Toy Story 4 is A Charming Character-Driven Story That’s Small in Stakes But Big At Heart (Review)

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This weekend marks the release of Toy Story 4, the latest computer animated film from Walt Disney Pictures and Pixar Animation Studios. The announcement of the project in 2015 was met with heavy skepticism after the initial trilogy was capped by a perfect ending to Toy Story 3, but thankfully, the fourth entry to the franchise keeps the Toy Story train going full speed ahead thanks to the addition of new characters, new ideas, and layered character arcs, along with the gorgeous animation and strong sense of humor that are Pixar staples.

Woody and Buzz Lightyear have a new friend named Forky that leads them into a thrilling adventure inside a carnival and antique shop in Pixar’s new sequel.


2019 marks twenty-four years since the release of Toy Story, which would not only be the first feature film from the prolific animation studio Pixar, but also the first film to ever be made entirely from computer animation, introducing a new technology to the medium of film and changing the industry forever. From the lighthearted Finding Nemo and Ratatouille to the imaginative Monsters, Inc. and Inside Out, Pixar has continued to produce crowd-pleasing hit after crowd-pleasing hit, with their few but only speed bumps being their prequels (Monsters University) and sequels (Cars 2). However, the only sequels to retain or debatably exceed their predecessor have been those in the Toy Story franchise. But after the emotional gutpunch that ended Toy Story 3, it was easy to call a third sequel unnecessary, and easier to call the quality of one into question after the controversial exit of longtime Pixar executive John Lasseter.

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But regardless of who is sitting in their executive office or the director’s chair, creativity at Pixar trickles down from the administrative level to the production interns, and it shows over the course of all 100 minutes of Toy Story 4. The ending of the third film saw Woody, Buzz Lightyear, Jessie and friends leave the confines of their first owner Andy and enter the home of toddler Bonnie after staring down their impermanence in an incinerator, but after such a dramatic moment, the fourth entry to Pixar’s first franchise serves as a solid epilogue in the series, electing to lower the stakes in a way that creates a strong character-driven piece within an entertaining adventure that introduces new characters, reunites our heroes with old friends, and takes the franchise to a new setting.

Taking place two years after the third film, Toy Story 4 begins with Bonnie just a week away from her first day of kindergarten, on a morning where she plays with all her favorite toys including those that Andy lent her. But there’s one toy she doesn’t regularly play with, that being Woody (Tom Hanks), who stows away in her backpack, with the intent to help her feel comfortable through the nerve-wracking ordeal of kindergarten orientation. When Bonnie is assigned by her teacher to make a pencil holder in arts-and-crafts, Woody runs into the trash and gathers what he can to help Bonnie, and he succeeds in a way he didn’t expect: she uses a spork, a broken popsicle stick, and googly eyes, among other things, to create a new toy of her own in Forky (Tony Hale). Bonnie’s comfort in Forky relieves Woody, but only until her love brings Forky to life, upon which, he screams to be thrown back into the garbage, convinced he is just trash rather than a toy.

This extends to when he is introduced to Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) and the gang, and again when Bonnie and her family go on vacation, to which Bonnie is allowed to bring all her toys. But when Forky escapes the RV in which Bonnie’s family travels, Woody’s insistence to rescue him puts him and Forky on an adventure to a traveling carnival and a nearby antique store, where they encounter a pull-string doll named Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) that wants Woody’s voice box in order to fix hers, and even reunite with long-lost friend Bo Peep (Annie Potts), who travels the carnival with allies of her own.

A plethora of Pixar’s output is full of subtext rife with thought-provoking themes, and their latest film is no exception. Toy Story 4 has its characters asking existential questions about how and why they are a toy, and what it is about them that makes them one. This takes shape with franchise newcomer Forky, whose childlike questions about his place in the world, constant excitement to bathe in the bin he came from, and general panic are consistently funny and endearing, thanks in part to Hale’s infectious turn as a voice actor. Meanwhile, despite Bonnie’s lack of interest in playing with him, Woody remains steadfast in leading the group, taking it upon himself to find Forky while pondering his role in life outside of Andy’s ownership. In reuniting with Bo Peep and learning how she became self-sufficient and free-spirited on her own as a lost toy, Woody has a compelling character arc that positions him to make decisions over the course of the film that have seismic implications for himself, his friends, and even Bonnie herself.

As this is going on, Buzz Lightyear leads the C-story in a thread of his own where he learns how to talk to his conscience, which hysterically manifests itself as the catchphrases from his voice box. Buzz’s arc factors nicely into the film’s comic relief as he ventures off into an RV park himself to find Woody only to end up a prize in a carnival game, where he meets stuffed animals and fellow prizes Ducky and Bunny (Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele), who assist him on his journey with ideas hilarious in their absurdity.

Other aspects that set Pixar apart from other animation studios in Hollywood are its unique character models and breathtaking animation, and those remain a constant positive throughout Toy Story 4, especially when the sun hits the glass chandelier of the antique store just right to display a barrage of multi-colored light streaks around the shop, and again, when the vibrant lights of all the carnival attractions illuminate the scene underneath the night sky.

The antique store itself has the tone and feel of a location from the roaring twenties, and the camera follows Woody and Bo Peep sleuthing behind bookshelves as it would a detective down a foggy street. It’s also worth noting that the film is consistently funny, from a running joke about Bonnie’s father going to jail and a clever use of Randy Newman’s new song, “I Can’t Let You Throw Yourself Away”, to a moment where Canadian daredevil action figure Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves) recalls his trauma of disappointing his owner in hammy, hilarious dramatics.

However, while the subtle ideas about existentialism and sentience do take shape in Forky’s arc through the first half of the film, there remains some potential to explore them a little bit more left on the proverbial table. It also needs to be mentioned that while the ending has been described as something “intense” and “startling” to the point that it will “change cinema”, the film it belongs to doesn’t have the high stakes of the original trilogy to live up to such hyperbole. But the film’s low stakes serve Toy Story 4 well in shaping it as the epilogue in a tremendous series, and the ending packs an emotional punch, albeit one on a different level than audiences expect. Children will be entertained by the endearing new characters and old favorites, while adults will laugh at the clever sense of humor, and be moved by the film’s emotional center about listening to your inner voice and doing what’s right for you. It’s as charming and heartfelt as the series has ever been, and that’s why Toy Story 4 is a story worth seeing.

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