Nine years. That’s how long it’s been since Pixar Animation Studios made everyone break down in tears by releasing 2010’s Toy Story 3, a touching conclusion to the trilogy and the gang of toys whom we’ve grown to love. So it should be understandable that I never asked for a sequel and hadn’t been completely on board with the announcement of Pixar’s Toy Story 4. Now that I’ve seen it, I realize how much I needed this, because the journey it takes, while imperfect and familiar at times, is one that gives the series an even more affecting conclusion than Toy Story 3.
Soon after an opening that already gets the emotions flowing, Bonnie, the little girl to whom Andy gave all his toys at the end of Toy Story 3, turns a spork into a toy with googly eyes, pipe-cleaner arms, and popsicle-stick feet. Calling him Forky (Tony Hale, Arrested Development, Veep), Bonnie brings him home from kindergarten orientation, which is when Sheriff Woody (Tom Hanks, Sleepless in Seattle, Sully), the pullstring cowboy doll protagonist of the Toy Story series, introduces him to the rest of her toys. This doesn’t pan out well once Forky declares that he is trash, not a toy, and gives it his all to throw himself in a garbage can. Woody earnestly thwarts all his attempts—that is, until Bonnie’s parents take her and her toys for an RV road trip, during which Forky grabs his chance to leap out the window.
The movie, directed by Josh Cooley in his feature film directorial debut, is satisfying for the most part, but not necessarily because of Forky, whom I assumed would have a larger presence in the story. He’s fantastic in the first half-hour or so, being a childlike character who persists in viewing himself as trash—not in the negative sense where he believes he’s worthless, but he simply thinks he’s a spork that was destined to be thrown out after someone uses him for a good meal. “I am not a toy,” he declares before jumping out of the RV. “I was made for soup, salad, maybe chili, and then the trash!” It doesn’t hurt that Hale voices him with just enough quivering anxiety to make him all the more sympathetic. But once he reaches the inevitable point where he realizes how important he is to Bonnie, which is surprisingly early, his arc becomes static for the rest of the movie. I would have appreciated more development for him later on, but nonetheless he’s one of my favorite toys out of all the newcomers.
Then there’s the other big hook for Toy Story 4: the reintroduction of Bo Peep (Annie Potts, Designing Women, Ghostbusters). She was very much a supporting character in 1995’s Toy Story, being a love interest for Woody and giving him a few words of encouragement. Her role is even more minor in 1999’s Toy Story 2, and then she suddenly disappears in Toy Story 3. I haven’t watched that movie in years, but I faintly recall the gang acknowledging her absence. Andrew Stanton, who co-wrote all the Toy Story films and directed Finding Nemo and Wall-E, has actually stated that writing for Toy Story 4 secretly began during Toy Story 3, so they must have already had an idea of how they would approach Bo at that time. Toy Story 4 uses a flashback to show why she went away, which is when we start to get a sense for Pixar retroactively pumping up her character design to give her more leadership. It ends up turning into quite the emotional goodbye between her and Woody and kicks off his arc for the rest of the movie.
Once Woody bumps into Bo in the present, we find she’s living on her own with her sheep as the self-sustained, quick-thinking head of a toy gang at a carnival, having abandoned the lifestyle of being a kid’s toy. She knows her way around this giant world, and Woody is often hustling to keep up with her. Not only does the movie do a splendid job of fleshing out her character, but it also smoothly becomes a romcom by devoting much more focus than in previous movies on her romance with Woody. Without spoiling things too much, there’s a point where they have a squabble, and the way one of Bo’s friends comments on this squabble elicits a certain reaction from Bo that adds a dash of emotion and realism to her relationship with Woody. So yes, the two of them are worth shipping.
As for Woody himself, he is the main reason why we needed this film to end the Toy Story saga. (Trivia fact: his last name is Pride!) Throughout all the movies, he felt his purpose in life was fulfilled by being Andy’s toy. He absolutely dreaded the idea of being a lost toy, a toy without a kid to look up to as a God-like figure. You may even recall the scene in Toy Story where, after getting left behind at the Dinoco gas station, he gasps, “I’m lost! I’m a lost toy!” Then he falls to his knees and buries his head in his arms. This has constantly been his gravest fear, which is a little ironic when you consider that all these movies share the basic plot of toys getting lost and the arduous journey on which they embark to return home. Toy Story 4 is essentially the same thing and would have become routine if not for the arrival of Forky and Bo, which then forces Woody to introspect his purpose in the world, his existential opinions on what it really means to be lost, and his struggle to let go of Andy. To put it another way, Toy Story 3 is about the emotional end of Woody and the toys’ time with Andy; Toy Story 4 is about the equally emotional but also profound nuances of Woody’s character evolution.
It’s intriguing to think about the apparent immortality of these toys. As long as they don’t decay or get burned up or anything along those lines, they can probably live for decades. This movie reveals that Woody was made in the ’50s, which makes me curious as to who owned him before Andy and why he’s clinging to Andy instead of his previous owner. And why are the toys even alive in the first place? Is it truly because they gain life or a soul of some sort from the kids playing with them? Forky seems to be proof of this belief, which would turn Bonnie and all other kids into gods in the eyes of toys. Of course, the Toy Story saga has always been a fountain of theological debate.
Pixar has provided generally good villains for the toys to fight off, but the best by far is Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks, Mad Men, Good Girls), Toy Story 4‘s primary antagonist. A vintage doll with a defective voice box, she patiently waits in Second-Chance Antiques, longing for the storeowner’s granddaughter to choose her from the shelf one day. Upon meeting Woody, she becomes determined to take his voice box and replace her own to become a fully functional doll. As menacing as she is, she is an example of the concept that every villain is the hero of their own story. Never acting purely evil, she’s sweet and sympathetic enough that I’m rooting for her the whole time to find a kid and grow a loving friendship with them the way Woody did with Andy. As for her puppet minions, they are downright terrifying with the jerking, floppy movements of their heads and limbs, sharing similar appearances with Slappy the Dummy from the Goosebumps book series by R.L. Stine. Keep in mind, this movie was released in theaters on June 21, the same day as the Child’s Play reboot, which had a horrifying ad campaign implying Chucky had killed Woody and the other toys with posters showing their body parts.
While we’re on the subject, the movie gave off a horror-movie air with all its jump scares, not only in regards to Gabby’s puppets but also the carnival booth plushies Ducky and Bunny (Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, Key & Peele, Keanu). Their main purpose is comic relief, providing hilarious back-and-forth banter thanks to the sketch comedy duo voicing them. The movie lands its gags generally well, but easily the funniest ones are those two wonderfully horror-esque scenes with Ducky and Bunny that make me wonder whether Peele had a hand in them, considering the fact that he directed and wrote the hauntingly horrifying films Get Out and Us. And did anyone else catch that Alien nod?
The Toy Story movies have always shown how gigantic and imposing the world can be for toys, ranging from the flashy visuals of Pizza Planet and the macabre terrors of Sid Phillip’s house in Toy Story to the turbulence of the airport chase in Toy Story 2 and the fiery hell of the incinerator in Toy Story 3. There aren’t nearly as many memorable locations in Toy Story 4 because it limits itself to the carnival and the antiques shop. But even then, there are plenty of things for the toys to explore; I particularly favor the antiques shop, which emanates the aura of an ancient, trap-riddled temple.
On top of Forky, Gabby, Ducky, and Bunny, two more supporting characters who join the cast are Giggle McDimples (Ally Maki, Wrecked, Marvel’s Cloak & Dagger), a tiny police officer who lives in a badge-shaped portable case and often rides around on Bo’s shoulder, and Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves, The Matrix, John Wick), a Canadian motorcyclist action figure with Evel Knievel’s daredevil showmanship. Both of them are amusing, and I especially love Duke’s hearty “I Canada!” motto and his habit of posing on his motorcycle. The movie even manages to squeeze Reeves’s signature “Whoa!” into Duke’s dialogue.
Unfortunately, there are so many new toys entering the scene that Hamm, Slinky, Rex, Trixie, Buttercup, and the rest of the gang from the other movies get sidelined. With Bo taking up the role of deuteragonist in this film, Space Ranger action figure Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen, The Santa Clause, Last Man Standing) is reduced to listening to his “inner voice,” or the recorded lines he speaks by pressing his chest buttons, as a running joke. Cowgirl doll Jessie (Joan Cusack, In & Out, School of Rock) has very few lines, which is upsetting considering the amazing arc she had in Toy Story 2. Mr. Potato Head doesn’t talk much either, although it’s probably because Pixar was forced to extract lines from Don Rickles’s previous recording sessions after he passed away in 2017 from kidney failure.
Pixar’s CGI animation ascended to such a high level of quality years ago, probably in 2008 with Wall-E, that it’s mostly plateaued since then. In Toy Story 4, however, I keep thinking of adjectives like “remarkable” and “beautiful” to describe the textures, the shading, the lighting, everything about the animation. I love the rainstorm in the opening scene; water, to this day, is one of the hardest things to animate. Another example is the textural contrasts between Woody and Bo that highlight the different materials from which they were made. It’s too bad the cat in the antiques store only looks incredibly realistic until you get a good look at its crudely designed face. Now, I am a fan of this CGI animation style, but I’m wondering how much longer Pixar will stick with it. They’ve used it over and over again for so many films. It might be time for them to start experimenting with other styles, perhaps something leaning toward Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse.
My biggest frustration may be with Toy Story 4‘s struggle with diversity, although I acknowledge this flaw is merely a reflection of the concerns of its animation studio. Yes, Pixar did release Coco, a moving story rich with Mexican culture, and Inside Out, which presents three females as core protagonists. But next March we have the fantasy buddy comedy Onward, which revolves around two elf brothers voiced by Chris Pratt and Tom Holland. They’re great guys, but really, Pixar—two white dudes? It wouldn’t have been that difficult to focus on two sisters and/or get POC to play the elves. We don’t know much about the subsequent Pixar entry, Soul, aside from its vaguely cosmic-sounding name, but I will be very perturbed if it goes down the same culturally inept road as Onward. As a side note, Rashida Jones and her writing partner Will McCormack left Toy Story 4‘s writing team in 2017, claiming there was a lack of racial and gender representation at the studio. This happened after longtime Pixar head John Lasseter also parted ways with the project by resigning from the company due to the allegations of sexual harassment made against him (while we’re on the topic, I was relieved to hear the news today about Disney deleting the casting-couch blooper with Stinky Pete from Toy Story 2—a gross, inappropriate scene in the #MeToo era). At least Pixar is planning to release nothing but original movies for the foreseeable future; there is such a thing as too many sequels. But unless they show consistent efforts in expressing an appreciation for diversity, they may set themselves up for a slump.
Toy Story 4 offers a journey loaded with existential themes, enriches Bo Peep’s once-flat character, and brings the saga to a genuinely heartfelt end for Woody. Make sure to stay and watch all the post-credit scenes. The last two lines in the fourth one are perfect and provide the audience a small amount of catharsis in regards to the living-toys mythos.
Windup score: 94/100