The toybox gets even larger in “Toy Story 4,” a busy but entertaining entry in the best animated franchise the movies have.
There’s always been a lot going on in the “Toy Story” world, but “4” adds romance and some low-key horror to a stew that already included adventure, moral lessons and comedy. The possibility of love blooms between Woody (the cowpoke voiced by Tom Hanks) and Bo Peep (Annie Potts), who reunite when the gang accompanies owner Bonnie on a camping trip. But love is complicated by Bo having become something of a lone wolf (sorry, Peep’s sheep) in the time she’s been separated from Woody and the others. Another complication? Woody might be about to get ripped apart.
That would happen at the hands of Gabby Gabby, a ’50s-style pull-string doll who has been stuck in an antique shop for years because her voice box doesn’t work. Woody’s, however, does, and Gabby Gabby, accompanied by a creepy quartet of ventriloquist’s dummies, wants it.
As the voice of Gabby Gabby (who can talk when humans aren’t around — it’s just her pull-string voice that doesn’t work), Christina Hendricks is like a toddler version of Betty White’s Sue Ann Nivens on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” — all warmth and honey, covering an acid-dipped heart. (By the way, White also voices a small role). The real horror, though, is Gabby’s evil — and, cleverly, voiceless — henchdummies, who could turn kids off ventriloquism forever.
“Toy Story 4” boasts perhaps the best-named animated character ever: an Evel Knievel-like daredevil named Duke Caboom (voiced by Keanu Reeves and, yes, he gets one of his trademark “Whoa’s”). There’s also a snappy vocal reunion for Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, who play a pair of carnival toys, and a nervous, spork-turned-plaything newcomer called Forky (Tony Hale).
With all of that new stuff, something’s got to be left out, and that’s the supporting toys that audiences have come to love. Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) and, especially, Jessie (Joan Cusack) don’t have much to do, and the Potato Heads could have been french-fried for all the movie notices. (In a nice touch, the film is in memory of the late Don Rickles, who voiced Mr. P.).
Some themes get short shrift, too. When Bonnie, scared about the first day of school, fashions a plastic spork into Forky, it raises an intriguing question about what constitutes a toy, but that question gets tabled. (Also: Why isn’t he called Sporky?)
I’m probably reading too much into this, but I’m inclined to do so because this series has been so careful and inclusive up to now: It hit me wrong when Gabby says, “I was defective, right out of the box,” and that notion is never addressed, wasting an opportunity for Pixar to send a message about toys/kids with different abilities.
Where “Toy Story 4” is a huge success, though, is in its ongoing exploration of the bond between kids and toys, and the bond toys share with each other. “I don’t leave toys behind,” Woody insists when a Bonnie favorite is lost (perhaps an echo of Hanks’ role in “Saving Private Ryan?”), which reinforces the “Toy Story” message that toys stand by silently, guiding and supporting the lives of their owners.
“They go off and do things you’ll never see,” Woody tells the other toys when Bonnie heads to school, hinting that the role of toys, which has variously seemed to be protectors, cheerleaders and superheroes, is all of those things and more. Because what toys really are is parents.