Pixar’s sequelitis phase comes to an end with Toy Story 4, possibly the most worrisome sequel of all. Not only do you have the pressure of following up Toy Story 3, the most respected bookend to a nearly-perfect animated trilogy, but it is the newest sequel in a chain of “generally enjoyed but lacking long term impact” sequels from a studio that is lauded for its originality. It also marks the feature-length debut of director Josh Cooley. Greenlighting this film was like opening Pandora’s box, for once you create another addition to this story, the reputation and concept of creative integrity of the brand hangs in the film’s response. It’s a scary, extremely tall order to fill. Luckily, while Toy Story 4 will never quite shake off the label of “the sequel we never asked for,” it still manages to charm, delight, but most importantly, find a way to take its concept to infinity and beyond. And in this summer movie slump, I’ll gladly accept it as a knockout.
Toy Story 4 kicks off with a cold open: the formerly off-screen separation of Woody (Tom Hanks) and Bo-Peep (Annie Potts) right before moving onto where we left off at the last film—Bonnie and the toys playing throughout the years until her student orientation at kindergarten. Woody, feeling not as relevant with his new owner as he did with Andy, decides to keep a watch on Bonnie on her first day. She creates Forky, a spork with googly eyes and a young mind haunted with existential terror, and Woody is determined to keep him safe through Bonnie’s summer road-trip. When a stop is made in a small town with a carnival and an old antique store, some old friends and flames come back to offer a new perspective of the past, of toy responsibilities, and when to move on. The Toy Story franchise has never been a stranger to themes of identity, but this is a deeper and even bigger step in interrogating what greater purpose toys (and/or, we) have in life.
My strongest looming concern before walking into Toy Story 4 was that the film would feel repetitive and pointless; that I would feel the same cold feeling I felt walking out of Incredibles 2— which did a lot to reference and tribute its predecessor but did very little to expand its concept. I was genuinely surprised to see how much about Toy Story 4 was original and new. For one, this is very much a more Woody- focused film than the rest of the franchise, and that might be one of its biggest strengths as a single character examination rather than a large ensemble piece. Gone are Woody’s glory days, and his biggest trait: his unwavering loyalty is put into question. Famously, it’s Woody’s dedication to Andy, but also the idea of Andy; of having a purpose as a toy to fill, of being a strong leader to make this kid happy that has been the heart of the series. A dynamic that has been unquestioned as the best thing about him, but in Toy Story 4 it’s his character flaw—and Woody eventually accepts that his time has passed. He can find a purpose in other places, and find fulfillment, even if that fulfillment is nowhere near what he thought he wanted. Woody’s search for a new purpose in his toy life proves to be not only compelling enough to fulfill a new chapter but also thematically rich enough to explore a more positive and healthy message about adapting to change. Everything about Woody’s arc just felt right; like somehow there was baggage with him that we took for granted in the past and he finally got the closure he deserved, which is unexpected, but natural.
That’s not to say the side characters don’t stand out. In fact, two of the strongest aspects about this film are Forky and Bo-Peep. The former raises new questions about toy sentience, the latter brings new dimensions to a forgotten, previous love interest by exploring her new life as a ‘lost toy’ without an owner. To add to the lore, our villain is a doll who was deemed unworthy by her defective voice box, her minions are terrifying ventriloquy puppets, and Forky can’t quite decide if he’s a toy or a piece of trash. This is such a bizarre entry in the series, but it’s perhaps the most imaginative and conceptual one since Toy Story 2. In fact, what disappointed me the most about Toy Story 3, despite the beautiful ending, was how similar it was to themes and situations we’ve seen in the series before. But here, there is not just a desire but also a valiant effort from the filmmakers to keep finding new ‘what ifs’ for the living toy scenarios. It goes a long way into feeling like Toy Story 4 truly belongs in the canon because even if we weren’t looking to hear it, it does have something nice to say.
The saga of films were all released within significant gaps of one another, so they are all time capsuled by their own presentations. As the first feature-length CG film, Toy Story’s animation has definitely seen better days but it was revolutionary in its time. Toy Story 2 brought a big leap forward in movement and texture. Toy Story 3 was at the time, what I thought the prettiest an animated film could ever be. It’s crazy to think that there was so much more that could be done with the tech just nine years later in 2019, but looking at a frame even from 3 and comparing it to what is done with 4 is just night and day when it comes to the immaculate detail. Almost every passing moment in Toy Story 4 has some sort of visual treat, from the rushing water into a storm drain to the dazzling chandeliers of the antique store— this might be the most stunning Pixar movie to date. With a beautifully cathartic story behind it, I’m glad none of the talent and efforts from the animators have gone to waste.
I’m sure that this won’t please everyone. The legacy characters of the franchise mostly take a backseat so that we can focus on Woody, and this film still has to live in the shadows of the final moments of the well-loved third film. But certain moving pieces of Toy Story 4 are powerful and so incredibly well earned that any reservations I had about bringing Toy Story back in 2019 disappeared. While it’s certainly ironic that a film series with such a steady theme about moving on from our pasts ends with a seemingly unnecessary fourth entry, I also think it’s poetic towards the sort of emotional journey Woody experience. I strongly believe the end of this film reaches a satisfying conclusion, not just for Woody and Buzz’s story, but also of the franchise’s questions raised about purpose and identity. Sometimes, the things we deserve and need are the most unexpected. Sometimes we can find happiness in a new identity. Sometimes, the world slows down, and only then can we fully appreciate the connections that make our existences valuable. Sometimes, we have to pass on the torch. This is amongst the best “sequels that none of us asked for” I’ve ever seen. Maybe don’t risk making another, though.