Toy Story was released in 1995. The film concluded with a satisfying ending, showing Buzz and Woody getting along and the former not believing he’s a space ranger anymore.
In 1999, we saw Toy Story 2, and we were so very pleasantly surprised. It was Pixar’s first sequel and we worried it wasn’t going to be as good as the original. But no, we fell in love all over again.
With Toy Story 3, in 2010, we watched Andy grow up and we cried like babies. We all felt the trilogy complete its natural arc and we felt satisfied and at peace.
Then Pixar announced a fourth installment was on its way and everyone lost it.
The funny thing is, Pixar’s track record for sequels has been all over the map. Monsters University was okay at best, Cars 2 was dumb, Cars 3 was all right-ish, and The Incredibles 2 was decent. Toy Story, meanwhile, has been widely regarded as hugely successful in all three films, with nary a bad word said about them. Almost as if Pixar knows to make a bad Toy Story movie is a fate worse than death, so they keep pushing the boundaries of what it means to be a child’s plaything into darker, more mature realms.
The plot: When Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw) makes a toy out of clay, pipe cleaners, a spork, googly eyes, and a popsicle stick, she names him Forky and he becomes her newest favorite toy. However, newly-alive Forky (Tony Hale) does not want to be a toy and yearns to be trashed like plastic sporks are meant for. Woody (Tom Hanks), assigns himself to make sure Forky doesn’t keep throwing himself out. However, during a road trip, Forky leaps from the RV, and Woody goes after him, leaving Buzz (Tim Allen) to watch over the crew.
When Woody and Forky stumble upon an antique shop, they find Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), a pullstring dolly with designs for Woody. He escapes to the nearby carnival, where he runs into Bo Peep (Annie Potts), whom Woody hasn’t seen in nine years. Bo reluctantly agrees to help save Forky and get them back to Bonnie, but Woody starts to question what might be best for him: staying with Bo, or going back to Bonnie.
How’s the writing?: It’s on par with the franchise as a whole, with all the trappings, for better or for worse. Once again, we get a big, grand adventure full of apprehension, suspense, and close calls. The toys will sneak around and cause momentary confusion for the humans. Woody pulls a stunt that makes trouble for everyone around him. Buzz is lost in his own world. Tough questions are asked about the nature of being a toy and loyalty to one’s kid. And of course, there’s a big, climactic chase where everything constantly goes wrong and yet they all somehow make it out okay. The good thing is Pixar takes such good care of its franchise, so these plot beats don’t wear out their welcome that badly. Woody still has his moments of selfishness, but he still seems able to adjust accordingly. The philosophical discussion is worked in naturally. And the climactic chase has a lot of funny, inspiring moments that prevent it from being trite or boring.
But the main predicament of the franchise hinders just as much as it helps: that toys can’t (won’t?) be seen alive by the humans. This has made for countless creative and funny moments for the past, but at some point, you just want them to stop sneaking and hiding and dropping just so the story can move on. I get the premise basically amounts to a spy saga, but at some point, it’s such a huge part of the movies, you are continuously on the edge of your seat, waiting for anyone to come around the corner and find them in the middle of a scheme. After all, near misses were the bread and butter of the series, but by its own admission, it’s hard to relax, knowing at any moment, they could be busted.
Does it give the feels?: It’s impossible to not feel something in this movie, but from what I’ve seen, audiences seem nearly split about it, either enraged or endeared.
On one hand, there’s a lot to feel happy for. Bo Peep returns. The movie dives deeper into her and Woody’s relationship, an aspect that was only cheekily implied in just the first movie. It’s essentially a romantic comedy under the guise of a Toy Story film. It’s a romantic relationship that is wholly platonic. There’s also Gabby Gabby’s arc, which is a tale of some true heartbreaking tragedy, similar to Toy Story 3‘s Lotso, just much less overt.
Woody’s final decision is where audiences seem the most passionate, though. Stop here if you don’t want spoilers:
You good? Okay. After four movies where Woody has preached ever-so-sanctimoniously about why it’s important for toys to be loyal to their kids, it’s a bit upsetting to see him just give up on Bonnie and go live with Bo as a free toy. The movie sets this up early on as Woody has difficulty accepting his role in Bonnie’s room. Once the leader and planner of all the toys, Woody now finds himself clumsily bumping into Dolly’s duties, and being left behind while Bonnie makes Jessie the sheriff. While this may have contributed to Woody’s final decision, it makes him look even more unable accept change by essentially going back to an old girlfriend and retroactively denouncing his convictions of loyalty to the kids who own him. This was the guy who once flat-out refused to be apart from Andy, and was so gung-ho to have him and his friends be trapped in an attic rather than be played with daily by a class of kids, all under the perspective of blind loyalty.
Me, I’m somewhere in the middle. I got caught in the emotions of Woody going back to Bo, but it kind of felt like a lot of effort in this movie and the ones before were all for naught.
Who makes it worth it?: There’s a lot of great performances here, but the highlight reel goes to the newcomers.
First, there’s Bo. She had little to no role in the first two movies outside being a flirty coquette to Woody. By movie three, she was regarded as one of the toys the gang had to say goodbye to. By this point, I think we all kind of forgot about her…but all of a sudden, Woody finds her again out in the middle of nowhere, and boy, has she changed. No longer a soft-spoken, coy damsel, she’s become an action hero in her own right, plucky and spirited. It’s a whole upgrade and a half, and she definitely shines bright here.
You might have seen or heard another big component is the addition of comedians Keegan Micheal-Key and Jordan Peele as Ducky and Bunny. These guys are wholly irrelevant to the plot, but they are incredibly funny. As is Keanu Reeves’ Duke Kaboom, an eighties motorcycle stunt toy whose Canadian gimmick is hilarious and definitely unique.
As far as Forky goes, I wasn’t terribly impressed. He had some good lines and some funny moments, but he stood right on the precipice of annoying for me. His entire purpose for the first half hour or so he’s onscreen is he wants to be in the trash. Like Woody, I got exhausted watching him constantly throw himself out. His naïveté was kind of endearing, but I didn’t have a lot of love for a panic-stricken hodgepodge of trash and crafts who questioned his existence in mortal terror.
Best quality provided: The original Toy Story has simultaneously aged well and not aged well. Far be it from me to criticize graphics that hadn’t been developed yet, but they’re hard to ignore almost a quarter century later. That said, now when we watch newer installments to Pixar’s catalogue, we can watch in real time just how far they’ve come. And when new Toy Story movies emerge, they’re even more glaring.
One of the big reasons Pixar opted for toys to headline their first outing was the software didn’t do textures well, but it did do shiny and plastic-like very well. Bo, being made of porcelain, as well as being essentially a pretty girl, had very little flexibility in her face. Now, 25 years later and much greater confidence in their work, Bo Peep now has a much wider range of expressions, and it looks fantastic. The only downside is she does look a bit different from before, never mind how a porcelain lamp decoration is not only a toy, but also able to swap out her massive gown for…whatever it is she’s wearing in the new movie.
What could have been improved: Why do they have to keep making Buzz stupid?
In true Toy Story fashion, Buzz has something going on that hinders his involvement with the main plot. First, he thought he was a real space ranger. Then he swapped places with another Buzz toy who had the same issue. In Toy Story 3, Buzz reverted back to being deluded and switched to Spanish mode. While I’m glad they didn’t reuse the same gimmick, they still held him back by having him misunderstand what an “inner voice” is. By having him not know what a conscience is, it effectively calls into question everything we know about him, considering he had such a strong moral compass to begin with. Did it make for funny gags that he had to keep asking his buttons what to do? Sure, but I kept thinking, “how many phrases were programmed into him in 1995? Most toys were lucky to have three!”
That being said, consider everything Buzz has led the others through in their past ventures. Buzz’s ability to take charge and lead the others is second only to Woody, but here, he’s lost his ability to make decisions. At every junction, he’s stymied about what the right move is, so he consults his voice box by pressing his buttons. Dude! You and Woody got through a street chase after a moving truck! You led your friends across a city to find your best friend! You took on the role of leader multiple times when the crew needed you at the daycare! You shouldn’t be racked with self doubt and unable to understand a simple idiom!
Verdict: Whether you think Toy Story 3 ended perfectly, that it didn’t need another entry, or Pixar’s being greedy, the fact of the matter is Pixar did the unthinkable: make all four films of one franchise unqualified successes. They obviously take great care whenever they take the gang out of the toy box to play with in each outing, and I’m grateful for that. Overall, I give Toy Story 4 eight sporks out of ten.