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MRQE Top Critic

The Sweet Hereafter

(review...)

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Toy Story 4 delivers a fresh batch of good ol’ fashioned Pixar magic brushed up with a reinvigorated sense of adventure.

Tumbleweed the Dust Bunny

Woody with a spork in the road
Woody with a spork in the road

Toy Story 4 ends with the greatest plot twist — or, at least, change in a leading character’s fortunes — in the history of G-rated fare. It’s a bold, risky move that propels this one safely into the rarified land of Pixar’s best.

But it’d help to start from before the beginning. As hard as it might be to believe, not everybody was thoroughly enamored with Toy Story 3. Pushing against the tide of tears, some (including the author of this space) found the movie shamelessly manipulative with its plotline about giving up toys as a rite of passage, as a sign of growing up. All told by a bunch of grown-ups hunkered down in Pixar cubicles overstuffed with the latest technology, toys and other playthings.

That same theme is revisited as Toy Story 4 opens; things are still on shaky sentimental ground. It’s 9 years ago (read: shortly after the events of Toy Story 3, released in 2010). It’s time to box up some toys and for a little girl — who grew up afraid of the dark – to move on from her Little Bo Peep nightstand lamp. That comes as sad news to good ol’ Woody (Tom Hanks, Big), who sort of had a thing for Bo Peep (Annie Potts, Ghostbusters) — at least as far as toys from completely unrelated genres go.

So, it’s a schmaltzy start. The ages-old challenges of separation, loss, maintaining relevance and growing up (but — come on now — not growing old) are once again front and center. Adding to the angst, it is actually a dark and stormy night.

Put a Spork in It

After this dramatic scene of Woody saying goodbye to an old friend, the story feels a little aimless.

From there, the movie enters a period of visual playfulness and inventiveness that is in itself entertaining enough and it’s stunning to see how far CG animation has progressed since Toy Story’s release in 1995. Back then, a huge criticism was the look of the humans; they didn’t appear any more flesh and blood than the plastic toy soldiers. Now, Toy Story 4 offers an eyeful in every single frame: bouncy castles, reflective surfaces, lighting, water, textures, furs, carnival tents, finely-detailed antiques — things have advanced to a certain level of photorealism in some cases.

Even so, there’s still a pang for a clearer direction in the narrative. Has the series finally jumped the toy shark? Thankfully, no.

A camping trip, a lost spork and a spark of adventure take the series in a surprising new direction that ultimately manages to split off into not just one, but two happy endings. It takes some time to put the pieces in place, but ultimately TS4 turns into a mighty cool journey loaded with those world-famous Pixar smarts and heart.

Woody’s still with his post-Andy human from Toy Story 3, Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw, Ant-Man and the Wasp). They’ve been through a lot together in direct-to-video adventures like Toy Story of Terror and Toy Story That Time Forgot. Now, Bonnie’s about to start kindergarten. But her parents advise her toys don’t go to kindergarten. When push comes to shove, Bonnie smartly creates her own toy as a class project — to make a pencil holder.

Her pencil holder is an ugly mashup built around a spork and a pipe cleaner. The kid’s 5 and, reasonably, the spork doesn’t look like much. But any fears of Toy Story 4 being polluted by a Jar-Jar Binks-style annoyance can be dropped. Forky, as he’s suitably dubbed, grows into his role and even gets to be part of a great post-credits joke.

Lost Toys

There are a lot of ages-spanning themes and ideas packed into these existentialist toy stories and Pixar’s the perfect creative agency to make them happen. Think about Pixar itself as the ultimate in lost toys. It started as a framework crafted by tech gurus working under George Lucas’ shingle. Lucas, not knowing where to take it next, pawned it off to Steve Jobs. Jobs in turn made it into something bigger and more refined, then spun it off as the Pixar we know today. Even then, though, it was ultimately purchased by Disney. (That’s the very brief Matt’s Notes history, anyway.)

As Toy Story 4 unfolds, there’s a fresh boldness and inventiveness in the directions Pixar’s willing to go.

Bo Peep is now a scavenger, living off the grid for the past 7 years as an escapee of the antique store. She drives a battery-powered toy skunk and has a new mission: to stow away in the traveling carnival that’s recently come to town. That’s one narrative track.

There’s another track involving an antique store which has become the dumping ground for a lot of lost — or otherwise unwanted — toys. Heading up a gang of four creepy ventriloquist dolls is a Gabby Gabby doll. At times, she can be the expectedly sweet tea-sipping dream companion for any 5-year-old girl. Then there are those times when she’s every bit as menacing as a G-rated version of Chucky will allow. Given her voice box is broken, making her a worthless doll with no hope of escaping the antique shop, she latches onto a new ambition: to steal Woody’s voice box and finally find herself a new home with a loving little girl.

With Bonnie and her parents on a camping trip and the familiar clan of toys in a disheveled state in search of Forky, who is one in a series of lost toys in need of rescue, the antics escalate and all the elements start to gel.

You’re My Favorite Deputy

Pixar is now completing its first quarter-century of immaculately-crafted feature films; keeping the behind-the-scenes teams moving forward and cultivating new talent is crucial. With Toy Story 4, director Josh Cooley makes his feature directing debut, building on a healthy resume of various roles on an assortment of Pixar projects, including crafting storyboards for Ratatouille.

While it’s a little disconcerting to see a squad of eight contributors to the story, two of them are given screenplay credit: Andrew Stanton, a seasoned Pixar veteran with screenplays for Wall*E, Finding Nemo and Monsters Inc. among his achievements; and Pixar newbie Stephany Folsom joins the fray with her first feature screenplay.

However that team came together, the end result is solid. And they’ve sustained the ability to mine the wealth of toy history out there and come up with new ways to make childhood memories come alive for all ages.

In this case, alongside the introduction of Forky (Tony Hale, The Angry Birds Movie), there’s the addition of Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves, The Matrix), a Canadian stunt cyclist with a deep-seated inferiority complex. He was shunned by his human after he failed to perform to the same level the kid saw in the TV commercials. It’s funny and relatable — on more than one level — as Duke struggles to avoid self-sabotage.

Ultimately, it’s the fundamental relatability that makes this series of Pixar movies in particular something special. They’re both endearing and enduring.

This time around, don’t be in a rush to leave. There’s still plenty of fantastic segments spliced in with the initial end credits. Including that previously mentioned special scene just for Forky.