Pixar’s recent glut of sequels, while spectacularly profitable, have been a mixed bag of quality. Even “sure things” such as Finding Dory and Incredibles 2 produced somewhat disappointing results. So when the prospect of Toy Story 4, a follow up to one of the most assured send-offs in movie history, came along it would be easy to roll one’s eyes and scoff at another potential cash grab. Thankfully, Pixar’s sensibilities and strengths are so well suited for their most famous property that what once felt like an unnecessary addition now lands as the appropriate epilogue to one of animation’s grandest and important achievements. Yes, this is essentially the big reunion for an iconic era in the studio’s history, but don’t think for a second anyone here is past their prime – everyone is bringing their A game.
When we left off with Toy Story 3, Andy had finally given away his old toys which now belong to a young girl named Bonnie. However, Bonnie’s way of playing with toys differ greatly from Andy, which results in Woody being left out of Bonnie’s imaginary stories. To his credit, Woody still wants to do his best to make Bonnie happy even as his own self-esteem takes a hit. This becomes even more apparent when a lonely Bonnie builds a hand-made toy in class. Forky, voiced by Tony Hale, is a toy made out of a spork, wire, and popsicle sticks. The creation somehow gains sentience but it’s physical makeup has led Forky to believe that’s he’s literal trash and belongs in the garbage, not a kid’s play room.
As Woody tries to welcome Forky into the gang, those efforts are constantly challenged by Forky’s attempts to practically kamikaze himself into the nearest trash bin. Even as the toys are taken on a road trip with Bonnie’s family, Forky takes every single pit stop as an opportunity to escape life as a toy – a life he doesn’t understand and never asked for. The Toy Story films, while crowd pleasers on the surface, have always dabbled with the pandora’s box of self-awareness and existential grief. Here, director Josh Cooley and half a baseball team of credited writers are asking similar questions, but this time the creators seem to be at peace at not having the answers (a sentiment that is confirmed with Forky’s last line of the film).
But while the film does an excellent job of introducing new characters, it’s Woody’s never ending plight that drives the narrative – is Woody willing to accept the day when a kid no longer needs him? It’s a question that has explicitly dogged him since Toy Story 2, but he has to confront it head on when, while trying to bring Forky back to Bonnie, he’s reunited with Bo Peep (Annie Potts). Bo Peep is now a “lost toy”, a stray toy with her own group of sidekicks as she goes from one adventure to the next. But meeting Woody again brings back old memories, and conflicted emotions given the last time they said goodbye to one another. Their conflict gets the most focus as Woody’s entire ideology is challenged, which is on his mind with every major decision he makes in the film.
Granted, some might typically find the themes to be too emotionally draining for one to have a good time watching this. But this is Pixar, they know how to support a film heavy on themes with gags and colorful characters. Here is where Toy Story 4 shines, as it may be the funniest of the series. It’s mostly the new characters that steal the comedic show, as Forky, Ducky and Bunny (Keegan-Michael Key, Jordan Peele), and a Canadian Evel Knievel doppelganger (Voiced by America’s conscious Keanu Reeves), each are given practically their own comedic set pieces. There are also a plethora of sight-gags and quick-witted dialogue that represent some of the studio’s best comedic writing.
One trade off to having so many fresh additions to the cast is that the original crew is mostly sidelined as the focus lands squarely on Woody. With the exception of Buzz Lightyear, who does get in on the action eventually, accompanied with some newfound philosophy based on what seemed like a throwaway line from early in the film (it seems every comedic bit in the film has an appropriate setup). Rounding out the cast is Christina Hendricks as Gabby Gabby who acts as sort of a dark mirror to Woody’s deepseated desire to be loved.
Visually, the film is stunning. The most apparent benefit of such long gaps between films is how each installment takes a massive leap in animation. While I suspect most fans will prefer the action of the 2nd and 3rd films of the franchise, Toy Story 4 ranks as the most beautiful of the quadrilogy, and paired with Incredibles 2 represents just how far tha studio has come and is capable of visually in the future.
But unlike Incredibles 2, there’s a far better script supporting this visual splendor. The screenplay was written by Stephany Folsom and Andrew Stanton, but no fewer than 8 people have been credited with story contributions. Usually, that spells disaster for a film, but here the storytelling is tight, focused, and efficient. In the process, Toy Story 4 does not at all resemble an unnecessary branch of a concluded saga. Instead, we’re left to wonder if the conclusion of Toy Story 3 truly solved the internal turmoil plaguing Woody. This has led Pixar to pull off a rare feat – justifying the unjustifiable sequel. There is no attempt at doing a “Greatest Hits” reunion. There’s thankfully no allusions to “falling… with style” or any other reliance on past glory. Instead, it’s a story about knowing when you should do what you’re supposed to do and knowing when you should do what you want to do. At last, these toys can write their own story.