3.5 out of 5 stars.
“Toy Story 3” brought Pixar’s “Toy Story” franchise to a perfect conclusion. The films are important for many reasons. They’re some of the best animated movies ever made, boasting stories that are entertaining, clever, and heartfelt, told by richly drawn characters; in fact, it wouldn’t be too crazy to say that, despite only having been introduced in 1995, Woody and Buzz are some of the most iconic Disney characters. Technologically, they ushered in a new era in animation; the first “Toy Story” was also the first feature-length 3D animated film.
In short, the first three “Toy Story” movies are so beloved, so sacred, that it’s no surprise that there was some hesitancy surrounding “Toy Story 4,” which is coming along nine years after that aforementioned perfect conclusion. But just when you think that all of the gimmicks surrounding toys that come to life have been used, Pixar manages to show that they have so much more to say, and “Toy Story 4” closes another chapter in the story with as much heart as its predecessors.
Directed by Josh Cooley, “Toy Story 4” picks up where “Toy Story 3” left off, with Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), and the rest of Andy’s toys adjusting to life with their new kid, Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw). Used to being the ringleader and the most popular toy, Woody has a hard time coping with the fact that Bonnie doesn’t always want to play with him as much as the other toys. Not knowing what else to do, Woody devotes himself to making sure Bonnie is happy. In this case, that means protecting Forky (Tony Hale), a toy that Bonnie made at kindergarten out of a plastic spork and some pipe cleaners that comes to life when she writes her name on the bottom his feet. Forky suffers an identity crisis, and he and Woody get sidetracked when Bonnie and her parents go on a road trip. Their detour reunites them with old friends, introduces new ones, and not only helps Forky better understand his purpose, but Woody as well.
If “Toy Story 3” was about growing up, then “Toy Story 4” is about being grown up. It’s still funny and entertaining, but the jokes and action sequences further the story, and don’t merely exist as filler to hold children’s attention. The characters have to make more adult decisions in this film than they have had to make before. These toys are more than just living and breathing. Their mental states are as fragile as any human; the main purpose of a toy is to belong to a child, but when they don’t, what happens? Finding your purpose is a theme that runs through “Toy Story 4” in almost all of the main characters. Woody struggles to adjust to life after Andy, and Bo Peep (who is back after being absent from “Toy Story 3,” voiced once more by Annie Potts and given a killer backstory) helps open his eyes to a larger world outside of belonging to a child. Forky doesn’t understand what it means to be a toy now, believing that he is (literal) trash. Buzz doubts his leadership abilities, relying on his “conscience” (which he thinks is his assortment of preprogrammed voice commands) to guide his decision-making. This extends to the minor characters as well. Among the new faces is Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), a 1950s era doll who lives in an antique shop, and longs to be played with, and Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves), an action figure version of a Canadian stunt man who has a bit of a mental breakdown when his child realizes he can’t do everything he can in the commercial and throws him out. Even Bonnie has her struggles, as she is nervous about going to kindergarten. This mental anxiety that all of the characters struggle with is nicely woven into the action-packed quest the characters go on. It’s a message that some of the younger members of the audience may not entirely grasp, but that older ones will be able to appreciate and relate to.
The “Toy Story” films have always been ensemble pieces, but they’ve primarily focused on Woody and Buzz. But “Toy Story 4” is Woody’s movie through and through. We spend a lot of time with our new characters too, and they’re all interesting and unique from what we’ve seen from these movies before (with the exception of Ducky and Bunny, a pair of carnival prize plushies voiced by Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, and who exist primarily for comic relief but aren’t even the funniest parts of the movie). But this is at the expense of our old friends, many of whom we barely see anything of. In this way, while “Toy Story 4” may bring more closure to Woody’s story, it still feels like we said our proper good-byes to the other characters in “Toy Story 3,” making this movie a less appropriate conclusion for the ensemble as a whole. And in terms of plot, the stakes in “Toy Story 4” are lower than its predecessor. There are still some beautiful, emotional sequences—primarily involving Woody and Bo—but they don’t carry as much weight.
One of the great things about watching the entire “Toy Story” series, however, is seeing how far the animation has progressed since the first film in 1995. “Toy Story 4” features some of Pixar’s most stunningly realistic animation to date. Every character moves differently, and has a unique texture and look. And just when you think these films have accomplished everything their premise allows them to do, they still manage to find new things. This movie brings our characters to new environments, primarily a quaint old town in the mountains and a colorful carnival, and it’s a lot of fun to see the characters interact with these new surroundings. When our characters enter an antique shop and meet not only Gabby Gabby, but a group of old ventriloquist dummies, the film even ventures into horror territory, which we really haven’t seen since the character Sid in the first “Toy Story.”
“Toy Story 4” may not be the perfect conclusion that “Toy Story 3” was, but it is proof that Pixar has a lot more story left to tell with these characters. And while the premise of toys coming to life will likely never not entertain children (there were many small kids and my screening, and they were all riveted), this story in particular holds a lot of significance for those who grew up with the series and are now adults. Pixar has always excelled at conveying complex messages through a rather simple premise, and “Toy Story 4” is one of the best examples of this yet.
Runtime: 100 minutes. Rated G.