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TOY STORY 4 - Review - We Are Movie Geeks

Review

TOY STORY 4 – Review

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So right now all the entertainment pages are filled reports of “franchise fatigue”, that audiences are just not plunking down their moola and getting in line for this year’s models of….X-Men and Men in Black, to name two of many. The case could certainly be made for animated features with the soft returns of the “trained dragons’, Lego, and the swiftly sinking “pets”. But then the original cartoons MISSING LINK, WONDER PARK, and those UGLY DOLLS barely made a ripple at the box office. Not to worry, those dull days are over! Cue the music of that Thin Lizzy dance classic (apologies for the title tweak) because “The Toys are Back in Town”. Yes, after a year since INCREDIBLES 2, the fine folks at Pixar are back with another addition to the “game changer” that began the CGI feature flicks. Yes, this is TOY STORY 4. Oh, but you cynics may be bemoaning “yet another blatant cash grab”. Well, kick that pessimistic attitude to the curb (along with those empty Pizza Planet boxes for the recyclers). That’s because after nearly a quarter century (including lots of shorts and a few TV specials) these endearing charmers made of molded plastic and felt are just as fresh as the day they burst through their “shrink wrap”. And, surprisingly, they’re funnier than ever! Take that “sequel doldrums”!

It all begins on a “dark and stormy night”. No kidding (sorry Snoopy)! It’s nine years ago and the gang is back at Andy’s house as they deal with a devastating loss (briefly mentioned in the last film). Slow fade to now, as they await “playtime”, along with some new pals, with their new owner, the sweet little five-year-old Bonnie. But somebody has been left out of the last few sessions. Woody (voice of Tom Hanks) is joining her old baby toys in the bedroom closet (listen for the roster of show biz legends as those now discarded). Bonnie even removes Woody’s Sheriff’s star and pins it on Jessie (Joan Cusack). The former kids’ TV show superstar is sad, despite the efforts to cheer him up by BFF Buzz (Tim Allen). Then comes news that Bonnie will soon start kindergarten, prompting Woody to jump into her backpack as she leaves for orientation. As the other kids begin a craft project, shy Bonnie is left with no supplies. Woody to the rescue as he locates a few bits from the waste can. After Bonnie gets home and drops off her backpack in her room, the gang is introduced to her creation: Forky (Tony Hale), a googly-eyed ‘spork’. Everyone’s friendly to the “newbie”, but he doesn’t want to be a toy, yearning to rejoin his “kind” in the garbage. This gives Woody a mission: keep Forky out of the trash. But things get complicated as Bonnie’s daddy decides to rent an RV and load up for a road trip. When Forky flees the vehicle, Woody follows, beginning an adventure that takes the toy gang to a quaint village (maybe somewhere between Bedford Falls and Mayberry USA) as they meet an old friend, make new ones, like Canadian motorcycle daredevil Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves), plush animals Ducky and Bunny (Key and Peele), and the talking doll Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), while navigating (escaping and breaking in) a traveling carnival and a dusty antique shop. It’s quite the odyssey for our crew, far from their kids’ room comfort zone.

This could be the most astounding roster of vocal talent (or just talent) assembled in an animated feature film (like a CGI IT’S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD), but it’s not the usual ‘stunt casting’ of other cartoon flicks. Hanks and Allen inhabit into their beloved duo as though sliding into a pair of comfy old slippers, though each brings something new this time out. Allen’s Buzz is a bit overwhelmed as the leadership is thrust upon him, even as he listens to his “inner voice”. And Hanks brings unexpected pathos to the usually sunny sheriff, Sure he’s missing “playtime”, but more poignantly he can see the “end of the trail’ looming just over the next couple of hills. The original cast still brings an infectious glee in their old roles (and in case you’re fretting, we still hear the late, very-missed Don Rickles via archive voice tracks). As for the newcomers, well they dive right into this fun-filled romp. Hale has a panicky quality to Forky (think of a plastic Don Knotts) which goes from warped to pure bliss as he bounces toward a receptacle like a lemming scamping toward a cliff’s edge. Key and Peele give a high voltage jolt to their always agitated game prizes, much like the Liam Neeson-loving valets from their TV show. Hendricks has the more challenging role as Gabby goes from friendly vintage doll to sinister “Dragon Lady”-like crazed (a plastic cross between Baby Jane Hudson and Norma Desmond) mastermind and then something completely shocking (all films should strive to have such a complex antagonist). The most inspired bit of casting may be Reeves as the cocky cyclist. He seems to be having a great deal of fun as he kids (maybe skewers) his screen persona. I was keeping her character a secret, but since she’s on the posters, praise is earned by Annie Potts as she transforms Bo Peep into a no-nonsense action heroine. And I must mention that some of the film’s biggest laughs come from Jeff Garlin as the rainbow-colored plush unicorn, Buttercup, who is hilariously obsessed with one “off the wall” idea. Again, those forgotten closet toys are a true comedy dream team.

Can you believe we’re getting this superb entertainment from a first-time feature director, the talented Josh Cooley? Oh, he was also one of the eight (8?!) story and screenplay contributors (along with actress Rashida Jones). “Too many cooks!”, some “haters” may say. Well, I say that this team packed an exceptional amount of comedy into this chaotic cartoon caper. Really, I can’t recall laughing so much at the multiplex in recent memory (may have to go back to BRIDESMAIDS or TRAINWRECK). But the series’ heart is not neglected in the gallons of guffaws’. It’s that unbreakable bond of friendship between Woody and Buzz, still brothers though separated by tech and many decades, that grips us and draws us in. The movie also breaks new ground in the conflict the two face. Yes, they’re cartoons, but they’re far from two-dimensional. Like real human beings, they can evolve and change, and even be redeemed through kindness (now that’s an idea in need of promoting in these times). And as with two of this summer’s superhero epics, a selfless sacrifice makes for a heart-tugging finale. That’s a lot for this year’s only major studio “G-rated” animated film. Though I should warn parents that some sensitive tots may be spooked by the ventriloquist dummies (with frozen wide-eyed smiles and zombie-like shambling walk) who menace our heroes, aided by a ferocious feline. Though we’ve gotten used to it with Pixar’s work, I can’t neglect the film’s striking visuals. Here we’re treated to a couple more astounding environments that are much more than mere backdrops. The details of the antique store interior and the carnival’s exteriors are high art to be savored (bring on the coffee table book). We could also include the jostling RV, of course. They’re worthy successors to Andy and Sid’s houses (TS1), Al’s retro 50’s high rise “crib” and his Toy Barn (TS2) and the Sunnyside Nursery in TS3. And the individual character work still amazes from Peep’s shiny porcelain flesh to fuffy stitching of Bunny and Ducky. And Duke’s “way too cool” 70s ‘stache. But it’s the humor that will stay with you as you leave the theatre (but be sure to stay for the very, very last few seconds for one last, very large laugh). With 2019 nearly half over, I can declare this the funniest film so far (and, unlike previous years, there have been several smart comedies). TOY STORY 4, well I’d add that if they can keep the quality up, the tile should be TOY STORY 4ever! That’s why it truly earns (I’d give it more if I could)…

4 Out of 4 Stars

Jim Batts was a contestant on the movie edition of TV's "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" in 2009 and has been a member of the St. Louis Film Critics organization since 2013.

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