You would be perfectly within your right to feel sceptical about Toy Story 4, and if that feeling extended beyond its use of Judy Collin’s Both Sides Now in its trailer (aka the end credit song from Hereditary), then the feeling is mutual!
But on a serious note, the trepidation with sequels never goes away. After its pitch-perfect ending in Toy Story 3, there’s always an honest conversation about the necessity for a fourth film. Film history has shown that meddling into beloved classics can spoil its legacy (see Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull or Superman IV: The Quest for Peace for example). But to a genuine surprise, Toy Story 4 has its heart in the right place, and by Pixar standards, it’s a poignant masterclass by the studio.
If comparisons are to be made to its predecessors, then it’s less traumatic than Toy Story 3 for example, functioning as a melancholic wrap-up of the series. However, it also doesn’t quite live up to the critically acclaimed high bar that we’re used to, occasionally struggling to balance between having too many characters (where favourites are reduced to cameo-like appearances) and its multi-threaded patchwork narratives that tend to go off-tangent. But in a cinematic age where quality and attention to detail feel like a rare breed, these are minor quibbles in a near-perfect film. Drawing from the poetic relationships experienced in Toy Story 1 and 2, if the originals can be recognised as an examination between toys and their owners, then Toy Story 4 is the existential crisis in the franchise. Granting itself permission to explore a ‘larger toy box’ (so to speak) with new environments and locations, it profoundly expands its concept by asking what it means to be a toy.
Science fiction aficionados will revel in its Westworld-style allegories about being built for purpose, the philosophy of your ‘inner voice’ and the genesis of creation. It’s no different from the frequent jokes made about Pixar’s other franchise Cars (aka ‘who’s making those machines’ argument), but the introduction of Forky (the brilliantly funny Tony Hale), a neurotic, anxious and childlike plastic utensil, will have similar questions raised about its sentient nature.
I was nine when Toy Story was first released, but for anyone who grew up alongside the franchise, the magic and sentiment are still present. We instantly feel like a kid again, embracing the ample opportunities to catch up with old friends, and it does so without devaluing the emotion or feeling like a simple ‘cash-grab’ film.
That feeling is captured with Woody (Tom Hanks), a veteran who through sheer loyalty and desire to make a child happy, suddenly finds himself as an outsider. Demoted and unable to adapt to Bonnie’s (Madeleine McGraw) evolving interests, if its opening scenes acknowledge anything in its nostalgic underpinning, it’s that time inevitably catches up with all of us.
Reflectively, besides Pixar’s high aptitude for animation excellence (demonstrating with beautifully rendered environments, weather and realistic cat animation), that acknowledged presence of growing up and coming full circle are its greatest strengths. It still heavily relies on familiar beats, but the franchise always had this impeccable relationship between its adult themes and child-friendly humour, and that is despite its repetitive narrative of ‘lost toys finding their way home’. But the latest heavily leans on thoughts regarding father figures, self-worth, insecurities, fear and identity that tonally sets it apart from the original three. Different as this may feel, but it is far more self-aware than it had any credit to be, and the fact that Woody’s arc becomes that primary focus amongst its occasional disjointed subplots, provides that compelling justification for a fourth instalment.
Heartbreaking as that may sound (and trust me, tears will be shed as it ebbs towards its deeply moving conclusion), but Pixar’s ability to explore darker elements of its themes cannot be underestimated. We’ve seen these characters wrestle with mortality, delusions of grandeur and family that it’s easy to forget how relatably human these struggles are. Whether it’s Woody’s fear, Forky’s suicidal impulses and his persistent gravitation towards the nearest bin or even the hilarious Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves) failing to live up to the expectations of his TV commercial, it’s the deep desire to feel and receive love that stirs the emotions.
Not content with living off past successes, even villains are given the same brushstroke analogy. Continuing the rich-vein progression from Sid (Erik von Detten), Prospector (Kelsey Grammer) and Lotso (Ned Beatty), we take for granted the subtle impact of Gabby Gabby (Mad Men‘s Christina Hendricks), a talking doll that has all the creepy hallmarks of the 1963 episode Living Doll from The Twilight Zone. Transcending above the traditional scope of a character being evil for ‘evil sakes’, her story is filled with similar explorations of love and rejection, wrapped in the sugar-coating flavour of aesthetic and cultural perfection.
Where there is energy, that fresh impetus is found in its new characters. Brimming with charm and self-assured confidence (deserving more screen time than we got), Bunny (Jordan Peele) and Ducky (Keegan-Michael Key) bring the biggest laughs with their sketch-based humour. Where there is hope, Bo Peep (Annie Potts) is given a welcomed upgrade. Thriving with independence, the explanation of her disappearance and revamped feminist outlook reflects the possibilities on what change can represent.
Toy Story 4 may not have been the sequel we asked for – the franchise was already perfect by its own standards. But somehow, Pixar managed to find a sentimental route that respectfully closes the door on one chapter and opens the door for another. But if this is to be its final chapter (and let’s hope so), then it works incredibly well, showing there’s still life in these toys yet, and once you’ve come to terms with its emotional resolution, it ends up being a film you didn’t know you needed.