‘Toy Story 4’ is a good film, but not as good as its predecessors

“Toy Story 4”

Rated G.
Playing at: Alamo Drafthouse, Premiere Cinemas (includes IMAX and D-Box), Tinseltown 17, Movies 16 and Stars & Stripes Drive-In.
Credits: Directed by Josh Cooley. Screenplay by Andrew Stanton and Stephany Folsom; from an original story by Stanton, Folsom, John Lasseter, Cooley, Valerie LaPointe, Rashida Jones, Will McCormack and Martin Hynes. Music composed and conducted by Randy Newman. Edited by Axel Geddes. Production design by Bob Pauley.
Vocal cast: Tom Hanks as Woody, Tim Allen as Buzz Lightyear, Annie Potts as Bo Peep, Tony Hale as Forky, Keanu Reeves as Duke Caboom, Keegan-Michael Key as Ducky, Jordan Peele as Bunny, Madeleine McGraw as Bonnie, Christina Hendricks as Gabby Gabby, Joan Cusack as Jessie, Bonnie Hunt as Dolly, Kristin Schaal as Trixie, Emily Davis as Billy, Goat & Gruff, Wallace Shawn as Rex, John Ratzenberger as Hamm, Blake Clark as Slinky Dog, June Squibb as store owner Margaret, Carl Weathers as Combat Carl, Lila Sage Bromley as Harmony, Don Rickles (archived) as Mr. Potato Head, Jeff Garlin as Buttercup, Maliah Bargas-Good as Lost Girl, Jack McGraw as Young Andy, Juliana Hensen as Miss Wendy, Estelle Harris as Mrs. Potato Head, Laurie Metcalf as Andy’s Mom, Steve Purcell as The Dummies, Mel Brooks as Melephant Brooks, Alan Oppenheimer as Old Timer, Carol Burnett as Chairol Burnett, Betty White as Bitey White, Carl Reiner as Carl Reineroceros, Bill Hader as Axel the Carnie, Patricia Arquette as Harmony’s Mom, Timothy Dalton as Mr. Pricklepants, Flea as Caboom TV Announcer, Jeff Pidgeon as Aliens, and John Morris as Teenage Andy.

Bill’s rating: Four of five stars

Accepting the original “Toy Story” trilogy as a masterpiece, with emotional involvement literally building from one film to the next (and the next), I definitely feel a personal involvement with characters. You may be surprised just how personal.

Jill and I married four months before “Toy Story 2” made its way to screens in November 1999. But the first movie is one of her favorites and I had lost track of the number of times she quoted a pair of characters from 1995’s “Toy Story” since I had met her.

Specifically:

  1. Mr. Potato Head (voice of the late Don Rickles): “What’re you lookin’ at, ya hockey puck?”
  2. Rex the friendly dinosaur (voice of Wallace Shawn): “Were you scared? Tell me honestly.”

Each comment became an endearment in our relationship. Being called a hockey puck … simply signified all is well.

Tears flowed as friends (toys) on screen faced the end, hand in hand, near the perfect conclusion of “Toy Story 3.” Afterward, there was no demand by fans for another adventure, signified by the lengthy wait of nine years before the arrival of “Toy Story 4.”

Neither is this another example of Hollywood sequelitis. While one would like to believe Pixar is that rare studio not generated solely by profit, “Toy Story 4” emerges a mixed bag.

An emphasis on new characters finds no seamless connection to the preceding three movies.

Plus, regrettably, the ending of “4” is – personal opinion here – a poor mistake in judgement.

On the other hand, the latest sequel is one of the funnier “Toy Story” films, and the writing team is to be commended for taking risks. Note that the duo of Woody (voice of Tom Hanks) and Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) lose story dominance to (gasp) women Bo Peep (Annie Potts) and Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), the latter also Pixar’s first female villain.

Still, I gave the first three “Toy Story” movies five stars.  “Toy Story 4” earned four.

Sure, large steps were taken. Pixar had produced more than 20 films since making its debut with “Toy Story” in 1995, yet only four focused on female leaders: “Brave” in 2012, “Inside Out” in 2015, “Finding Dory” in 2016 and “Incredibles 2” in 2018.

There may have been too much to consider in “Toy Story 4.” Even so, a new path was chosen when learning via flashback that Bo Peep – who, you will recall, was part of a lamp rather than a toy – was brutally told by Andy’s kid sister, “I don’t want to play with you anymore.”

Even a subsequent rescue attempt by Woody was rebuffed.

Hanks said in an online interview he’s lost track of how many times Woody rallied the troops by saying, “Come on, gang.”

With each year and each new owner, we realize the group of familiar toys who captured our hearts may not be around forever. Point of fact: Woody is a pull-string toy from the 1950s with seven phrases recorded on a voice box. “There’s a snake in my boot;” “Run like the wind, Bullseye;” and five more.

Yet these are, each one, living toys. And happily for Woody, he survived the future and became friends with a new doll his young owner, Andy, received as the ‘60s approached, a Space Ranger named Buzz Lightyear.

As “Toy Story 4” opens, things have changed on the home front. Woody is no stranger to a dusty perch on a shelf. He has lost his command. Dolly (Bonnie Hunt) is the room’s new toy leader and, after Andy generously gave his box of prized toys to little Bonnie, Woody’s “Round Up” partner, Jessie, became the new owner’s favorite.

Mind you, Woody stays positive, even recognizing Bonnie needs emotional support from a personal toy on her scary first day at kindergarten.

She ends up making a new friend, literally.

During a crafts session, Bonnie uses bits of trash and glue to transform a discarded spork into a companion she names Forky (voice of Tony Hale).

In 5-year-old Bonnie’s interest, Woody stays awake all night and looks after Forky like an AA sponsor, refusing to let him escape into the garbage.

The script places our favorite toy family in the shadows when Bonnie’s family leaves on vacation. Director Josh Cooley and the writers provide a three-part adventure for Woody, beginning with a visit to a spooky, “Shining”-like antique store. This is home to Gabby Gabby, a doll with a broken voice box and controlling muscle in the form of eerie, mute ventriloquists’ dolls who stop Woody from returning to Bonnie and her family.

At least that seems to be their intention, until Bo Peep arrives to help.

To aid Woody, she also builds the confidence of a Canadian motorcycle-riding, stunt-performer. Keanu Reeves has fun providing the voice, photo ops and courageous fun as Duke Caboom.

Nearby, even larger laughs are inspired at a traveling carnival by Ducky and Bunny – toys voiced by Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, respectively. They gradually have been working their way up the pegs on a carny’s give-away wall, certain a child could possibly win them both and become their playmate. That is, if they make sure an upstart space ranger, listening to his inner voice, does not, in effect, cut in line on the wall.

Lastly, there is a park inhabited by lost toys, where Bo Peep rules with strength, intelligence and compassion.

“Toy Story” fans must remember that, long before Barbie came on the scene in “Toy Story 2,” Bo Peep and Woody already were blushing friends with romantic feelings for one another.

Those same fans may also recall Woody and his pals convinced cowgirl Jessie from the Roundup in “Toy Story 2” to send the Prospector packing and join all the wonderful toy friends who lived at Andy and Molly’s house.

In “Toy Story 4,” even if Woody chooses to make a physical sacrifice for Gabby Gabby, it seems likely Woody and Buzz will also re-introduce Bo Peep to their friends, the toys living at Bonnie’s house.

Or … has Woody seen a different light, remembering when Andy left for college and left him behind, and then when he himself passed his badge on to Jessie, who became Jessie’s favorite? Bo has made an offer of her own. Could this be an opportunity to grow and fend for himself?

Make no mistake, laughter again gives way to tears for a few characters, and perhaps for a number of audience members, also.

Mind you, the most cynical among us may question whether Pixar has found a way to put an end to the “Toy Story” franchise, once and for all. At the least, one cannot imagine how Jessie, Bullseye and Rex will react while, surprisingly, Woody is asked to listen to his heart and make grown-up decisions.

That cannot be easy for any toy.

Gage’s rating: Three-and-a-half of five stars

Woody and the gang are back on the big screen this summer and my inner child was super excited.

I may be a critic – but I do get nostalgic. I don’t hate every movie. Although I do know this latest installment, while emotional, shares the wrong emotions.

Without providing spoilers, the ending does not fit what the “Toy Story” franchise is all about. I understand why producers opted for this ending, but it will not make many “Toy Story” fans happy. Just ask my family.

Will some people like it? Of course, but I think this ending is literally just that: an ending, specifically so they do not have to film any more “Toy Story” movies.

Obviously, the best parts of the entire – I repeat, the entire – movie involve Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks) and Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen).

I don’t think they are as good as they were in “Toy Story 3,” simply because that is my favorite “Toy Story.”

But I believe Woody is the most emotionally strained that we’ve seen in the franchise. Buzz wasn’t in this movie very much, but I still liked the parts with jokes about his inner voice.

I would even throw Bo Peep (Annie Potts) into the mix, because it was such a risk to change her character so much. It absolutely paid off and she turned into a great character.

On the other end of the spectrum are characters that feel misused, or meh at best.

I thought Forky (Tony Hale) would be a great addition to the gang. For the most part, he was – until he became annoying. OK, yes, he is funny in the movie’s first half. But that wore off.

Ducky (Keegan-Michael Key) and Bunny (Jordan Peele) were also OK, somewhat funny, but I just blew them off in a way; I never became invested in those characters.

Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) is my least favorite character. She is bland, but the director wants audiences to feel for her. It did not work for me. Honestly, she would have been better as a pure villain, like the last movie had in Lotso, but with a more compelling backstory.

The most criminal thing in “Toy Story 4” is its refusal to use the old characters from the three preceding films.

Jessie (Joan Cusack), Bullseye, Rex (Wallace Shawn), Hamm (John Ratzenberger), Slinky Dog (Blake Clark) and other favorites are not seen until the final minutes. Sure, these characters may not be as important as Woody and Buzz. But to replace them with Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves) just hurts my soul.

This is Woody and Buzz’s gang. Not having them as part of “Toy Story 4” is a waste of great characters.

I don’t mind the new characters, but to basically have them switch places feels wrong.

Visually, this chapter is one of the prettiest. The progression of technology is astounding; comparing “Toy Story 4” to the original “Toy Story” is like being on separate planets. The new film has a great story, but it is not executed well.

Upon considering everything, my conclusion may offend diehard “Toy Story” fans. Bottom line: “Toy Story 4” is the worst in the franchise. This does not make it a bad movie, but rather a flawed project. The ending will be viewed as controversial by some fans; others merely will not like the absence of more familiar characters.

Sure, some may like the new characters; some may consider “Toy Story 4” a big improvement. And families likely will enjoy it regardless.