Toy Story 4

2 stars

Goodbyes are at the forefront of Pixar’s tacked-on Toy Story 4, the studio’s fourth sequel in as many years and its flagship franchise’s first installment in almost a decade. There are parting glances throughout, the movie is bookended by sendoffs, and one new character’s entire existence hinges on a gag in which he tries to continually exit the story.

It’s an ironic position considering that the series was wrapped up so tidily in 2010, executing a fine farewell for the gang in that trilogy-capping entry, and yet Pixar has now dragged the characters back out again to parade them around one more (but probably not final) time. Since Toy Story 3’s release, Pixar has kept the franchise alive by producing a few shorts, most notably a pair of holiday-themed TV specials that aired in 2013 and 2014.

With those options on the table, Toy Story 4 has to prove its worth as the franchise moves back to a feature-length adventure and it’s here that the latest sequel first struggles. This movie is stretched, putty-like, to the point that a 22-minute version sounds extremely appetizing once we’re in the second hour and the plot is going through the same motions for the umpteenth time.

To be fair, the writing process for this one had more publicly aired dirty laundry than any previous Pixar pic, even eclipsing the awkwardness of the directing swap on Brave, so who knows what Toy Story 4 once was and how the behind-the-scenes drama influenced the final product. Rashida Jones still gets a “story” credit here, but she left the project after criticizing Pixar’s boy’s club reputation and her screenplay was then tossed out.

Around the same time, long-standing Pixar chief John Lasseter left the company after allegations of unwanted touching surfaced in the midst of the #MeToo movement. Several years prior, the newly announced Toy Story 4 had been described as a love story between sheriff Woody (Tom Hanks) and porcelain figurine Bo Peep (Annie Potts) that would be based on Lasseter’s own relationship with his wife, so Lasseter’s sudden exit really soured that sweet tale.

Decent movies have been born of giant messes before, but it’s difficult to witness the unfolding of Toy Story 4’s tired plot consisting of countless obstacles designed to extend every moment beyond infinity and not ponder what the movie was going to look like back when a woman wrote it and the guy whose story inspired it was still involved.

As it stands, the movie still involves Woody and Bo, with the added distraction of a road trip, a carnival, and a toy fashioned from a spork and pipe cleaners that only wants to cozy up in the bottom of a trash can. Forky (Tony Hale) was made by current toy possessor Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw) at kindergarten orientation and her love for the googly-eyed character is at odds with his deep desire to be simply thrown away.

Woody takes it upon himself to keep Forky safe, but when the confused spork ends up trapped inside an antique shop guarded by rejected doll Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) and her ventriloquist dummy henchmen, the ragdoll cowboy has to mount an exhaustingly repetitive rescue effort that reunites him with Bo and introduces other new characters.

Those new faces range from mildly amusing (Keanu Reeves as a motorcycle-riding stuntman) to mildly annoying (Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele as midway plush prizes), but the biggest issue with the cast additions is how much screen time they take away from the regular supporting gang. While this is undoubtably Woody’s movie, it’s frustrating that cowgirl Jessie (Joan Cusack), dino Rex (Wallace Shawn), piggy bank Hamm (John Ratzenberger), and a host of others mostly sit this one out, as in literally sitting in an RV, sharing scraps of a script that is determined to ignore them.

Buzz (Tim Allen), that onetime co-lead, has a little more to do here, including a lightly funny bit where he takes advice from his pre-programmed voice commands, but it’s clear that the movie’s makers have run out of ways to grow his character and therefore his arc is now a flat line.

Woody fans will find the stalwart sheriff gets more than enough attention, though, which is fitting in many ways. Less fitting is the twist that awaits him in this chapter, a move that is intended to be a pleasant surprise, but instead comes off as an out-of-character Hail Mary aiming to muster up some dramatic waterworks as justification for this minor story being dragged out for two merciless hours.

Like all endings, this one will have its champions. For them, the movie might land right in the gooey soft spot that all Pixar movies target. But for this viewer that finds Woody’s turn an overly manufactured tug at the factory-assembled heartstrings, the movie’s entire emotional apparatus falls apart, leaving a pile of pieces that are best left unassembled.

There’s something especially frustrating about how Toy Story 4 rewrites its family values while shortchanging most of the family members, all to give Woody a questionably motivated new ending that purposely goes against the grain of what the franchise has previously preached. For a movie that focuses so much on how to say goodbye, the final farewell feels rushed and unearned. There are still moments to enjoy along the way and the visual detail is as carefully crafted as ever, but this series had already hung up its hat in far finer fashion than this.