' ' Cinema Romantico: Toy Story 4

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Toy Story 4

When we last left our gaggle of toy buddies, they had been boxed up by their beloved college-bound owner Andy and gifted to Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw), ensuring them a new playmate rather than an eternity gathering dust in the attic. If it seemed a logical and satisfying place to leave the Pixar “Toy Story” series, these movies have always been about charting the bends in the river of life through the animated perspective of toys, and the existential crises accompanying each one, and so it only makes sense that the second act of these toys’ lives would involve as many complications as the first. And while the adventures of Josh Cooley’s “Toy Story 4” bear conspicuous similarities to the previous ones, there are just enough new ideas to see it through, not to mention new characters, the latter profoundly explicating a toy’s life cycle.

It’s no accident, of course, that the preeminent toy of this universe is Woody (Tom Hanks), a Sheriff, symbolically establishing him as the gang’s leader, despite constant questions about his place in the hierarchy. As “Toy Story 4” opens, Woody is stowed away in the closet by Bonnie in favor of Dolly (Bonnie Hunt), meaning she rules the roost. I thought of the late great Roger Ebert’s line about John Ford’s “Red River”, men under the big sky with a job to do, suggesting that job gave them life, and how Woody emotionally deflates, as he has throughout the series, without one, an emotional pickle that Hanks the voice actor is tailor-made to suffer, his words bursting forth in half-laughs so eagerly that you can hear the desperation seeping through, adding cosmic profundity because Hanks is America’s Dad, like even America’s Dad is in danger these days of being laid off.

But Woody, always a boy scout as much as a lawman, seeing Bonnie’s fear at the first day of kindergarten in one of those majestic Pixar shots demonstrating the expressiveness of animation, stows away in her backpack and then, in a moment literally bringing to life the notion of toys as transitional objects, gathers unwanted accoutrement from the trash and leaves it for Bonnie to find as she proceeds to create a new friend by way of a toy from scratch, a spork retrofitted with pipe cleaners, christening him Forky (Tony Hale). In being salvaged from the trash, however, that’s how Forky sees himself: as trash. He spends his first scenes trying to return there, only to have Woody re-salvage him, innately illuminating the eternal dividing line between what a child and a parent think constitutes mere junk while improbably addressing pervasive questions about purpose through cutlery.

Not that a movie like “Toy Story 4” lingers in the bleak depths. If for no other reason than to keep the plot moving, and then continued by sometimes contrived means that nevertheless paint a comically deft picture of Bonnie’s dad (Jay Hernandez) being brought to the stressful edge, her family departs for an RV road trip. Not long into it, Forky hurls himself out the motor home window, prompting Woody to go after, the two of them vanishing into the void together. Later, when pressed by Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) why he went to such heroic lengths, Woody cites his inner voice, causing Buzz to confuse the official Buzz Lightyear slogans programmed into his voice box as own inner voice, spot-on sardonic humor suggesting vacuous inspirational quotes tacked to the walls of some Fortune 500 behemoth.

Woody’s philosophical pep talk convincing Forky of his self-worth proves more effective, persuading him to catch up with Bonnie and her family at an RV park. Yet if that sounds simple, “Toy Story 4” gets sidetracked even as it comes alive when Woody and Forky enter a nearby antique store where the cowboy thinks his long-lost love Bo Peep (Annie Potts) might be waiting, her possible presence hinted at in the vintage novelty lamps glowing in the window, where airborne dust particles kicked up by the sunshine epitomize the loving attention to aesthetic detail defining this entire excursion, each antique looking timeworn or beautiful depending how the light hits it. Once inside, alas, Woody and Forky must escape the vile clutches of a bitter doll named Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), initially suggesting a mere “Toy Story 3” Lotso retread only to metamorphose from similar heartlessness to more of a twisted heart, a la Magua in “Last of the Mohicans”.

Though the ensuing showdown with Gabby Gabby can sometimes come close to spinning its wheels, and though its blueprint feels borrowed from “Toy Story 3’s” daycare breakout, this antique store adventure nevertheless eventually finds its own adventurous wavelength, evoking The Island of Misfit Toys as the frontier town of an old western where Sheriff Woody unites a motley crew to defend its interests. That motley crew includes Duke Caboom, a Canadian motorcycle stuntman with a catchphrase so good it deserved to be his alone, a winning mixture of swagger and self-doubt, stellar animated detail (those hands!), and exemplary voice work by Keanu Reeves spotlighting the haltingly charismatic tone of his inflections, each word sounded out for maximum effect, previously evident in his “John Wick 2” gin order. Granted, spending so much time in the company of new toys mean we lose time with old ones, like Rex (Wallace Shawn), my favorite anxious Tyrannosaurus, basically reduced to a cameo. In that way, though, “Toy Story 4” not only reminded me of being a kid but crystallized Woody’s apprehension of a toy’s arc.

I went in yearning to hang out with Rex, but by the end I just wanted to kick up dust with Duke Caboom. There’s joy in moving on.

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