While sequels can be hit or miss, there’s so many of them now that there’s a general sense of fatigue. Do these movies need to be made? Just look at the latest sequels, such as Dark Phoenix and Men in Black: International, both of which pretty much flopped at the box office. With Pixar, however, sequels have more or less been successful, both at the box office and with critics. And while Toy Story 4 is wholly unnecessary to the franchise, it’s safe to say that the movie balances humor with a whole lot of heart and allows for the characters to move on to the next step in a way that is actually final.
After parting ways with his beloved Andy and becoming Bonnie’s toy, Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks) is facing somewhat of an existential crisis. This is especially true now that Bonnie has largely set him aside in favor of Jessie (voiced by Joan Cusack), Buzz (voiced by Tim Allen) and all the other toys. Woody is sad about this turn of events, but he’s still determined to ensure Bonnie (voiced by Madeleine McGraw) has everything she needs. When Bonnie starts school and creates a new toy, a wondrous and trash-loving spork named Forky (voiced by Tony Hale), Woody makes it his mission to keep him from escaping. Their adventures lead them to an unexpected reunion with Bo Peep (voiced by Annie Potts), an antique store, and Gabby Gabby (voiced by Christina Hendricks), a toy who’s hellbent on taking Woody’s voice box to repair hers.
Toy Story 4 deftly handles Woody’s existential crisis and his struggles to move on from the only thing he’s ever known. It’s incredibly cathartic watching this toy, whom we’ve all loved for so long, cope with his place in Bonnie’s life and a seemingly unknown future. What, after all, is his purpose if he can’t bring happiness to children? It’s also more than simply putting a smile on a kid’s face, though. Woody, for as long as he’s existed, has been the toy. The cowboy all children adore and want to take home, a one-of-a-kind toy who could’ve sat proudly in a museum, and the leader of the other toys, the one they all seek out for guidance.
For everything he’s been through, Woody has always known his place in life and, with Bonnie, he figures it would be a repeat of what he had with Andy and is disappointed when it isn’t. Woody has essentially had the privilege of being loved and taken care of his entire life. Other toys can’t say that. So it’s understandable that he’s stuck between a rock and a hard place and working to sort through his purpose in life, while also finding it hard to let go. However, it’s the realization that he can continue making children happy in another way that really allows him to move away from the gripping fear he has of the next step.
And, of course, Pixar thoughtfully executes this storyline. Co-writers Andrew Stanton and Stephany Folsom develop the story authentically and in a way that makes sense as a next step for the character and Josh Cooley’s directing brings it all together. Bo Peep comes back into the picture in a big way as well, and gets a good amount of screen time when compared to both Toy Story and Toy Story 2. She’s moved on and is an example of how wonderful it can be to finally be free of previous confinements.
Bo is unapologetic about the lack of guilt or sadness for the life she’s left behind and has seemingly reached her full potential. This isn’t to say that she never loved being Molly’s toy, just that she’s moved onto greener pastures and that’s offered up unprecedented options for her. Woody’s essentially the before and Bo’s the after. Both of their lives have been fulfilling in different ways. The fear of moving past what he knows hinders Woody’s growth, but it’s a decision he has to make. On the flip side, Bo’s decision is forced upon her at first, but she quickly decides to lean into the unknown rather than shy away from it.
It’s a testament to the Toy Story franchise that it’s been allowed to progress in these kinds of ways. So often, sequels tend to stick to what is comfortable. Why fix something that isn’t broken? But, the reality is that character growth is essential if movies continue to go down the path of revisiting old works (like reboots and remakes), especially since sequels suffer from the rehashing of story beats. Toy Story 4 is fresh and full of new themes and character arcs. Even though its predecessor had seemingly said goodbye to these characters, the fourth installment at least moves their journeys forward organically and, like its own story, doesn’t allow them to get stuck in the past thinking things will change.
Additionally, Gabby Gabby is perhaps one of the most intriguing antagonists the franchise has ever had, if only because there are more layers to her than some of her predecessors. She does some questionable things and, at first, it appears she’s chosen a darker path. However, Toy Story 4 allows for her story to unfold in such a way that her plight becomes sympathetic. She’s still bitter, but not as far gone as past antagonists. In terms of the new cast, the aforementioned Gabby Gabby is obviously a standout, as are Ally Maki’s Giggle McDimples (a Polly Pocket-esque toy), Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peeles’ Bunny and Ducky, and Keanu Reeves’ Duke Caboom. The one major downside is that Buzz, and especially Jesse, are sidelined for a lot of the story, though they do get some shining moments, while Buzz hilariously discovers his “conscience”.
Besides a wonderfully told story and fantastic character development, Toy Story 4’s graphics are pretty phenomenal. The first shot of the film is incredibly realistic and the distinct camera angles provide a refreshing filmmaking perspective that is rarer in animated movies. Additionally, the film is able to create and capture such potent and nuanced facial expressions from its toys that it’s almost hard to believe they’re animated. They feel so thoroughly and are so very expressive in their emotions. Toy Story 4 is also genuinely funny; the laughs come easily and are plentiful.
The short of it is, Toy Story 4 is a joyous addition to this beloved Pixar franchise. It has so much heart and lets the characters drive the story, their growth a natural progression in their journeys. It’s also profound in its realizations and in the exploration of its themes, which are poignantly executed. The film is an adventure from start to finish and, while unnecessarily made, it washes away any and all feelings of skepticism with regards to its existence. Watching the film is like coming home to long lost friends and family, being wrapped in a hug, and leaving them behind feeling thrilled you’ve seen them and that they’re off to face the unknown, knowing everything will ultimately be okay.