When the first Toy Story film was released in 1995, it was a revelation.
It wasn’t just that it was the first computer animated feature-length film (though, certainly, that accomplishment changed the industry forever). The movie also walked an incredible line, appealing equally to adults and children. It was goofy, but also mature, detailed, clever, and heartfelt.
Toy Story’s target audience was in elementary school when the first film came out. The series has had to grow and mature along with its audience, who are now old enough to have kids of their own. Many younger members of the audience for the latest installment, Toy Story 4, are likely around the same age their parents were when the first movie came out. How does a series that stretches back over two decades continue to stay relevant, especially when the series’ previous entry (itself almost 10 years old) seemed to wrap the story up so nicely?
Toy Story 4’s answer is to get as weird as possible. The new movie matches elements of David Lynch aesthetics, R.L. Stine-inflected villainy, and Pixar’s trademark heartstring-pulling. It pays off to incredible results.
What’s it about?
At the end of Toy Story 3, Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz (Tim Allen), and the gang were safely ensconced in their new home with Bonnie, a sweet, creative toddler. Toy Story 4 starts with a flashback to the toys’ life with Andy, detailing how Bo Peep (Annie Potts), Woody’s former flame, left Andy’s house to live with another family. It’s a difficult loss for Woody, particularly because it challenges his core “no toy left behind” ethos.
In the present day, Woody is struggling to adjust to life at Bonnie’s house, where he is no longer her favorite toy. When Bonnie reluctantly goes to kindergarten, Woody tags along, certain he can find a way to help his new kid adapt to her surroundings. During craft time, Bonnie creates Forky (Tony Hale), a spork with lopsided googly eyes, pipe-cleaner arms, and popsicle stick feet. Woody immediately recognizes that Forky is Bonnie’s new favorite toy, though all Forky wants to do is return to the trash bin, his native environment.
When Forky escapes during a family road trip, Woody goes to retrieve him, determined to make the new addition realize his value. The pair get waylaid in an antique mall, where Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), a vintage talking doll with a defective voice box, holds Forky hostage with the help of her ventriloquist dummy henchmen. Woody is also reunited with Bo Peep, who now lives life as a “lost toy,” independent of ownership, and promises to help Woody rescue Forky from Gabby’s clutches. Helping them are fellow lost toys Giggle McDimples (Ally Maki), an old school Polly Pocket-like figurine, Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves), a Canadian stuntman action figure, and escaped carnival prizes Ducky (Keegan-Michael Key) and Bunny (Jordan Peele).
Toy Story 4 recognizes all the members of its audience, both child and adult, and caters to both with a script that packs in jokes and nostalgia. Some of those references are ones that only the grown-ups in the room will catch, such as the reintroduction of Combat Carl (voiced perfectly, by Carl Weathers), who made a grim appearance in the first Toy Story, or the teeny-weeny Giggle McDimples, a throwback to the long-discontinued 90s Polly Pocket toys. Duke Caboom’s Canada-specific lines and Matrix in-jokes are yet another example, specifically geared towards Keanu Reeves fans. Other running bits, like the tough-guy antics of Ducky and Bunny, or the floppy physicality of Gabby’s dummy servants, will appeal to everyone in the theater.
Of course, as always, deeper themes are also present. The Toy Story movies have always had questions of purpose at their core, with Woody and his fellow toys having to learn and relearn what their roles are as their kids grow and change. Woody’s insistence on Forky being part of their community is directly tied to his own growing sense of obsolescence, as Bonnie plays with him less and less. Woody’s life has been defined by fulfilling the needs of his owner, whoever that may be. But once he’s no longer needed, he’s finally forced to reckon with what he wants for himself, a process that brings about profound choices.
On the opposite end of that spectrum, Forky’s journey is also about finding a sense of purpose, learning that he’s been created for something more fulfilling and long-lasting than what he’d originally thought. Forky is surprisingly quick to catch on to Woody’s insecurities, but it takes him a while to recognize that hislife is changing, too.
Toy Story 4 doesn’t spend as much time with beloved secondary characters like Hamm, Rex, Slinky, Bullseye, or Jessie. There also isn’t much attention given to Bonnie’s other toys, who we met in the previous installment. If you’re looking for further development of Mr. Pricklepants (Timothy Dalton) and his theatrical ambitions, you won’t find it here.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it is perhaps a result of too many characters. The first three Toy Story films had a tight ensemble. Now that the ensemble has expanded, it’s harder to keep track of everyone. Perhaps the biggest problem it causes is that an emotional moment toward the end of the film loses some of its impact due to the involved characters not showing up much this time around. However, the relationships we’ve built with the gang over time make up for it.
Toy Story 4 is a surprising extra installment in the series that serves as a great coda, overcoming any doubts about it being a necessary element in the story of Woody and his friends. However, it would probably be a good idea for Pixar to let this truly be the last entry in the series. It leaves us on a hopeful note, and effectively uses up any fuel left in the tank. It would be hard to think of a way to create another installment after this one that wouldn’t feel tired.