Toy Story 4

The fourth instalment in a franchise that started when I was knee-high to a grasshopper,i Woody and Buzz are back in theatres.ii Along with his grandparents, I took the shoe-filling giant to see the film this past weekend. How did the re-re-reboot fare ?

Well, pretty mixed, it must be said. While the new cast of toys added a fresh infusion of blood to the age-old roster, the familiar support crew was all but ignored in this particular story. Slinky Dog, Rex, Mr. Potato Head, etc. didn’t have more than 5 minutes of screen time in the 100 minute run, so if you’re looking to relive those old dynamics, you’ll need to keep looking. You can also keep looking if you’re in search of a proper tale of good and evil. While there were plenty of “good” rescuing scenes and dramatic sequences, the “evil” was kinda there but also kinda as hollow as Buzz’ head. The Gabby Gabby character (voiced by Christina Hendricks of Mad Men fame) wasn’t anywhere near as malevolent an Evil Queen or Jafar or other baddies of yore – she was just sad and lonely, but without the predictable hint of wickedness, leaving her character feeling empty and a bit pitiful. And how was this “villain” able to command her fairly freaky henchmen if she didn’t have a dark side to speak of ? I kept waiting for the “real” Gabby to appear but… she never did, and as a result the entire story arc felt like it lacked believable tension, as if the audience was walking across the Pont D’Avignon expecting to cross the river but then found itself at nothing more than a lookout point. Gabby Gabby was just too serene and vulnerable to be anything other than another “good” guy, if admittedly a misunderstood one.

Despite this choppy narrative, the toys themselves shone brightly as ever. The new “Forky” character (voiced by Tony Hale of Arrested Development fame) had a hilariously unconventional birth (from trash!) and real character development, and the Keanu Reeves-voiced Evel Knievel-esque “Duke Caboom” had hilarious physical articulation and absolutely some of the funniest lines in the film (at least from a Canadian perspective). Other bright spots included the subtle “moral” of the story about listening to your “conscience” through Buzz Lightyear’s spot-on “inner voice,” which consisted of nothing more than his Space Ranger buttons on his chest, but which gave him clear and direct action plans for the otherwise dazed sidekick.iii Buzz’ antics were both funny and thoughtful, certainly for the parents in the audience and hopefully the kids too.

As to the animation, what stood out about the state of the art in 2019 weren’t the shadows, reflections, or fluidity of motions but something else entirely unexpected : human lips. There were of course several human characters in the film and their close-ups showed just how far the latest rendering techniques have come in terms of emulating the crackled, ridged, dried, and nuanced organs articulating our speech and emotion. As far as moving the game on in terms of animation quality, the human lips stole the show and were a clear differentiator between TS4 and its decades-old predecessors.

Overall, having not been to a “normal” theatre, much less AVX, in a couple of years,iv and not having watched big-screen kids animated movies in nearly a decade, being able to share the moments and the laughter with my growing boy did my little black heart good. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him laugh that hard before and I look forward to many more such occasions in the years ahead.v It can’t just be his old man tickling his funny bone all the time. That gig is only in theatres for a limited time.

Then, like Forky, it’s back to the trash.
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  1. When the original Toy Story came out in 1995, it made such an impact on me that I immediately enrolled in flash animation summer courses at the local college, despite being half the age of many of the other students. Though I found the work somewhat tedious, if entertaining, that didn’t stop me from dreaming of one day attending Sheridan College and myself becoming a computer animator. Hey, a kid’s gotta dream!
  2. Then again, Aladdin, Jurassic Park, and MIB are also back in theatres, so #NoOneCancelledThe90s indeed.
  3. I don’t remember Buzz Lightyear being quite as dumb in previous renditions of the series, but then again it’s been a while.
  4. Possibly since The Brothers Grimbsy in 2016! At least I don’t have any hard evidence of having seen a “normal” movie since then.
  5. A sense of humour, like everything else, is a skill to hone. And Pixar/Disney have a breadth and depth of cultural references to keep all ages engaged and entertained. Few do it better.