Making a fourth Toy Story movie is a taaaaaaaaaaaaall order. You'd be hard-pressed to find a trilogy-capper as beloved as Toy Story 3, an immaculate film and one of the handful of exceptions to the "Pixar should not make sequels" rule. But more than just being a satisfying movie, it perfectly wrapped up the Toy Story arc, closing the book on the toys' relationship with Andy and giving them a blissful existence with new owner Bonnie that would allow them to ride off into the metaphorical sunset. That was it. Job done. Book closed forever.
But just like in comic books, successful franchises are not permitted to die no matter how warranted it may be or how sublime their final chapter may have been. That's why, after close to a decade (during which mastermind John Lasseter was ousted from Disney/Pixar in disgrace), Woody and crew have been dug out of their resting place for yet another tour of duty.
It’s perhaps worrying, then, that Toy Story 4’s cold open takes place in the past. Nine years ago, in fact, when Andy was still a kid playing with his toys all the time. This serves as an opportunity to reintroduce Bo Peep (Annie Potts), and show how she departed the household (and why she was missing from Toy Story 3), as well as rekindle the mutual attraction she shares with Woody (Tom Hanks). This sequence doesn’t last long, though, and we are soon back to the present, with the toys enjoying life with their new owner, Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw), though Woody seems to be left in the closet during play time more and more often. As a way of coping with the stress of leaving her toys behind to go to Kindergarten, she constructs Forky (Tony Hale) out of a plastic spork, pipe cleaners and a popsicle stick to keep her company. Forky doesn’t really get this whole toy thing, convinced he’s destined for the trash where he belongs, but Woody, Buzz (Tim Allen) and crew (Joan Cusack, Wallace Shawn, Kristen Schaal, et al) are pressed into action when Forky runs away during a road trip. Bonnie’s despondent at the loss of her friend, so Woody takes it upon himself to come to the rescue.
There’s quite a bit of Toy Story 2-style Woody being neglected in the first third of the film, and the remaining section, set in an antique shop ruled over by an old, abandoned doll named Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) has more than a little Toy Story 3 in its blood. So there’s definitely a concern that this may feel like a cash-in, a particularly galling possibility after the last film ended so well. Luckily, though, there’s a lot of substance to be found in Toy Story 4, a movie far more interested in examining the existential nature of what it means to be a toy in this universe than simply cutting Disney another box office check. That’s what Forky brings to this film, a completely different sort of energy than what we’ve seen before. Hale doesn’t have it easy; he spends his early moments as a sort of Frankenstein’s Monster, spooked and confused and barely capable of coherent thought, before he becomes more of a fleshed out character as he understands what he means to Bonnie. It’s about his journey to realize that what he wants isn’t always what he should get if he’s making someone else’s life better, and that goal in itself is enough to be fulfilled. It’s tricky stuff to pull off, and makes for a nice contrast with Bo, who’s lived without an owner for so long that she’s become self-sufficient and craves the freedom of the open road.
I can’t say the Woody and Bo arc completely works. It might be because it’s been some time since I’ve seen Toy Story 2, so their relationship from that film (and, you know, the twenty years that have passed since that film) has faded and the reestablishment of it in the cold open is probably when the film feels the most forced (though that sequence, which takes place in the rain, once again proves how insane their water tech has become in the past five years). And there’s no real opportunity for conventional romantic beats because, you know, this is a kid’s movie and these things are toys. So it’s a little odd and off-kilter, but the freedom versus duty of ownership stuff pays dividends. But, for the most part, the script does the work. It makes Gabby Gabby come off as both a real threat and an empathetic character (as Lotso-ish as she may be at the beginning), with all the little details of the world set up to support it. And the other new characters, a pair of stuffed animals played by Keegan Michael Key and Jordan Peele, bring a completely different comedic style, rambling and improvisational in the best possible way. From a pure entertainment perspective, they’re the easy highlight of Toy Story 4. And this is a truly entertaining movie in just about every way.
I don’t think Toy Story 4 needed to exist. It doesn’t offer anything concrete as to why it deserved to be made in the wake of Toy Story 3, which basically makes it a lesser film almost by default. But there’s still a lot to like here; it feels like classic Pixar in that sense, an airtight, beautifully rendered and undeniably well-executed idea. The new characters provide the life needed (especially Key and Peele, whose shtick will likely work exactly once before being tired, but they nail their one shot), and it’s pretty wild that this major tentpole movie in 2019 is built around a romance between Tom Hanks and Annie Potts. It provides another clear end to the franchise, not as good of an ending as Toy Story 3 was, but an ending in its own right. Hopefully this will truly be the end. Sure, this turned out well, but if you do too many tumbles on top of a tightrope, you’re eventually going to fall. Toy Story 4 doesn’t fall, but it is a step down, even if only a minor one.