TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. "Toy Story 4" is the latest in the hugely successful series of Pixar animated films that began in 1995. The new movie picks up where the Oscar-winning "Toy Story 3" left off - with Woody, Buzz Lightyear and their fellow toys being given away by their longtime owner Andy to a little girl named Bonnie. In addition to Tom Hanks and Tim Allen, the voice cast includes Tony Hale, Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves, Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key.
Film critic Justin Chang has this review.
JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: The "Toy Story" movies are about the secret lives of dolls and action figures that find their deepest fulfillment in a child's embrace. But they're really about what it means to be human - the joys of love and friendship and the pains of rejection and loss. But even more than the earlier films, "Toy Story 4" feels haunted by the idea of impermanence. What happens when we outgrow something we once cherished? To put it another way, after three "Toy Story" movies, do we really need a fourth?
The director, Josh Cooley, and the writers, Andrew Stanton and Stephany Folsom, seem to have wrestled hard with that question. And they've come up with an entertaining, if not entirely satisfying, answer. "Toy Story 4" is as funny and dazzling as you'd expect from a Pixar entertainment, but it's also a more ungainly piece of storytelling than its predecessors. The humor is coarser around the edges, and the plot takes wild, audacious leaps that don't always pay off.
As the movie opens, Sheriff Woody, voiced again by Tom Hanks, is in the rare position of no longer being the favorite toy in the bedroom. He's aged into an avuncular figure, concerned with making sure that he and his friends are there for their owner, Bonnie, when she needs them. But one day, Bonnie comes home from kindergarten with a creature she made herself out of a plastic eating utensil, a pipe cleaner and two googly eyes. His name is Forky, and Bonnie's love has brought him to life.
But Forky, voiced with neurotic terror by Tony Hale, sees himself not as a toy but as a piece of trash, which is why he keeps trying to hurl himself into the nearest wastebasket. As a mini Frankenstein with suicidal urges, Forky represents the kind of existential conundrum that future dissertations are made of. Perhaps only Pixar could make a children's movie that leaves you pondering the origins of the soul and the nature of free will.
Still, for the first time in a "Toy Story" picture, I found myself resisting parts of the premise. Forky grows on you as a character, but his role is mainly to enable Woody's reckless heroism, which is starting to look a lot like narcissism. When Bonnie brings her toys along on a family road trip, Forky gets lost, and Woody sets out to track him down. He finds him, but then they wind up in an antique shop, where Woody spies something that reminds him of his old friend, the shepherdess, Bo Peep, whom he hasn't seen in years. That leads them to a doll named Gabby Gabby, voiced by Christina Hendricks, with a sweetness that seems a little too good to be true.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TOY STORY 4")
TOM HANKS: (As Woody, laughter) Hey. Howdy. Hey there. Sorry to bother you, but...
CHRISTINA HENDRICKS: (As Gabby Gabby, laughter) You're not a bother at all. We were just out for my early morning stroll. And look - we met you. My name is Gabby Gabby, and this is my very good friend Benson.
HANKS: (As Woody) Oh, Woody. Pleasure to meet you.
HENDRICKS: (As Gabby Gabby) Well, it's nice to meet you, Woody. And you are?
HANKS: (As Woody) This is Forky.
TONY HALE: (As Forky) I'm trash.
HANKS: (As Woody) Our kid made him.
HENDRICKS: (As Gabby Gabby) Kid? Toys around here don't have kids. Are you two lost?
HANKS: (As Woody) Lost? (Laughter) No, no. But we are looking for a lost toy. She's a figurine, used to be in that lamp in the window, name's Bo Peep.
HENDRICKS: (As Gabby Gabby) Bo Peep? Oh, yes, I know Bo.
HANKS: (As Woody) You do?
HENDRICKS: (As Gabby Gabby) Hop on in. We'll take you to her.
HANKS: (As Woody) Oh, you don't have to do that. Oh. Well, OK.
CHANG: Gabby Gabby has her own twisted plans for Woody and Forky. She might seem like the latest version of a familiar villain, the abandoned toy out for revenge. Happily, she turns out to be a more complicated and sympathetic figure than that. But the movie's most richly layered character is Bo Peep, who was given away by her kid years ago and now spends her days with other renegade toys on public playgrounds.
Don't be fooled by that porcelain delicacy. Bo Peep, voiced by Annie Potts, has been toughened by her years off the grid, and it's bracing to see her rebuke Woody, with his sentimental belief that every toy needs a child's love to know its worth. Naturally, Bo Peep will still help Woody and Forky find their way back to Buzz Lightyear and the others.
Along the way, we meet a lot of new toy characters, not all of them successful. If you like Canada jokes, you'll like Keanu Reeves' performance as a posturing motorcycle stunt rider named Duke Caboom. As for Ducky and Bunny, a pair of plush toys, they were obnoxious enough to wear down even my fondness for the actors Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele.
Pixar being the well-oiled entertainment machine that it is, the disparate parts of "Toy Story 4" eventually come together in smooth, even wizardly fashion. Long after the contrived and misfired bits have faded, the brilliantly visualized action sequences and the pinpricks of emotion stay with you. Still, bidding farewell to these characters for the fourth time, I couldn't help but hope it would be the last, that the filmmakers would leave well-enough alone. With all due affection for these movies and their astonishing quarter-century run, Woody isn't the only one having trouble letting go.
GROSS: Justin Chang is a film critic for The LA Times. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Bill Hader, who became famous for his eight seasons on "Saturday Night Live." He co-created and stars in HBO's dark comedy series "Barry," about a Marine veteran who uses his marksmanship to become a hit man, then tries to transform his life by taking acting classes, where he is told to reveal emotional truths that he really cannot reveal. I hope you'll join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF JACKY TERRASSON'S "NOVEMBER")
GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Therese Madden directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF JACKY TERRASSON'S "NOVEMBER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.