In terms of narrative, there’s no reason for Toy Story 4 to exist. When the third film in the series ended with Woody and Buzz learning to let go of the college-bound Andy by embracing their new destiny as hand-me-down toys, this groundbreaking franchise found a philosophically and emotionally rich way to bow out gracefully. But in an era of blockbuster cinema in which no successful saga is ever truly over, a belated, vaguely pointless encore is now upon us.
The good news is that Pixar does pointlessness exceptionally well. In fact, with typical Pixar panache, it makes pointlessness the meta-theme of this latest instalment, which sees Woody (once again winningly voiced by Tom Hanks) suffering from an existential crisis brought on by the realisation that he’s already fulfilled his purpose in life. That purpose was to be the best toy he could be for the now-adult Andy and with new owner Bonnie favouring other toys in her collection, he’s suddenly confronted with the reality of a safe if purposeless future staring into the abyss of his own obsolescence.
Building more explicitly on the parenting metaphors slyly teased out in the previous instalments, the film has Woody attempt to fill this inner void by devoting himself to a new character called Forky who’s having trouble integrating into the world of Bonnie’s toys. If there’s a flash of greatness in Toy Story 4, though, it’s Forky. With pipe-cleaner arms, lollipop stick feet, two wonky eyes and a plasticine mouth, this former spork – cobbled together by Bonnie on her first terrifying day of nursery – comes to life when the humans aren’t looking and immediately freaks out. Having beem crudely Frankensteined from garbage, he’s confused by his trash-can origins and doesn’t understand what Bonnie wants with him – a wonderful concept the film doesn’t really do enough with. Instead, when a family road trip results in Forky and Woody getting trapped in an antique shop, the scene is set for yet another elaborate rescue mission from yet another new group of vaguely creepy toys, among them an Annabelle-like vintage doll called Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) and her army of ventriloquist’s dummy henchmen.
In other words it simply repeats the final act of the first three films, only now the storytelling scaffolding is more visible, with even the addition of a romance between Woody and a beefed-up character from one of the earlier films requiring an outlandish coincidence to make it work. Despite this seen-it-all-before quality, though, the film, directed by Josh Cooley (here making his feature debut having worked on the likes of Inside Out as a writer) is still done with plenty of verve and there are some very funny supporting characters, among them a couple of excitable fairground plush toys (voiced by Us director Jordan Peele and his former comedy partner Keegan-Michael Key) and an Evel Knievel-style Canadian daredevil doll who goes by the moniker Duke Caboom and is voiced with stoner calm by Keanu Reeves.
In an supreme spot of cinema trolling, Child’s Play – a reboot of the original toys-are-alive movie from 1988 – is being released worldwide on the same day as Toy Story 4. Unfortunately, that might be the best joke in this new version, which casts Mark Hamill as the voice of the maniacal Chucky and features a winking nod to Toy Story by naming the kid he terrorises Andy. Updated for the smartphone age, Chucky is now connected to the cloud, able to hack data and can learn at an exponential rate. Alas, thanks to a disgruntled factory worker in Vietnam, this particular high-spec doll has had its safety features disabled, which means he can mimic or enact behaviour he thinks will benefit his human friend, even if that involves doing terrible things to cats, old ladies and the beer-swilling loser Andy’s mother (Aubrey Plaza) is sleeping with. The special effects are certainly well done and the tech angle is a decent idea. If only the script was smart enough to pull off its post-modern flourishes. A jokey sequence in which Chucky learns his violent behaviour from exposure to horror movies gets at some interesting ideas about copycat violence (particularly potent given the tabloid demonisation of this franchise in the 1990s), but the film doesn’t inspire much confidence in the sophistication of its subtext when its overall plotting is too shoddy to realise that no toy company would launch a new product line immediately after Christmas.
In new British drama The Flood, a hardened immigration officer (Lena Headey) known for hitting her quotas finds her proficiency for processing cases tested by the nobility of an apparently dangerous asylum seeker (Ivanno Jeremiah) whose unwillingness to help his own case forces her to dig a little deeper. Intercutting flashback scenes of the 5,000km journey Haile (Jeremiah) has made to get to the UK with his exposition-heavy interrogation, the film builds toward a blindingly obvious twist that obliterates any tension. The cast (which includes Headey’s Game of Thrones co-star Iain Glenn) are fine, but the characterisation is similarly predictable, with Headey’s character ill-served by a cliché-ridden backstory designed to justify her connection to this particular case. File under worthy but dull. ■