When Toy Story 3 was released in 2010 (eleven years after Toy Story 2), it seemed to mark the end for the series that made Pixar Animation Studios famous. Toy Story 3 was a fitting, emotional end to the journeys of Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), Jessie (Joan Cusack), Hamm (the perennial John Ratzenberger), and the rest of the Toy Story gang. Their owner, Andy, was grown up and heading off to college, and the ending saw him passing down his beloved childhood toys to a young girl named Bonnie. Given the overall reception of all three Toy Story films, an argument could be made that it was the best trilogy in film history.
It was a bit concerning then, when Pixar eventually announced that they were creating a fourth Toy Story feature, especially since the studio has fallen under some criticisms for its reliance on sequels during the 2010s (though in all honesty, most of their sequels have retained the studio’s high quality). Considering how conclusive of an ending Toy Story 3 was, a continuation seemed entirely unnecessary. It was all too easy to get a bit cynical and assume that Pixar simply saw more dollar signs in the property and nothing more. Combine that with some notable production issues, and things were looking grim for the continuation of the Toy Story franchise.
Thankfully, not only does Toy Story 4 prove to be one of the few fourth entries in a series that can hold its own, but in doing so it beautifully puts that aforementioned cynicism in its place. Toy Story 4 is a delightful and entertaining film that retains the series’ emotional storytelling. Though with that said, Toy Story 4 does nonetheless fall short of all three of its predecessors.
While Toy Story 3 acknowledged the eleven year gap between it and the previous entry, Toy Story 4 – for the most part – takes place shortly after the events of Toy Story 3. The exception being the film’s opening, which takes place nine years in the past (which I guess would make it two or three years after Toy Story 2, depending on when exactly the rest of the film takes place). This opening explains why Bo Peep (Annie Potts) – the porcelain doll who served as Woody’s love interest in the first two films – was absent from the third entry.
After another daring rescue of one of their fellow toys, Bo Peep was packed in a box, and given away to a friend of Andy’s family. Woody briefly considers leaving with Bo Peep, before he remembers his loyalty as Andy’s toy, and the two are then separated (preventing a time paradox for Toy Story 3 in the process).
Fast-forward to the present, and the toys have found a new home as Bonnie’s toys. Though Woody has been having a harder time adjusting to the change than the rest of the gang, with Bonnie often leaving him in the closet while she plays with the other toys.
When Bonnie is frightened to start kindergarten, Woody – desperate to keep her happy – sneaks into Bonnie’s backpack to help cheer her up. When no one sits at Bonnie’s table for arts and crafts, Woody gathers a number of discarded items and sneaks them onto Bonnie’s table.
With a spork, pipe cleaner, popsicle sticks, glue and googley eyes, Bonnie creates Forky (Tony Hale), who quickly raises Bonnie’s spirits. Much to Woody’s surprise, Forky soon comes alive, much in the same vein as he and his fellow toys. Forky quickly becomes Bonnie’s favorite toy, but having been created from trash, Forky still believes himself to be trash, and is dead-set on throwing himself away. Determined to keep Bonnie happy, Woody spends day and night preventing the suicidal utensil from throwing himself away.
This proves especially difficult when Bonnie’s family takes a road trip, bringing her toys along for the ride (as kids do). During one especially tiresome night for Woody, Forky manages to jump out of the RV, leaving Woody to give chase.
Woody reunites with Forky, and manages to make the utensil understand his place as a toy. But getting back to Bonnie will prove to be a difficult task both physically and emotionally. Bonnie’s family is at an RV park sitting next to both an antique store that serves as the home of Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) – a doll determined to steal Woody’s voice box at any cost – and a traveling carnival, where Woody is reunited with Bo Peep (who has become a lost toy), leaving him to question what he truly wants.
Considering how conclusively Toy Story 3 seemed to end the series, it’s actually a little surprising that Pixar managed to concoct a plot as strong as they did for Toy Story 4. It manages to be consistently entertaining and delivers some genuinely emotional moments. There are, however, a few cracks in the foundations of Toy Story 4’s plot.
The first issue is that – aside from Woody and Bo Peep – the returning characters have very little presence in the story. Even the heavily-marketed additions from Toy Story 3 get minimal screen time. The worst example of this is that Buzz Lightyear and Jessie have seemingly nothing to do throughout the film!
I understand that Woody is the main character of the series, but the original Toy Story presented both Woody and Buzz with equal prominence in the narrative, and Toy Story 2 beautifully continued that trend, with Buzz Lightyear reminding Woody the importance of being a toy, just as Woody had taught him in the first film. Toy Story 3 reduced Buzz Lightyear’s role to mere comic relief, which was one of my big complaints with the third installment. But instead of rectifying this gross misuse of one its best characters, Pixar has doubled down with the underutilization of Buzz Lightyear in Toy Story 4.
It would seem the filmmakers at Pixar have misjudged one of their greatest creations in Buzz Lightyear, focusing only on the comedic aspects he brought to the first two films, and associating the series’ heart with Woody alone (did they forget the “I Will Go Sailing No More” scene from the first movie?). The Toy Story films released in the 1990s starred Woody and Buzz Lightyear, but the latter half of the series has foolishly relegated its deuteragonist to a bit part.
And poor Jessie, whose introduction in Toy Story 2 brought a new emotional depth to the series, literally only has a single scene in which she does anything in this fourth installment. At what point, I have to wonder, did Pixar forget that the heart of the Toy Story films was shared between its main characters, and decided that only Woody boasted stories worth telling?
Buzz may have had a reduced role in Toy Story 3, but at least there, it didn’t have a direct affect on the story at play. But here, Buzz Lightyear’s minimal role prevents the film from resonating as much as it should. Without spoiling anything, the direction the plot takes in its third act really required the classic Toy Story characters (specifically the main ones like Buzz and Jessie) to have bigger roles in order to achieve its full impact. But because Pixar forgot how to properly implement them into the plot, the story at hand suffers a bit.
Toy Story 4 seems to place a greater emphasis on its new characters, which includes not only Forky and Gabby Gabby, but also a duo of carnival plush toys Bunny and Ducky (Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key), and Duke Kaboom (Keanu Reeves), a Canadian stuntman action figure whose over-the-top antics and boisterous personality often steal the show. I don’t have anything against the new characters (though at times, Bunny and Ducky can feel more like a means to get Key and Peele in the movie than they do genuine characters), but it’s a shame to see the old Toy Story cast get tossed aside.
Pixar has made a few sequels which focused on the secondary character of the original (Mike Wazowski in Monsters University, Dory in Finding Dory, and Helen Parr in Incredibles 2), which worked to great effect in adding to those characters and distinguishing the sequels from the originals. So it seems weird that Toy Story has failed to do something similar by its fourth entry. Especially when you remember just how great of characters Buzz Lightyear and Jessie are. Even if Woody were destined to be the main character once again, I do have to reiterate that Buzz and Jessie (and the returning characters in general) needed a bigger role in the story in order to really hit a homerun with the direction the story takes.
Still, the new characters have their charms. Forky, Bunny and Ducky are all cute and add some good humor to the proceedings, and Duke Kaboom, again, is a highlight of the film. Perhaps most interesting of all is Gabby Gabby, whose own story arc may be more emotional than Woody’s this time around.
The film also places a strong emphasis on its re-introduction of Bo Peep. Toy Story 4 can on occasion feel like it’s giving itself a pat on the back for Bo Peep’s newfound independence, and while it’s nice that Pixar decided to give its original female character an actual personality this time around, Pixar themselves seem strangely ignorant to the fact that they had already accomplished so much more through a female character in the form of Jessie. Why not promote the character Pixar got so, so right from the get-go, instead of bringing back a character who had so little presence in the series they were left out of the third film, and try to bring more out of them at the expense of the stronger characters? Again, it’s nice that Bo Peep has more to do this time, but because it comes at the expense of Jessie, it feels self-defeating.
This reflects what I think is the fundamental problem of Toy Story 4: with how Toy Story 3 ended, Woody’s story felt completed. He saw Andy grow up and move on, he faced his greatest fear of loss/abandonment, and found new purpose with Bonnie. It felt like it completed what the first two films started (the first film having Woody’s place as Andy’s favorite toy usurped by Buzz, and the second having him contemplate living in a museum forever instead of facing the pain of heartbreak as Andy grows up).
If Toy Story 4 had to exist, it should have been Buzz and Jessie’s movie.
I was at the D23 expo’s animation panel in 2015 when the basics of the plot were first announced. When they were first describing Toy Story 4, Pixar referred to it as a “standalone sequel.” That seemed to make sense. The overall arc of the first three movies had ended, but Toy Story 4 could be its own little adventure starring the beloved toy characters. Pixar then announced that the film would be “a love story…” which – given Buzz and Jessie’s budding romance in the previous two movies – briefly indicated that they might be the focus of Toy Story 4, which would have further justified the continuation of the series. But then I remember when the panelists continued with “the love story between Woody…and Bo Peep.”
I remember being somewhat baffled at that point. Didn’t Woody already get the spotlight to himself in Toy Story 3? And wasn’t Bo Peep left out of that installment entirely? Again, why take things in this direction when they already had a love story blooming on the side in the second and third films (a romance which, by the way, is never so much as brought up in Toy Story 4)?
Toy Story 4 doesn’t feel particularly “standalone” by the end of things, either, as it seems to find more ways to try to close the series as a whole. This also puts things in a weird spot. Toy Story 3 was a fitting end to the series, but a standalone sequel could justifiably stand on its own merits. But by trying to conclude the series again, it feels like the Toy Story saga has two different third acts (which kind of cheapens Toy Story 3, when you think about it).
By now I may be sounding a bit negative, but I have to emphasize that these complaints are all relative to the exceedingly high standards set by the Toy Story series. The first three films are all among Pixar’s best, which in itself is a hefty claim. Toy Story 2 in particular, is a perfect movie.
Toy Story 4 is still a well made feature with strong characters and storytelling, and it certainly does the best job it could with all the tools at its disposal. But it’s an undeniable sting to see so many of the classic Toy Story characters get the shaft, especially since a story focused on Buzz and Jessie would have justified this entry all the more. At the very least, giving them more to do would have made Woody’s latest story arc more meaningful.
To be the weakest of the four Toy Story movies isn’t too bad of a detriment, however. It just means that Toy Story 4 is a highly enjoyable movie whose older siblings happen to be all-time greats. I watched Toy Story 4 a few times in preparation for this review, and greatly enjoyed it every time I saw it. But it’s also the only Toy Story film that wasn’t constantly buzzing in my head afterwards. It makes for a wonderful viewing experience, but it somehow doesn’t resonate and stick with you like the preceding three films did (and still do).
Yes, Toy Story 4 is more than a good enough film that it should silence the hypocritically predictable cynics who cried fowl at its very existence (can we just admit that sequels can be art just as easily as original films now?). It tells a solid story that makes the best with what it has, and does so with some of the most colorful and vibrant animation yet seen in a Pixar film. But the fact that Pixar saw fit to stretch out Woody’s story arc while making the rest of the returning cast less important than ever doesn’t exactly justify the necessity of the series continuing past Toy Story 3’s conclusion.
While the Toy Story series is known for bringing adult audiences to tears, I feel that Toy Story 4 – though delivering on emotion – is only able to go so far with it. It creates something similar to what the other films did in regards to tugging at the heart strings, but only to an extent. We’ve seen Woody go through such existential crises before, so to see his inner turmoil boil back to the surface seems redundant, and somewhat undoes some of the development the preceding films gave him. Perhaps if Buzz or Jessie were given a chance in the spotlight, Toy Story 4 might have felt less like it’s treading familiar ground (even this entry’s Randy Newman song, I Can’t Let You Throw Yourself Away, seems like it’s going through the motions, and feels like the film rushes to get it out of the way early on).
Toy Story 4 is an interesting case. Yes, it is indeed a really good movie that I greatly enjoy. But it also seems like Pixar missed an opportunity here to delve deeper with the other Toy Story characters, which would have made the continuation of the series feel more earned. For all its merits, with the story Pixar chose to tell through Toy Story 4, it feels more like Toy Story 3-2. On its own, Toy Story 4 is a winner. But when you remember what it’s a following act to, it does fall short of its series’ exceedingly high standards.