woody’s reunion with Bo Peep, transformed by circumstances into the Toy Story equivalent of Sarah Connor circa Terminator 2: Judgment Day.
Closure is again the ostensible theme, along with some recurring consideration of purpose. But it’s all soft and ill-defined, one of several notions kicked around like a soccer ball. One of the more promising ideas pursued involves Woody’s inability to cede control and listen to other leaders, particularly those that are girl toys. But that angle fades away almost entirely before the movie ends, which has me convinced it’s a remnant of the contributions of Rashida Jones and Will McCormack that so dismayed Pixar leadership, leading to their departure from the project (at right around the time the full extent of Pixar head John Lasseter’s ugly behavior toward women came to light.) That’s admittedly a leap on my part, but the lineage matters less than the frustrating sense that things don’t fully cohere, that this is one of those instances when the desire to provide new product to the marketplace overtook the recurring mission to create a film worthy of the legacy of the hopping desk lamp.
Perhaps I’m raising the rim unfairly high for Pixar. There are components of it — such as Annie Potts’s fantastic vocal performance as Bo Peep and the vividly detailed visuals of a carnival and a second-hand store — that are grand and memorable. And the new film certainly looks like high cinematic art compared to the hideous-looking animated gimmicks from competing studios that were flashed like warnings in the trailers preceding my screening of Toy Story 4. But when the likes of Up and Inside Out are proven possible, it must be acceptable to long for more than another spinning diversion from the conveyor belt.