When Toy Story 4 was initially announced I was a little befuddled, it honestly felt that the Toy Story franchise didn’t have anything left in the tank. Toy Story 3 was great, but when your characters are holding hands as they descend into a pit of fire, that seems like you’ve reached the maximum dramatic heft from your franchise. But Toy Story 4 is an unexpected delight, and while other Pixar sequels have ranged from awful (Cars 2) to fine (Finding Dory), Toy Story 4 is the best Pixar sequel since, well, Toy Story 3. Although it still uses the same rescue plot as others in the franchise, the themes of Toy Story 4, which revolve around finding purpose in a new phase of life, are incredibly potent and profound. And it’s only gravy that Toy Story 4 is easily one of the funniest movies Pixar has ever made in addition to the requisite tear-jerking.
The film begins with Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz (Tim Allen), and their pals from Andy’s room now living/belonging to Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw), who plays with most of them, except for Woody, who tends to be left in the closet. Feeling out of place, Woody becomes determined to help Bonnie on her first day of kindergarten, where she makes a new toy, Forky (Tony Hale), who is made up 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 always there for Bonnie. But Forky sees himself as literal trash and continually not only calls himself that, but tries to throw himself away. While on an RV trip with Bonnie and her parents, Forky throws himself out the window, and Woody goes out 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 her own life as a lost toy. Bo Peep agrees to help get Forky back to Bonnie, but they first have to contend with Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), a toy who has the run of an antique shop where Woody and Forky got separated.
Though first thought, Toy Story 4 isn’t some cheap cash-in. For all its suspicious necessity, the film taps back into the bittersweet magic of the most existential of family-friendly franchises, where life is tough and then you get boxed away in the attic, or donated to charity, or thrown in the landfill. Toy Story 4 brings the question: What happens to a toy deferred? Tracking back, this makes major sense. The first Toy Story was about welcoming a new presence in your life, as perhaps a marriage. The second was about facing a new direction in your life and perhaps choosing a new path, a midlife crisis no doubt. Toy Story 3 was about retirement and leaving your old life behind. It tracks, then, that Toy Story 4 should contemplate death. The Toy Story movies are breathless, state-of-the-art entertainment contraptions that also happen to be, at heart, tragicomedies of neurosis about the inner lives of sentient toys. The basic pleasures of this fourth installment may be at once more hectic and more worn, but the film preserves, at least, the thematics of the series: that anxiety about finding meaning and your own place on the shelf.
It’s during an extended pit-stop that Toy Story 4 reintroduces an estranged player in this saga, an important figure from Woody’s past: Bo Peep, who was given away by Andy’s mom between the second and third films. Bo Peep was never the most three-dimensional of the toys in Andy’s room, but in Toy Story 4, Potts reinvents her as a to-the-point nomad survivor, liberated by life on the road and her lack of attachment to any one child. For Woody, increasingly tied up in his responsibilities to both Bonnie and Forky, Bo Peep’s blissful self-sufficiency offers an alternative outlook.
Bo Peep is among more adjusted of the neurotic, living figurines running about through Toy Story 4‘s busy, lightning-paced plot. True to its title, the film keeps throwing new toys at the screen, like a kid flying through the aisles on a shopping spree. Keanu Reeves lends his unmistakable Zen cadence to Duke Caboom, an amusingly Canadian stunt-driver action figure. And Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key also show up to perform tireless improvised greatness as conjoined, carnival-prize stuffed animals who fantasize — in the film’s most inspired and hilarious running gag — about giving up the ploy and pouncing on their human overlords. But this being a Toy Story movie, they’re all occasionally melancholic creatures, hung up on the kids that own them or the ones that never did. Which includes the film’s villain, the previously mentioned, antique baby doll Gabby Gabby. Haunted by her loneliness with a small squad of speechless ventriloquist dummies, she’s plenty creepy, but also a shadow of past antagonists — just another toy who’s bitter for receiving no affection.
Of course, Pixar being Pixar, the film’s darkness in its themes are balanced well with its frequent, hilarious humor. Toy Story 4‘s sense of humor has darkened a bit since that last go-around, bringing a very welcome oddball sensibility. The film never loses sight of its emotional core at the expense of a joke, it garners humor from fear and pathos, going right along with the absurdity of its very premise. Watching toys go through an existential crisis is inherently funny. It even calls into question how certain toys may feel about having to remain lifeless in front of humans, going to interesting places with that.
It’s difficult to maintain a level of quality across four movies spanning twenty-four years, but the Toy Story franchise has done just that. While Toy Story 4 may not be the best of the franchise, it carries a strong finality and pathos with it. It’s with this installment, that the franchise should come to a close with, not just because of what happens in the story, but because it lands with such a powerful message about growth and acceptance. From exploring themes of finding purpose in life to contemplating death, Toy Story 4 continues to deliver in being the best existential family-friendly franchise around. With this conclusion, though, it’s hard to imagine the series going out on a better note than this.
All images: Disney/Pixar