The above question is a very valid one after the wistful, emotional conclusion to Pixar’s original (and rightfully beloved) ‘Toy Story’ trilogy. ‘Toy Story 3′ was a masterful capper to a franchise that basically unfolded in real time, tackling heady themes of relevance and aging, under the auspices of a hilarious and ingenious prison break plot. Now, almost a quarter-century removed from the first computer animated wonder that introduced Tom Hanks’ Woody, Tim Allen’s Buzz Lightyear and the rest of the anthropomorphic children’s toy gang, here comes ‘Toy Story 4′, a breathtakingly rendered, almost existential coda that much more than justifies its existence.
Rather than leaning into the passage of time like its predecessor, this fourth entry opens back in time, on a fateful, stressful night that sees Woody and crew perform a truly harrowing rescue on a toy that almost washes away in the rain, only to end with the separation of Annie Potts’ Bo Peep. Immediately, the technological prowess is on display, a striking realism in the backgrounds, a tactile realization of the rain and all the surroundings, plus unprecedented expression in the faces of these characters, who, it must be stated are TOYS. Woody and Bo’s goodbye’s are a mature parting of adults, with Bo hinting at possibilities beyond Andy’s toy chest, and Woody bound by his unwavering loyalty, the characteristic that simultaneously draws Bo to him and drives her crazy. This dichotomy will hover over the rest of the film as well as fuel the potential future in store for these incredibly well defined creations.
In present day, Woody and the rest of Andy’s former toys are figuring out their place in the Bonnie toy hierarchy. Bonnie, the little girl Andy donated all his buddies to at the end of ‘3’, is starting kindergarten. Despite the cautious warnings of some of the other toys, Woody believes that Bonnie needs a friend more than ever, so he hitches a ride to school in her backpack. It is Woody, witnessing Bonnie’s fear and loneliness among all her new classmates, who maneuvers the elements (spork, pipe cleaners, google eyes) out of the trash and into Bonnie’s hands so that she can create one of the greatest in all of Pixar’s creations, Forky, voiced brilliantly by Tony Hale. This existential nightmare of re-purposed arts/crafts/utensil garbage ends up serving as hilarious comic relief, a defacto child for an exasperated Woody to care for, and the impetus for this latest adventure.
As with previous ‘Toy Story’ sequels, a smattering of new toys are introduced, and the 4th installment does not disappoint in this area. There’s Potts’ BoPeep now reimagined as a liberated ‘lost toy’ with her triple-headed sheep and miniature policewoman companions, a mesmerizingly creepy Christina Hendricks as an antique doll named Gabby Gabby guarded by a trio of even creepier mute ventriloquist dummies, Keanu Reeves doing a very funny satirical version of an action hero as Canadian motorcycle stunt toy Duke Caboom, and a reunited Key & Peele as Ducky & Bunny, carnival prize plushies tethered together and stealing scenes. The only aspect of ‘Toy Story 4′ even remotely disappointing is the lack of things for the rest of the old cast to do. Great characters like Jessie, Mr.&Mrs. Potato Head, and even Buzz himself are relegated to the sidelines in service to this particular story.
The focus of the film is most definitely on Woody, one of Tom Hanks’ finest performances. With this latest (and likely final) appearance of the iconic pull-string cowboy, his saga feels utterly complete. Audiences have now seen him as a leader threatened by a shiny new rival in the first film, a part of a larger historic pop culture touchpoint in the second, ushering his charge into adulthood and moving on to new pastures in the third, to now searching for his purpose later in life. It’s amazing how the ‘Toy Story’ films have not only challenged and redefined the technique and technology behind animation, but also the kinds of stories the medium can tell. ‘Toy Story 4’ still contains all the wonder, laughs, and emotional attachment as its predecessors, but somehow transcends their very nature with a smaller, powerful film about aging, parenting, fulfillment of purpose, yearning, and companionship . . .
Directed By: Josh Cooley
Written By: Andrew Stanton & Stephany Folsom
Running Time: 100 min.
* * * * (out of 4 stars) -OR- A