Let’s be honest, there’s no need for a fourth Toy Story movie. While it may be ghastly by today’s standards, way back in 1995 (yes, twenty-four years ago!) the original Toy Story served as a breakthrough for Pixar Animation Studios and proof of concept for computer animation itself. Four years later Toy Story 2 built upon and in some ways improved the work of its predecessor. Then in 2010, Pixar followed two of its best films ever (2008’s Wall-E and 2009’s Up) by capping its initial franchise with possibly the greatest film in the studio’s history. Toy Story 3 seemingly concluded the adventures of Woody, Buzz and the rest in a hilarious, intelligent, surprisingly mature and even terrifying film so near to perfect that it took the studio four tries to even contend with its quality. Maybe that’s why this fourth part comes almost a decade later, when the kids who grew up with (or were scared by) the previous film are now teenagers, and those who grew up with the original can now bring their own kids to see the fourth. Even Pixar seems to know that the series has outlived its purpose as both Woody and the film as a whole ponder what to do now that their time has passed.
The answer, at least in the case of the series, is to make an epilogue which is not at all necessary but still a lot of fun. While the film may begin with Woody serving as guardian for a new – and in some ways absolutely terrifying – addition to the toy chest, his answer to this question of how to move on makes up the bulk of the film.
In this way Toy Story 4 comes off as very aware of the fact that the series probably should have ended nine years ago, and that’s what makes this new installment interesting. Rather than being laser focused on a single thematic motif, Toy Story 4 meanders through its first act, gradually introducing theme through interlocking paths all joining at Woody’s inability to move on from his first kid, Andy, outgrowing his toys. There are in fact times when Woody acts more as negative influence, forcing himself into the center of resolved situations, rather than the caring if a little bit rigid leader of the previous films. In short, Woody is jerk for a lot of the movie. But right when he’s about to hit the border of being unsympathetic the film drops a hint of his motivation and we’re right back on his side. The way that other characters both old and new weave around him demonstrates a subtlety of storytelling that was unfathomable back when the series began. And while this coda doesn’t pack near the emotional wallop (nor the existential dread) of the previous installment, there is still a good depth in watching Woody come to terms with his diminishing role in life after Andy.
Woody isn’t alone in seeing his role grow smaller as the characters of Buzz Lightyear and Jessie, both of whom were central figures in the first two films, receive much less of a spotlight. While Buzz listening to his inner voice offers one of the funniest running gags in the film, it’s hard not to notice that what was once the central relationship of the franchise is relegated to a B-story. The greatest beneficiary of this shift in narrative focus is undoubtedly the character of Bo Peep (played by Annie Potts), the porcelain doll who served as damsel in distress for the first film and an afterthought in the following two. Here Bo Peep explodes on the screen, completely flipping the damsel in distress cliché and becoming the film’s strongest, most intriguing character. Duke Caboom (played by Keanu Reeves, replacing Jeff Goldblum as the niche figure people love the most) is a fun addition but it’s Bunny and Ducky (Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key respectively) who move beyond some initially questionable material to provide the film’s biggest laughs and the best running gag (Plush Rush… terrifying). Antagonist Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) begins as an underwhelming villain before rounding into a very well conceived character. All of this proves that the talent behind the Toy Story franchise, those playing the characters and those creating them, are as clever as they have ever been. Perhaps too clever for children, although, it might be that children aren’t the audience anymore.
The trouble with discussing a film like Toy Story 4 is that themes unravel themselves slowly, with the development of every new character, so discussing it in any depth could ruin the viewing experience. Thus, in the interest of minimizing possible spoilers, I’ll stick to the most intriguing element of the opening act, that being the unwilling life giving to a spork with googly eyes named Forky. Yup, we’re going to examine the moral implications of a spork with googly eyes. Where the very concept of toys being alive could be terrifying, and Toy Story 3 added overt elements of dread, watching Forky suddenly spring to life is downright creepy (doesn’t help that he’s voiced by Tony Hale, who excels at clingy, co-dependence). Battling with his being called into an existence he doesn’t understand and doesn’t want Forky declares himself “trash” and immediately runs for the nearest waste bin. Funny as this is, actually watching an inanimate object be given life is kind of horrific. Further, his appearance and the fact that he would prefer being thrown away and ultimately destroyed could cause some children to find the character less endearing than the stuff of nightmares. (This isn’t to mention the quartet of ventriloquist dummies who act as Gabby’s henchmen). Further, it’s noticeable that the music accompanying Woody guarding against Forky’s numerous breaks for the nearest disposal is a song literally saying “I won’t let you throw yourself away.” For a film that manages to elegantly wander into its theme, this level of obviousness is baffling. Long-term emotional scarring has long been a possible side effect of Pixar movies, and Forky, a sentient being longing to end its unwilling existence, definitely qualifies for that. And he’s only the first of the heartbreaking characters which surround Woody on this adventure. But, again, this is assuming that children are the film’s target audience.
Josh Cooley, making his feature-length directorial debut, is old enough to have been a teenager when the first Toy Story was released. Similarly, writers Rashida Jones and Will McCormack would’ve been college age at that time, meaning they’ve lived more of their lives with these characters than without. It may be that with the generation which grew up with Toy Story now making Toy Story the franchise is being targeted more to the parents than to the kids. Of course there is plenty to offer children, but it doesn’t feel as kid-pleasing as previous installments. While Toy Story 4 wisely doesn’t rely on cheap callbacks or previous glories, there is an element of nostalgia in reviving any franchise, echoed by much of this film taking place in an antique store. As we watch Woody pondering the next step after fulfilling his initial purpose, we see Pixar doing the same. With its purpose served, Toy Story 3 was the perfect ending to the franchise. So what happens next?
There is still no need for a fourth Toy Story movie. Doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be one, and when a film is as well put together, beautifully designed, and thoughtful as Toy Story 4 there’s no reason not to see it. It’s unessential but it’s fun, and fun is something we can all use now and again. We who were kids then might be adults now, but we can still enjoy some time with our favorite toys before letting them go. We may not know happened to our real toys, but at least we know that Woody, Buzz, and the rest, can find happiness after their time with us is done.