Nine years ago, Pixar brought its flagship franchise to an end in just about the most perfect way possible. Eventually earning a Best Picture nomination and lauds from even the likes of Quentin Tarantino as the best film of 2010, Toy Story 3 was a gut-wrenching masterpiece of animation, story, and emotional satisfaction, as Woody (Tom Hanks), having dealt with so much loss in his life as Andy’s toy, is finally able to let go of “his” kid, and find new meaning as the toy in the life of a young girl named Bonnie. His ability to talk his friends off the ledge (figuratively and literally at points) granted him a new sense of purpose, safe in the knowledge that life goes on. It stands as one of the most beautiful animated films of all time, and basically the only Pixar sequel to truly improve on the original (though Toy Story 2 definitely had some great moments).
So naturally, when it was announced last year that our favorite gang of toys was coming back for a fourth installment, I was a bit skeptical. Even if this upcoming film was absolutely great, it would be an automatic step down to undo the most perfect “ending” in Disney’s history. At the same time, the Toy Story series, as I mentioned, is the only one that Pixar hasn’t fucked up in the additional entries, so there was hope.
I’m happy to report that Toy Story 4 is a film worthy of your time and money (though you can the skip 3D upcharge, just like with Toy Story 3, it’s just depth of field, nothing special), one more heartfelt adventure for this cast of beloved inanimate objects (when we’re around, anyway). And if this is indeed, finally, the end for this groundbreaking series, it is a fitting end, even if it’s not as good as the last “finale.”
Beginning with a flashback, the film shows Woody and Slinky Dog (Blake Clark) succeeding in a daring rescue of RC, the radio-controlled car that helped save the day in the original film. The heroic effort ends in tragedy, though, as Bo Peep (Annie Potts) is sold to a family friend of Andy’s mother, forcing a mournful goodbye between her and Woody, and thereby giving full context to Bo’s absence in the previous movie. Then, through a creative opening sequence including a revamped version of “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” and a whole lot of cuts via spinning children, we fast forward to two years after the end of the last film, when Andy gave his toys to Bonnie (Jack and Madeleine McGraw, respectively).
With Bonnie now five years old, she’s about to enter kindergarten, and is nervous about being around new people, leaving her feeling lonely. Similarly, Woody is lonely, having not been “chosen” for play in weeks. Instead, the “Sheriff” duties fall to Jessie (Joan Cusack), and the de facto leader of Bonnie’s bedroom is Dolly (Bonnie Hunt), leaving Woody superfluous, growing dust bunnies in the closet with Bonnie’s other forgotten toys (a quartet of pun-based characters voiced by Betty White, Mel Brooks, Carol Burnett, and Carl Reiner).
Stowing away in her backpack, Woody is able to accompany Bonnie to her kindergarten orientation, where she’s immediately isolated during a craft project. Woody gets loose and throws some scraps from the garbage bin onto her table when Bonnie’s not looking, and her creative mind goes to work making a new “toy,” in the form of Forky (Tony Hale), a spork with popsicle stick feet, googly eyes, and a coiled pipe cleaner for arms. The moment Bonnie writes her name on Forky’s feet and stashes him in her backpack, he comes to life… and immediately spends the next several days trying to throw himself away, as he only knows his origins as trash.
It’s an existential crisis that I’m not quite sure Pixar handles correctly. Back in the original film, Woody had to convince Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) that he was a toy, and not the fictional character on which he was based. Here, Forky knows he’s not a “real” person, but this time Woody has to convince him that by being made into a toy, he’s reached a higher purpose, even though that purpose is one of comforting servitude to Bonnie. So, he’s not trash, but he’s also not a being of free will. It’s kind of a mind fuck if you think about it too much, and that’s before you even consider that we’re adding new rules to the logic of these toys’ lives and only granting token acknowledgement to these questions in tossed off jokes.
With a week before Bonnie officially enters school, she and her family go on a road trip, with the young girl bringing the whole gang with her, including Rex (Wallace Shawn), Hamm (John Ratzenberger), Bonnie’s original team of toys whose names we’ve all forgotten, and of course the Potato Heads (Estelle Harris and archival deleted lines from the late Don Rickles, who gets a tribute in the credits, along with animator Adam Burke). Sadly, while the ensemble is large, the core group, outside of Woody, Jessie, and Buzz is largely shunted to the background for a few random lines of reaction while the main plots take shape.
During the road trip, Forky jumps out of the moving RV as Bonnie sleeps. Woody, desperate to ensure Bonnie’s happiness despite no longer being the favorite or a leader, jumps after him, knowing they can catch back up with the RV at a rest stop a few miles down the road, outside a small town with a travelling carnival. Along the way, Woody notices Bo Peep’s lamp in an antique store window, and checking inside, meets the film’s main antagonist, Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), a Chatty Cathy ripoff who wants to steal Woody’s pull-string voicebox in order to correct her defective one and hopefully be adopted. Woody escapes as Forky is captured, and he eventually reunites with Bo in a nearby playground, living a more carefree life as a “lost toy.” With the help of her sheep, a Polly Pocket parody named Giggle McDimples (Ally Maki) and Canada’s toy answer to Evel Knievel, Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves, having himself a hell of a year so far), Bo’s mission is to find creative ways to deliver other lost toys to needy children.
Meanwhile, Buzz Lightyear, somehow not understanding the concept of intuition and conscience, uses his own button-activated voicebox to represent “the little voice in your head” as a guide in his own attempt to rescue Woody. In the nearby carnival, he is temporarily picked up and put on display as a prize in a rigged midway game, where he encounters two plush toys joined at the hand named Ducky and Bunny (Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, respectively, in just about the most unlikely Key & Peele reunion you could imagine). All of these new characters are there to steal screen time from the old guard, and for the most part, they work – particularly Ducky and Bunny’s intricate schemes to procure a much-needed cabinet key from the antique store owner. I’m slightly perplexed at the emphasis they’re given, as this is yet again supposed to be the end of the series, so I don’t know why we invest so much time in them when ostensibly we’ll never see them again. But still, they’re fun additions.
The main dynamic here is between Woody and Bo, rather than Woody and Bonnie. He still feels duty-bound to be Bonnie’s toy even though she’s essentially gotten bored with him, which severely undercuts the ending to Toy Story 3. I know we can’t expect a toddler to keep a promise to a teenage stranger, but Andy gave Woody to her on condition that she take extra good care of him, and two years later he’s collecting dust. It deflates all the emotion of that ending, of knowing Woody was going to be okay, that he’d gotten a new lease on life. Instead, he’s been cast aside, just like Toy Story 3‘s villain, Lotso Huggin’ Bear, said he would, and that’s just damn depressing.
To compensate, much of the attention for Woody’s story arc shifts to Bo, who by all accounts was Woody’s “girlfriend” in the first two installments, and whose absence left a great hole in his heart last time out. Here, she’s the one with a new outlook (and for some reason a completely new costume, even though as a ceramic lamp doll she had no removable clothing before, but whatever), and Woody’s existential dread is only further exacerbated. He did everything a good toy is supposed to, and in the end he became the forgotten one. Bo does her best to encourage him to see things from a different perspective, but it’s hard for Woody to reconcile his life to this point, especially when reunited with the love interest who also found a way to live without him.
What makes this work, however, is not in Woody’s depression and self-denial, but in eventually framing it as an opportunity for him to do something for himself for a change. Through three movies he’s done everything for the sake of the other toys and for Andy/Bonnie. Even as this film begins he takes it upon himself to transition a fucking spork into an essential toy because that’s what Bonnie needs at the given moment. Never mind that he’d almost certainly be thrown away eventually, Woody does everything in his power to make sure Forky never gives up on himself or forgets his new responsibilities, even though he was essentially “born” two days earlier.
In the first film, Woody demonstrated some severe selfishness and pride, but that was because he felt threatened by Buzz and feared losing his position as Andy’s favorite toy. As it turned out, Andy still loved him, and Woody learned to coexist and become friends with Buzz, and even then, his most selfish acts were couched in the motivation to get back to Andy and keep him happy. The problems were only magnified by the farce of his and Buzz’s obstacles in that adventure.
Apart from that, he’s never really done anything that’s truly for his own happiness and betterment, and that’s where the film is able to draw the most emotional resonance. If Toy Story 3 was Woody’s mid-life crisis, then this is more like his retirement, and it’s handled expertly, even if getting to that point is a little bit sloppy from a narrative standpoint. It truly is nice to see him reunite with Bo, even if the odds of it happening are to infinity and beyond. It’s intriguing to see how other toys try their best to find the love and companionship that Woody and the others have with Bonnie, to the point that one could argue that Woody’s entire position is a case of privilege and elitism. While still definitely for kids, the movie does scratch the surface of some pretty profound social issues.
The one other truly revelatory element is Gabby Gabby. While her menace is obvious – she’s introduced by being pushed around in a pram by an army of mute Howdie Doodie-style ventriloquist dummies all named Benson for God’s sake – she’s the first Toy Story antagonist that has any real depth or sympathetic qualities. In the first movie, Sid was a psychopath who delighted in destroying and mutilating toys. In Toy Story 2, both Al and Stinky Pete cared only about preserving a memory and making profit, rather than having any joyful purpose as a toy. Last time, Lotso was a bitter, jaded toy who convinced himself that human love was an illusion and manipulated others to bend to his whims.
Not so with Gabby. She wants to steal Woody’s voicebox, but only because she herself came out of the factory with a defective one. As such, she never felt love, and has deluded herself into thinking that one cosmetic change will fix that problem. Instead, despite her somewhat pragmatic cruelty, she becomes a friend to Forky, and actually has to overcome her own insecurities to get a chance at her own happy ending. That’s a bit of nuance that was never even attempted with the previous baddies, and it’s a refreshing change of pace. I can’t even get mad at the fact that she’s a knockoff of Chatty Cathy, as Lotso was an obvious spoof of a Care Bear before, and he was just as compelling of a villain.
If I’m being perfectly honest, this is not an essential film. If I had my druthers, it probably wouldn’t exist, or if it did, I’d make the proper plot changes so it could switch places chronologically with Toy Story 3, because again, that was just about as perfect an ending as you could have given to this series and its characters. But that said, this is still an appropriate ending. I don’t like that we had to undo the perfect ending to get to a really good one, but I can’t ignore that it is really good. In going back to its oldest well one last time, Pixar was able to dredge up something new and compelling, while continuing to make me laugh and get all the feels. It was extremely risky to continue the series, and it was always going to be nearly impossible to improve upon the last movie, but the gamble overall paid off, and for once, deciding not to leave something well enough alone didn’t ultimately – or retroactively – ruin it. If anyone could pull it off, it was Pixar.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Did you ever make your own toy, and if so, what was it? Despite the quality this time, can we all agree here and now to take hostages if Pixar tries to do a 5th movie in this series? Let me know!