‘Toy Story 4’ is a Cinematic Triumph Worthy of the Pixar Brand

If Toy Story 3 tore your heart out, Toy Story 4 will run it over with an RV.

Over the course of 15 years, Pixar laid out a beautiful toy story – a three-act adventure with a poignant, bittersweet ending. So when Toy Story 4 was confirmed, many wondered one thing: why? Was the story of Buzz and Woody meant to be four parts all along?

In the same way that Star Wars is the Skywalker Saga, the first three Toy Story films are the Andy Saga. The fourth is, in many ways, a retrospective.

An epic opening sequence – a Toy Story prerequisite – picks up 9 years before the events of the third installment, on the night of Bo’s emotional departure from Andy and Molly’s house. A digitally-enhanced Andy (whose 90’s design has seen a facelift or two) grows into the college kid who generously leaves his toys with a new guard: Bonnie.

This movie was made for everyone who audibly cried during its predecessor. Did the ending of Toy Story 3 not sit well with you?

You’re not alone. It’s not sitting well with Woody either.

There’s a new sheriff in town – in more ways than one. Marking a new era, Bonnie’s name is now scribbled on the feet of her new toys, and Woody is struggling to find his place in this world. He is merely the deputy to Dolly, the commander-in-chief of her child’s room.

 

To this point, the toys understand and openly accept their position in the grand scheme. Each character is, as Woody has yelled in the past, a child’s plaything. Their goal: to provide unconditional love for their children as they grow up. In Toy Story 2, Woody ultimately passes up immortality in a museum display… to be there for his kid. In Toy Story 3, Woody redirects himself from a safe, quiet life in storage… for the opportunity to be there for another kid. In Toy Story 4, he’s lost – emotionally and physically. Woody has lived his life for others – and he’ll continue to do so forever. It’s in his character. But along the way, he might just learn what it means to live for himself. And finally, his character becomes as fully rounded as it’ll ever be.

And that’s the beauty of Toy Story 4. Just when we think we’ve seen it all from characters with which many of us have grown up, they surprise us. In no way does this movie tread water; old friends are challenged in ways we have not yet seen, and new characters are strikingly different from those we’ve already met.

Exhibit A: Forky, a toy not made in a factory, but in a kindergarten classroom. He’s trash, he knows it, and he needs this whole thing to be over. Forky is instantly suicidal, longing for his rightful place among the garbage as opposed to reciprocating Bonnie’s affection. He would have loved that incinerator scene.

When Bonnie and her family take a trip to the Grand Basin campground and carnival, Buzz and Woody reunite with an old friend. Annie Potts returns from a Toy Story hiatus to voice a drastically changed, scavenger Bo Peep. Woody and Bo’s unspoken love story picks up where it left off, but now, they’re different toys at a crossroads.

They meet Christina Hendricks’ Gabby Gabby, the main antagonist, who provides a fresh take on toy villains. She wants more than just the destruction of others’ happiness, and her strife is key to the thematic relevance of the film.

And then there’s seemingly unwinnable carnival prizes Ducky and Bunny, the comedic tag team voiced by Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele. Keanu Reeves steals the show as Duke Caboom, a stuntman with an arsenal of poses, Canadian catchphrases, and something to prove. They’re already caught up on the lessons learned earlier in the Toy Story franchise; they’ve been loved and lost – or have not yet been loved at all.

The downside to these new faces? The gang, including Rex, Hamm, and Mr. Potato Head (voiced by archive Don Rickles recordings), have a lot less to do back in the RV. Jessie becomes de facto leader as Buzz grapples with his “conscience” over the course of his mission to help Woody save Forky from becoming another lost toy.

In this new environment of campgrounds, class trips, and carnival games, every toy is lost. They see playtime come and go, not bound to a single child in a single bedroom. Is this “lost toy life” a preferable one for a toy without a place? Or are one of the Toy Story 3 fates – trash or further donation – simply inevitable?

Andy is still very much a part of this story. In fact, he’s the driving force behind some of Woody’s craziest decisions to date. We saw Andy grow up – in Toy Story time, just a few weeks ago. This movie asks if it’s time for some of his toys do the same and gives them the autonomy to make that call themselves.

In this tetralogy, we see the many ways a toy’s journey could end. There’s the garage sale, being left on the side of the road, having some guy from Craigslist come and pick you up. What we hadn’t yet seen: allowing the toys to decide for themselves.

The 100-minute movie is nothing short of a victory lap, featuring some of Pixar’s most impressive and technically dazzling animation yet. The bright lights of the carnival amidst the glimmering mystique of the town antique shop is so enchanting that even the toys take pause at several moments just to soak it all in.

As Randy Newman returns with new songs and familiar themes, it’s important to note that Toy Story 4 is the last Pixar film to come from the collective minds of former Chief Creative Officer John Lasseter, his successor Peter Docter, mainstay Andrew Stanton – the three of which having participated in the famous lunch break “napkin sketches” in 1994 – and departing veteran Lee Unkrich, who helmed Toy Story 3.

Directed by Josh Cooley, Toy Story 4 is as different a Toy Story as we’ve ever seen – and yet it’s as good as it gets. The pacing even-handed, the storytelling focused and collected, this installment is easily the most hilarious, laugh-out-loud yet. The superb writing, with its witty dialogue and heartfelt moments, push along a plot that never scares away from the big questions that challenge our favorite characters and encourage them to grow in new, inventive ways. In doing so, it also chips away at the themes and lessons that we thought had solidified during the prior three-movie run.

The existential questions that initially confound Forky soon make their way to Woody – and then, us.

If you cried at the end of Toy Story 3, this movie was made for you. But by that same logic, we should probably also expect a Toy Story 5.

One thought on “‘Toy Story 4’ is a Cinematic Triumph Worthy of the Pixar Brand

  1. You don’t how relieved I am after hearing these good reviews. I’m not sure they’re ever going to do a 5th one. If the title for the next film amplifies Pixar’s plans now, it looks like they going to move Onward to new worlds and ideas.

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