I honestly thought that the Toy Story franchise didn’t have anything left in the tank. Toy Story 3 was good, but when your characters are holding hands as they descend into a fiery pit, that seems like you’ve reached the point where you’ve wrenched maximum drama from your franchise. But Toy Story 4 is an unexpected delight, and while other Pixar sequels have ranged from awful (Cars 2) to solid (Finding Dory) to above average (Incredibles 2), Toy Story 4 is the best Pixar sequel since Toy Story 2. Although it still uses the same rescue plot as the other movies, the themes of Toy Story 4, which revolve around finding your purpose in a new phase of life, are incredibly potent and profound. It also doesn’t hurt that Toy Story 4 is easily one of the funniest movies Pixar has ever made in addition to the requisite tear-jerking.
Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz (Tim Allen), and their pals from Andy’s room now belong to Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw), who plays with most of them, except for Woody, who tends to get left in the closet. Feeling out of place, Woody resolves to help Bonnie on her first day of kindergarten, where she makes a new toy, Forky (Tony Hale), who is comprised of a spork, a pipe cleaner, a broken popsicle stick for feet, and googly eyes. Bonnie loves Forky, so Woody wants to make sure that Forky is there for Bonnie. But Forky sees himself as literal trash and keeps trying to discard himself. While on an RV trip with Bonnie and her parents, Forky throws himself out the window, and Woody goes to rescue him and bring him back to Bonnie, but on their way back, they run into Woody’s old flame, Bo Peep (Annie Potts), who’s happily living life as a lost toy. Bo Peep agrees to help get Forky back to Bonnie, but first they have to contend with Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), a toy who has the run of an antique shop where Woody and Forky got separated.
There’s a lot of strange, metaphysical stuff swirling around Toy Story 4, but I admire that the movie is willing to play with its own rules even if those rules don’t always make sense. It’s a film that has to ask the question, “What makes a toy a toy? Why is Forky an inanimate object as trash, but when he’s assembled by Bonnie, he’s given life but still thinks he’s trash?” These are fun questions to bat around on the Internet, but they’re ultimately meaningless to the thrust of the plot and the themes of the film, which revolve around Woody realizing that even though he belongs to Bonnie, he misses the good life he had with Andy. All the other toys from Andy and Bonnie’s room get to play a nice supporting role, but this story really belongs to Woody and Bo, and how their relationship changes based on the different things they want.
Watching Toy Story 4, I was reminded of Cars 3 and how that film went way past where its original audience would be today. That’s a film that’s dealing with legacy and the end of your time for an audience that would be in their 20s. Toy Story 4, coming 24 years after the original Toy Story, feels far more in line with an audience that’s in their 30s and considering their second act. By the time you’re in your 30s, your life has probably changed somewhat considerably. You’re well out of school, you might be on your second or third serious job, and you may have started a family. Toy Story 4 is a movie that asks what do you do when the life you were comfortable with is gone and how do you adapt to something new? Do you chase the past because it’s comfortable or do you boldly venture into the unknown?
Of course, Pixar being Pixar, these themes are handled with a light touch, especially in a film that’s as frequently hilarious as Toy Story 4. After a gut-punch prologue, the film is painfully funny throughout (you’ll even want to stay to the Pixar bumper after the credits for a joke that had everyone in my audience cheering) with a collection of delightful new characters including Forky, Canadian stunt toy Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves continuing to have an outstanding 2019), and carnival plush toys Bunny (Jordan Peele) and Ducky (Keegan-Michael Key). The film never loses sight of its emotional core at the expense of a joke, which makes the constant humor such an impressive balancing act where you can have dramatic tension between Woody and Bo and then cut to Bunny and Ducky explaining how they’ll take out an elderly shopkeeper.
It’s difficult to maintain a level of quality across four movies spanning 24 years, but the Toy Story franchise has done it. While Toy Story 4 may not be as revolutionary as Toy Story or the marvelous classic of Toy Story 2, it has a finality and pathos to it that Toy Story 3 lacked even though that movie has its own unique strengths. But the Toy Story franchise really should come to a close with Toy Story 4, not just because of what happens in the story, but because it lands with such a powerful message about growth and acceptance, a theme from the first movie but repurposed and redesigned for the latest installment. It’s hard to imagine the series going out on a better note than this.