From the moment it was announced, the biggest question about Toy Story 4 has been why? Why do we need another one of these? Now that the film is here, we finally have our answer: we needed another one of these because they had another good story to tell in the Toy Story universe. As such, while Toy Story 4 might not quite reach the highs of some of its predecessors it more than justifies its existence.
But first, this:
Earlier this week Disney made the surprise announcement that Pixar’s Peter Docter – the man responsible for Monsters. Inc., Up, and Inside Out – has a new movie called Soul and it’s due out in 2020. That means Pixar will now have two theatrical releases next year, with Soul joining the previously announced fantasy comedy Onward. This bit of news – Pixar will now have two wholly original films in the same year! – served as red meat for all those cultural commentators racing to be the first to crack a joke about Pixar finally stepping forward to reclaim its artistic soul. Years and years of sequels, a sexual misconduct scandal involving John Lasseter, and at least two too many Cars movies has certainly damaged the brand in the eyes of many critics.
That’s why Toy Story 4 has a lot to prove. Not to general audiences, of course. The film is projected to either break or come close to breaking just about every record imaginable for an animated film, and in one of the worst summer movie seasons in recent memory Toy Story 4 registers as exactly the kind of sure thing which has been in precious short supply. Your kids are going to love it, but will you?
After all, how can any movie truly follow up the brilliance of Toy Story 3’s ending? The story of Andy and his anthropomorphized toys has ended about as gracefully as any story could possibly hope to. Woody, Buzz and the gang have moved on to a new kid, Bonnie, and series of TV specials (Toy Story of Terror!, Toy Story That Time Forgot). Surely there is no legitimate artistic reason to crank out another full film. The franchise already went out on top. Isn’t it time to move on and make room for something new?
First-time director Josh Cooley and his roster of 7 writers seem to have internalized that very concern. In fact, when Rashida Jones and her writing partner left the project as screenwriters she said it was because the Pixar people didn’t seem open to new ideas. They were clearly listening to that criticism because the finished project is all about taking an old toy and teaching him new tricks, opening his eyes to a whole new set of possibilities. In their hands, the Toy Story franchise has returned not to again break our hearts with yet another signature Pixar moment but instead to talk about the search for purpose as well as the benefits of being open to moving aside for the new kid in town.
The basic plot is Toy Story formula 101. Woody and another toy – Tony Hale’s hilarious Forkie, a spork with googly eyes and pipe cleaner arms made by Bonnie – get separated from their kid and spend the entire film trying to get back to her with a little bit of help from some new friends (Key & Peele and Keanu Reeves pop up as the voices of instant-fave new toys) while the old gang back home launches a rescue mission. Along the way, they encounter new surroundings (in this case, an antique shop and nearby carnival), a domineering, but ultimately sympathetic villains (Christina Hendrick’s Gabby Gabby), enjoy several madcap adventures, and learn a little more about life outside of their kid’s room.It’s the same outline of every one of these films. However, Toy Story 4’s approach is far more episodic than usual and its final destination far less certain. Annie Pott’s Bo Peep returns as a well-seasoned badass to offer Woody a glimpse of life without a kid.
Woody opened the franchise fighting against the changing tide, despairing over being replaced by Buzz Lightyear. All these years later, he has been replaced by not just Forkie but also Jessie and several of Bonnie’s other preferred toys. He just hasn’t accepted that fact yet, and rescuing Forkie while also teaching him just what it means to be a kid’s favorite toy gives him purpose again.An adult viewer, particularly one who has grown up with these films and might already have kids of their own, will appreciate the weight and nuance of that story. (That’s without getting into some of the other heady subtext sprinkled throughout the film, such as a subplot which reads as an allegory for organ donation.) Woody acts as a parent to Forkie but has no idea what he’ll do with himself when Forkie leaves the nest. Deceptively heavy stuff. To little kids, of course, they’ll just laugh at the montage of Forkie constantly trying to throw himself into the trash since he doesn’t understand he’s a toy.
That’s the ever-elusive happy medium all children’s movies aim for – mature enough for adults but funny and action-packed enough for kids. Pixar perfected it. Disney Animation Studios picked up the slack when Pixar lost focus, but now the house that Steve Jobs built is looking for an artistic rebound. Thankfully, Toy Story 4 joins the ranks as one of the studio’s finer efforts, and while the ending is not the profound punch to the gut we all remember from Toy Story 3 it is still a graceful end to a lovely film. Whether it’s an end to the whole franchise, who knows. Maybe ten years from now they’ll do a story about an adult Bonnie passing down her toys to her own child while some remixed version of “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” plays in the background. I’d watch that.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Toy Story 4 is a more episodic, less punch-to-the-gut emotional movie than usual for the franchise, but it’s also weird, interesting, funny, and above all effortlessly entertaining.
There are several little scenes sprinkled throughout the first half of the credits and then one final, genuine post-credit scene which doesn’t happen until you’ve read every single animator’s name and then glimpsed both the Disney logo and Pixar logo again. I’d recommend staying for every one of these scenes. The first couple actually advance the story, and the final pays off one of the film’s best running jokes.