*This review will discuss general plot details, scenes, characters, etc., but will remain spoiler-free, at least until the ending portion of the article, which will be clearly marked to allow you the opportunity to avoid them.*
Toy Story 4 is the fourth installment in the Toy Story franchise, which started up nearly twenty-five years ago. The film was directed by Josh Cooley and focuses on the toys and their lives with their new owner, Bonnie, following the events of Toy Story 3. The film largely focuses on Woody and showcases his struggle to find a purpose after he is no longer the favorite toy. He goes so far as to babysit and try to rescue the newest “toy” in the group, Forky, a creation of Bonnie’s. The usual voice cast of Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Annie Potts, and many others all make their return in the film, as well as newcomers Tony Hale, Keegan-Michael Key, Jordan Peele, and Keanu Reeves.
Toy Story is my favorite kids movie franchise, so I was equal parts anticipating and dreading this film for the past four years or so. I love these films, but I was worried about the next one falling victim to the downward trend of Pixar, as many of their recent releases have been worthless cash grab sequels aimed at appealing to just children and/or nostalgia-driven young adults. After the powerful conclusion that was Toy Story 3, it seemed unlikely for the next film to have any meaningful story to tell, let alone one deserving of unwrapping the beautiful bow already on the franchise.
“So, James, was it nothing more than a worthless cash grab?”
Toy Story 4 opens up with a flashback sequence revealing the selling of Bo Peep (Annie Potts), which explains her absence from the last film. In an excellently designed dark, stormy sequence, one’s heartstrings are tugged right out of the gate. Molly, Andy’s younger sister, has decided to get rid of her Bo Peep lamp, meaning her and Woody (Tom Hanks) will be separated. When he sees what’s happening, Woody desperately runs to the driveway to try and rescue her, where he learns that Bo has accepted it and doesn’t plan on being rescued. She invites Woody to come with her, so the pair can remain together. In a heart-wrenching moment, Woody starts to head into the box with Bo, but ceases when he hears a young Andy frantically searching for him. His hands drop from the top of the box, and his posture lowers. He can’t leave. The pain of both characters is beautifully demonstrated by the voice acting, the music, the atmosphere of the scene, and the animation. The whole thing is amazing(ly sad).
Besides being a well-done scene, it introduces the central question of the movie: “Does a toy need to belong to a kid?”
After this scene, the film takes us back into the present, where we see how life for the toys is under the new regime. Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw) routinely calls upon each of her toys, similar to how Andy would in his younger days, but misses one crucial one: Woody. Woody clearly struggles with not being the favorite toy, which echoes his original struggle with Buzz in the first film in the franchise. As he collects dust in the closet, it’s clear that he is desperately trying to put on a brave face and find a use for himself, so much so that he becomes a stowaway in Bonnie’s backpack on the first day of school. When Bonnie finds herself alone at school, Woody sneaks around to help her create Forky (Tony Hale), who quickly becomes her favorite “toy.” Upon the Frankenstein-esque animation of Forky, he immediately seeks to throw himself into the trash, which becomes a source of conflict for the first act of the movie. Forky, being newly-created, sees himself as trash and is unable to see himself as anything else. His sole mission is to throw himself away, and Woody’s is to keep him around for Bonnie’s sake.
Bonnie and her family end up going on a road trip in an RV, where Forky manages to evade Woody, launching himself out of the RV. Woody, still desperate to cling onto a purpose, also throws himself out of the RV to go recover Forky. He promises that he will catch up with all the other toys shortly. This kicks us into the second act.
In terms of similarity to the other Toy Story entries, this film varies pretty heavily. Buzz, Rex, Hamm, and the rest of the toys have a pretty small amount of screen time, and virtually none of it is shared with Woody. Rather than a large scale buddy-cop film, Toy Story 4 is much closer to a character study of Woody (and a little bit Bo Peep) than anything else. Due to the shift from the traditional tone, this film is not likely to sit well with some fans when compared to the other entries in the franchise.
Toy Story 4 contains a fair amount of humor, most of which is delivered in the second and third acts of the film, after the introduction of Bunny (Jordan Peele) and Ducky (Keegan-Michael Key). Key and Peele stole the show for me, at least in terms of new characters. Their characteristic loud and in-your-face comedy translates well into the animated bodies of plush creatures. Also of note was Keanu Reeves who was equally as funny as The Canuck with All The Luck, Duke Caboom. The anxious stuntman remains haunted by his past kid, which leaves him prone to fits of cowardice and, ultimately, some greatly entertaining moments in the height of tense scenes.
The action scenes within the antique shop, where a majority of the film’s conflict takes place, were well done. The camera was often following a much lower perspective to offer the illusion that the viewer is just as small as the toys, and it often remained pretty fixed onto the characters, making scenes where the characters are running away feel extremely tense. Much of it felt like a horror movie, if I’m being honest. It feels as though we are also toys running away from the bad guys. I also felt that some of the later action sequences, while pretty creative, were a bit boring. So much of the action was concentrated into one room, so I just found myself bored by the environment, which took me out of some of the film. Each scene on its own was interesting, but all combined together in the movie made it feel just a bit dragged on for my tastes.
Speaking of action and bad guys, let’s talk about the bad guys. The “surprise” antagonist (whom I won’t name) of this film seems like an attempt to trick the audience for a moment and bait them into security, but it doesn’t work for me if that’s what they were aiming for. Aside from that, I think this antagonist is actually really well crafted. The motivations behind their actions are quite understandable, despite being obviously wrong. They want to belong to a kid, and they are willing to do whatever to make that happen. This also pairs well with the central question, as Woody is pondering over his place in the life of Bonnie. He recognizes that he has a blessing that some would hurt others to obtain, while also struggling with the idea that Bonnie doesn’t really need him. It’s also blatantly obvious that Woody has been unable to move past Andy, so much so that there’s even a joke about it from Forky. He doesn’t see himself as fulfilling a purpose anymore, so he’s conflicted on what to do.
The ending, which I won’t reveal, is an emotional wallop. It hurts, but it’s also beautiful. It’s a satisfying conclusion to the arcs of our characters, especially Woody. I mentioned my fear that Toy Story 4 was doomed to be nothing more than a corporate cash grab, and that there wasn’t going to be any real story to be told. I assumed it just wouldn’t work. I’m pleased to report that this wasn’t the case at all. This film, despite unwrapping the ceremonious ending of Toy Story 3, offers a tale that feels like a natural progression of these characters. It doesn’t feel like it was artificially made for the purpose of generating more dollars. There is a story to be told, and this film does it well. Go watch it if you haven’t. Bring some tissues.
*SPOILERS FROM HERE*
The new powerful send-off from this franchise is a beautiful one. Woody finally overcomes his dependency on having a kid, and comes to terms with the fact that Bonnie doesn’t need him and that he has to move on from Andy. I like Toy Story 3 and Toy Story 4 as a pair. I’m almost thinking of them as an Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame dynamic. They are two separate movies that ultimately tell one long story. Toy Story 3 focuses on Andy. It’s about Andy’s process of moving on from his friends of the past decade. It ends with him finally letting go. Toy Story 4 does the same with Woody. Woody now needs to move on from Andy, who was so essential to Woody’s identity. When he eventually leaves Buzz and the gang behind to join up with Bo Peep, it hurts to watch, but you feel the need for him to do that. He’s given so much of his life to helping kids find happiness, especially Andy, that maybe it’s his turn to try and do the same.
The best part about both of these films for me is watching both characters accept that just because they move on from their past, it doesn’t mean that the past is gone. Their friendships will remain intact, despite being far away. The connection of Woody and Andy wasn’t severed after Toy Story 3 and the friendship of Buzz and Woody will carry on to infinity and beyond, despite the separation of the two in Toy Story 4.
Being someone who is preparing to head off to college in less than two months, this idea really resonated within me, as I’m sure it will with many others. We can move past the friends and connections we’ve made without severing from them completely. That’s what I love about Pixar when they’re at their best. Within the greatest Pixar films, there is always a lesson to be learned, no matter how old you are. That is why a franchise as beautiful as Toy Story continues to be magnificent and unique, despite being four entries in. The carefully woven lessons, combined with fantastic visuals, a thoughtfully planned out story, and the love and attention of the creators lead to yet another definitive success for the Toy Story franchise.