The last time I wrote about movies in this blog, I wondered what would tempt me back into the theater after I saw and enjoyed Booksmart. It turns out it was Pixar, a studio still doing solid work and now no longer besmirched by the presence of handsy John Lasseter. Toy Story 4 turned out to be a movie nobody needed but everybody wanted, and a movie that highlights an important place where the studio has improved since the release of the first Toy Story back in 1995 — female representation. Concerning the first film, I asked in an earlier post, “Whose favorite character is Bo Peep?” with the expectation that the answer would be nobody’s. Concerning the fourth film, I can now answer, Mine, as this series’ swan song finally gives the delightful Annie Potts the material she deserves.
A big part of the chance comes from the animators’ redesign of the character. In the first two Toy Story films, Bo Peep was crafted to play a limited, somewhat passive role; she’s porcelain from the top of her head to the hem of her spreading hoop skirt. The key issue was feet; hers weren’t visible, and she could only travel as far as she could slide across a smooth surface. She would never have managed among the party of male adventurers who crawled through air ducts to rescue Woody in Toy Story 2. But at some point between that film and 4, the creators realized her design was fatally flawed, so much so that they wrote her out of the third movie, since they could think of nothing for her to do. When she reappears at the beginning of 4, her skirt is cloth, and her legs and feet can be seen. She has mobility, the thing an active heroine needs, and the story lets her take full advantage of it. As a “lost toy” without an owner, Bo embraces her freedom with both a sense of adventure and a sense of humor. Through her, protagonist Woody finds the courage for a final confrontation with the question of what becomes of a toy whose owner no longer plays with them. In Toy Story 2 the answer is storage, a figurative death. But in 4, we see the promise of something more, and even better, on the horizon for Woody and Bo.
Bo Peep’s not the whole show when it comes to female representation. Female characters are sprinkled throughout the cast, both human and toy. Among Bonnie’s original toys we have Trixie the Triceratops (Kristen Schaal) and Dolly of the sunflower head (Bonnie Hunt), the latter of whom offers a voice of reason Woody too often ignores. Jessie the cowgirl (Joan Cusack), while she has less screen time than in the previous two movies, still gets her moments to shine. We also get to meet newcomer Giggle McDimples (Ally Maki), Bo’s hot-tempered and wisecracking right-hand doll, who gets some of the movie’s best lines, and Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), the talking doll who can’t, who is, well, a little bit scary. The male characters from the earlier movies, aside from Tim Allen’s Buzz, probably get shortchanged most by the new narrative, but new characters like Ducky and Bunny (Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele), a pair of midway plushies with comically violent fantasies, Forky (Tony Hale), a creature Bonnie constructs from a spork who’s convinced he’s trash and belongs in the garbage can, and Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves), an action figure who’s ostensibly Canada’s greatest stuntman and who plays a critical role at the climax (Yes, we Canada!), more than make up for it. We get, all in all, a joyously well-rounded and balanced cast of characters, and I came out of the theater loving every one of them.
I further need to mention that in keeping with the film’s overall optimism, an element sorely needed, we get treated to an unprecedented redemption arc. I won’t say more. I’ll let you discover it if you’ve yet to see the movie. It’s been out for a while, and if you’ve been on the fence about seeing it, don’t let sequel-itis stop you. This one is that rare sequel that offers the pleasure of surprise.