Nobody today knows how to drill into childhood trauma like Pixar, to find the nerves connected to an empty-nest parent’s anxieties, or to the fearfulness of being a child. There are scenes in Toy Story 4 that really sting, such as the observation of a little girl, weeping in misery in her first day in kindergarten.
The series took the example of Margery Williams’ 1922 The Velveteen Rabbit. It’s a kids’ book, as popular as it is dire, about the suffering of a stuffed bunny and its ultimate resurrection. In four installments, Pixar played with the ideas in that depressing book, satirizing the uncanniness of walking, talking toys. Here, debuting director Josh Cooley balances the ebullient humor of the toybox with the story’s essential tragedy.
This time around, the men will get it in the brisket harder than the women. In this installment, Cowboy Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks) is going through it. His porcelain pal Bo Peep (Annie Potts) gets Kondo-ized, shoved into a cardboard box and given away. And his new person, 5-year-old Bonnie, isn’t very interested in him. Obsolete and relegated to the dusty closet, Woody salves his dignity by protecting a tenderfoot toy Bonnie made out of a plastic spork, with pipe cleaner arms and googly eyes. Forky (Tony Hale), who longs to return to the garbage from which he was repurposed, is a flight risk. During a family RV vacation, he gets loose.
Woody tracks the fugitive to a tourist town antique store; a fortress run by a damaged 1950s baby doll called Gabby Gabby (a remarkable performance of neurosis and loneliness voiced by Christina Hendricks). This queen bee is protected by a mute goon squad of ventriloquist dummies; scary, but scary in a good way, that thrilling way that makes the best Disney cartoons sing.
Stalemated, Woody encounters a guerrilla band of freed toys living in the wilderness of a city park. They’re led by an old friend, now a wild woman with the skills of a general. Learning to take orders from her is part of Woody’s dilemma. This is not at all the kind of movie that grouses about a world in which women hold half the power. However, it treats the fears of males losing their traditional position of authority with sensitivity.
You can wring a sigh out of any former child, thinking about that loved toy they carelessly left in the park so many years ago, never to be seen again. It’s not always the big traumas that mark us, but the tiny death of a thousand cut losses. So, it’s a sweet thought to consider such toys as not lost, but free, getting up to lives of their own and seeing new horizons. A soaring moment has Woody taken up to the top of the antique store to have a look at the bright lights. He’s dazzled, after having once considered a mere nursery lamp his own personal lodestar. It’s all the opposite of the waiting in hope that the toys did in The Velveteen Rabbit, suffering until they were finally immolated.
The colors are, as always with Pixar, a delight. The evocative, busy small town background is stuffed with visitors and lit up by a carnival passing through. It’s all the more fun because Bonnie isn’t enraptured by it, she’s caught in her own personal kid business. Toy Story 4 has the look of summer in the western states: The painted beauty never gets in the way of the story.
Today’s movies aren’t built half as well as these cartoons, with their Hans Christian Anderson terrors and brash humor. There’s a lot of laughter in this series, such as the toys pranking the suburban dad like leprechauns in order to buy time for Woody’s mission of rescue. And, there’s one uproarious Looney Tunes-worthy sequence of a pair of fluffy-yet-shady carnival stuffed critters plotting to mug a sweet little old lady. (They call their plan “The Plush Rush.”) The engineering of fright, laughter, chases, and sweet relief here is just about classic.