Toy Story 4 is the feature directorial debut of Josh Cooley, who also wrote the script along with veteran Pixar scribe Andrew Stanton. The main story picks up almost directly after Toy Story 3’s emotionally gripping final moments, and all our favorite toys now belong to Bonnie, a young girl about to embark on her first day of Kindergarten…well, oreientation anyway. Following a successful first day in class, where Bonnie makes a new toy named “Forky” out of a spork and some putty and pipe cleaners, the family decides to go on a road trip across the country, where Forky ends up becoming lost on the highway. But Sherriff Woody has never been one to back down from a difficult challenge, and sets out to find Forky, and bring him back to Bonnie before she notices he’s missing. With the help of Buzz, Jessie, Rex, the Potato Heads, and a newly found Bo Peep, as well as some new and trusty allies, Woody must help Forky realize why Bonnie needs him, get him back to her, and (hopefully) stay in one piece along this new adventure.
The Toy Story films have been a staple of the animation medium ever since I was born (no, literally, I was born in 1995, the same year the first one came out). There hasn’t been a time that I’ve been alive when I haven’t remembered them being around. Following a wildly successful debut with the original film being the first-ever fully CG animated movie in history, the franchise went on to find success twice more in 1999 with Toy Story 2, and then again in 2010 with what we all thought was going to be its final installment, rounding out the trilogy with a heartfelt message about growing up and moving on, knowing that the things that formed our growth as children can also be passed on in order to help others grow up too. In all that time, not a single one of the Toy Story movies has debuted or become certified below a 100% on Rotten Tomatoes (though this one and 3 have fallen to the laughable 98% since their openings), meaning only 2% of critics that saw all 4 movies didn’t like the last two. That’s a pretty stellar track record to have, especially for an animated series now 4 movies deep. Most animated franchises that reach trilogy length don’t ever find that kind of success, and even some of the best of them (such as the How to Train Your Dragon trilogy) never remain at 100% likability for any entry, which is what makes it such a miracle that not only is Toy Story 4 able to hold the same quality as its predecessors, but in some ways even surpass them in terms of innovative, new, and challenging ideas.
Toy Story 4’s stellar storytelling has always been a staple of the franchise, but the most satisfying thing about it actually isn’t just that it’s a great movie or great animated movie in its own right; one of the key things Pixar had to get right in order to justify this movie’s existence was making it feel like it belonged squarely in the Toy Story camp, both in terms of character and tone, and not only do they manage to pull it off, it rides that line about as comfortably as one of the franchise’s most enjoyable new faces, Duke Caboom (voiced by the most beautiful soul we don’t deserve, Keanu Reeves). This genuinely feels right at home with the rest of the Toy Story trilogy, and even though the only necessary part of this installment in terms of connection to the original is the first 10 to 15 minutes (where we find out what happened to Bo Peep between 1999 and 2010), the rest of the film boasts such a moving and heartwarming story that it’s a more than welcome addition to the Toy Story canon.
One of the most surprising things about Toy Story 4 is also what a great companion piece it makes to its direct predecessor. Yes, at the end of Toy Story 3, Andy moved on and gave the toys to Bonnie, but that puts Woody in a pretty tough position because it becomes readily clear through 4’s story that Woody hasn’t really moved on. He’s moved on from Andy, yes, but with the creation of Forky and his place now as being Bonnie’s most important toy, Woody feels lost, unsure of what his place in the world is and where he belongs in the grand scheme of helping children to grow, as well as deciding what he wants to do now that both Andy and Bonnie have seemingly moved on from needing his help (or could, by the film’s end). It’s in this regard that Bo Peep’s story comes to its main purpose, trying to help Woody figure out both where he belongs and where he wants to be, as well as assisting in the hunt for Forky with a few new toy pals of her own, who make a pretty solid impression themselves.
But the Toy Story films have always had two or more stories going on the further they’ve gotten through the series, and at one point in the movie, the toys encounter yet another sinister “villain” character in the form of a doll with a broken voice box named Gabby Gabby. She’d basically take on the role of being the “Lotso” of this installment in the series, except that her arc actually ends up being more sympathetic and nuanced than even that pink stuffed bear’s was, which isn’t entirely unexpected coming from Pixar, but did give me hope that they’ve still got their storytelling genius up their sleeve and ready to go whenever they so choose. Even Buzz Lightyear’s own mini-adventure serves to introduce us to some new, genuinely funny characters in the form of plush toys voiced by comedy duo Key & Peele. These two provide some of the best laughs in the movie and their movement and effects are stunningly animated. In fact, so is the whole movie (both incredibly funny and gorgeous to look at).
The animation on display in Toy Story 4 is some of the absolute best in Pixar history, which is already a high bar to clear. The textures and visuals of simple things like light reflecting on the toys’ faces, the look of a cat’s fur, a doll’s hair, or cobwebs hanging throughout rafters in an antique shop are all visually stunning to look at, and it’s almost worth the ticket price just to see the effects alone. I’m sure there will be other animated films this year that are impressive from a narrative standpoint, but I’m not holding out any hope that anything this year can top 4’s visual appeal. Still, as great as Toy Story 4 is and looks, it’s not an entirely perfect movie (though your mileage may vary on that front). Most of its “flaws” have to do more with what it omits than what it includes, but still, they remain, and I would feel remiss not to at least mention them, even if only in a “cursory nod” sort of fashion.
It isn’t necessarily a detriment to the movie, but I do wish Toy Story 4 did a little more challenging story work with redgards to Forky’s existence and what makes a toy a toy, what “life” is for toys, how that affects their worldview, etc. That may seem like a fairly high-minded idea to stuff into a kids movie, but Inside Out was able to masterfully navigate the human psyche, so we already know Pixar is more than capable of handling complex material extremely well. As it happens, after his initial grappling with being alive, Forky just kind of accepts that he exists and has sentience, which moves the movie along faster to its ultimate destination, but does end up feeling like a little bit of a missed opportunity. As well, a lot of the new characters don’t get developed a lot. Don’t get me wrong, they get the requisite amount necessary for telling a story of this type, and do leave an impression while they’re there on screen, but we don’t spend a ton of time getting to know them apart from Gabby Gabby and (partially) Duke Caboom, so while their presence is undeniably solid and doesn’t detract from the film as a whole, they don’t really get to add a whole lot to it either. Still, if the only “flaws” this movie has are the opportunities it just happens to miss whilst juggling this many different concepts and story arcs in the span of 100 minutes, it’s more than okay to miss what it needs to in the name of pacing and narrative focus, and characters that add to that focus despite being a tad underdeveloped never really hurt anybody, so it’s not a big deal.
Toy Story 4 is not just a great animated movie, especially among its Pixar compatriots; it’s a great Toy Story movie that firmly plants its flag within the identity of that iconic franchise, and manages to simultaneously open up and close out story possibilities for past and future installments if the studio decides to go that direction. With a constantly innovating narrative, beautifully-written and developed character arcs, genuinely jaw-dropping animation, and emotional resonance of the type Pixar is the very best at, Toy Story 4 more than justifies its own existence as a story that demands to be told. You’ll laugh (at times pretty hard), you’ll cry (at times pretty hard, especially near the end), and you’ll be taken back into this world once more to remind you why you loved it in the first place. Where it ranks among its peers, I’m not sure as of yet, but even if this movie isn’t a wholly necessary film past the first 15 minutes, it’s a more than welcome addition to the world of animated filmmaking and more than acquits itself as one of the best movie of the year so far. Also, stay through the studio logos at the end; there’s not a scene in the strictest sense, but it’s well worth what’s there.
I’m giving “Toy Story 4” a 9.8/10
- The Friendly Film Fan
Film critic in my free time. Film enthusiast in my down time.