This was the first Toy Story film I wasn’t excited to see. When Toy Story 3 came out in 2010, it felt like the perfect ending to the Toy Story series. It was a beautiful close to a trilogy of films that had, quite literally, spanned an entire generation of children. So, naturally, when it was announced that Disney/Pixar was going to release another film in the series, potentially ruining that perfect ending, I wasn’t exactly thrilled. Disney had made some TV specials set in the aftermath of Toy Story 3, but that was about as far as I wanted it to go. I’m happy to say, however, that this fourth film largely acts as an epilogue to the previous three, respecting that beautiful ending while giving the characters – notably Woody – some extra closure. It’s largely unnecessary but fairly enjoyable. (Mild spoilers ahead.)
Toy Story 4 (written by Andrew Stanton and Stephany Folsom, directed by Josh Cooley)
Woody (voice of Tom Hanks) has always been confident about his place in the world, and that his priority is taking care of his kid, whether that’s Andy or Bonnie. So when Bonnie’s beloved new craft-project-turned-toy, Forky (voice of Tony Hale), declares himself as “trash” and not a toy, Woody takes it upon himself to show Forky why he should embrace being a toy. But when Bonnie takes the whole gang on her family’s road trip excursion, Woody ends up on an unexpected detour that includes a reunion with his long-lost friend Bo Peep (voice of Annie Potts). After years of being on her own, Bo’s adventurous spirit and life on the road belie her delicate porcelain exterior. As Woody and Bo realize they’re worlds apart when it comes to life as a toy, they soon come to find that’s the least of their worries.
It’s honestly impressive that the Toy Story series continues to have something new to say about the lives of toys. In previous movies, it’s been themes of toys accepting their place as toys or dealing with their child growing up, but here it’s something a bit darker – what makes a toy? At the beginning of the film, Bonnie (the current owner of Woody, Buzz, and the rest of the gang) creates a new toy in kindergarten by attaching some pipe cleaners and googly eyes to an old spork, creating a toy called Forky. Forky, of course, immediately has an existential crisis, much like Buzz’s in the first Toy Story film; he is trash, not a toy. As Bonnie and her family go on a road trip, Woody has to stop Forky from constantly trying to throw himself away, but when Forky manages to jump out of the window of the family’s RV as it travels down a highway, Woody decides to go after Forky, insisting that Bonnie needs Forky in order to get through kindergarten. Eventually, after some major heart-to-hearts with Forky, Woody is able to convince him that he’s important to Bonnie and not just something to be thrown away. These conversations are interesting and they open up the Toy Story universe in, frankly, frightening ways – can anything be a toy if a child decides it’s one?
The film, of course, has no time to really answer that question as it quickly becomes apparent that the movie isn’t really about Forky’s journey to accepting his place as a toy. Rather, that plotline was just a way to get to the real meat of the story: what happens to lost toys? The film actually opens with a flashback to the night that Bo Peep was given away to another family, set somewhere between Toy Story 2 and Toy Story 3. This is the set up for the real plotline. As Woody and Forky make their way back to Bonnie’s RV, they end up at the site of a traveling carnival and an antique store. Woody notices Bo Peep’s lamp in the window of the antique store and quickly finds himself tangled in the plans of a toy that’s been abandoned in the store, Gabby Gabby, and desperately wanting to no longer be lost. As Woody and Forky try to escape this crazed toy, Forky gets captured and Woody runs into the long-lost Bo Peep, who’s made a life for herself living on her own as a lost toy. The rest of the film explores this trauma inflicted on those toys that end up lost. We see how it’s turned Bo Peep into a harder toy than she used to be; we see how it’s made Gabby Gabby ruthless in her quest to find a child; and we see how Woody, himself, deals with his own sense of loss – the feeling that Bonnie doesn’t actually need him anymore. All of these are really solid plotlines to explore, and they’re all explored in really interesting ways. It’s also really nice seeing Woody and Bo reunited once more, giving their romance a chance to blossom once again and getting the chance to see how the different paths their lives have taken re-intertwine ends up being really interesting.
In light of how Toy Story 3 was about the necessity of humans to give up their toys as they grow older, allowing new children the chance to play with these toys, it definitely feels natural for Toy Story 4 to explore what it’s like for a toy to never find a new home again. The vast majority of the film explores that, caked within a number of failed attempts at rescuing Forky from the antique store (there were honestly about one too many attempts; by the final rescue mission, it started feeling a bit too repetitive). But it was worth sitting through all of those failed rescue attempts in order to get to the meat of the story. I won’t spoil anything else from the film, but the ending does feel very earned in a way that honestly surprised me. In a way, it feels like it’s setting the series up for another sequel, but in a way, it feels like a perfect note to end this story on. Toy Story 3 was about a human dealing with outgrowing his toys, Toy Story 4 deals with a toy having to find a new purpose in the aftermath of that. The whole film ends up working pretty well as an epilogue to the series as a whole. It’s a film that didn’t necessarily need to exist, but it certainly works pretty well.
All in all, Toy Story 4 is pretty solid. It’s probably my third favorite Toy Story film – it doesn’t come anywhere close to reaching the heights that Toy Story 2 reached and it’s really hard to top just how perfect an ending Toy Story 3 was, but I do think I liked it more than I liked the first film. It’s probably the funniest of all the Toy Story films, but it frequently tries a bit too hard to make you cry and the middle of the film sags a bit (a problem shared with the first Toy Story film, which features a middle act that feels like it never ends). Additionally, the only characters who get any kind of meaningful screentime are Woody, Forky, and Bo Peep. Nearly the rest of the original cast and relegated to nothing more than extended cameos. It seems like Pixar keeps making Buzz dumber and dumber with each Toy Story film and that trend continues with this one, but his interactions with the stuffed animals played by Jordan Peele and Keegan Michael Key end up being some of the funniest sections of the movie, so I’m inclined to forgive it. Overall, it’s a flawed film but it does work as a pretty solid epilogue to this series. I really hope they don’t make any more Toy Story films after this, though. This is a good place to stop. Arguably, Toy Story 3 is still a better place to have stopped, but even though this film feels very unnecessary, I do enjoy a lot of what was done with Woody here. So, it ends up being pretty worthwhile, all things considered.
3.5 out of 5 wands.