Review: Pixar Finds A Purpose For 'Toy Story 4'

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When Pixar announced they would make a fourth Toy Story film way back in 2014, no one thought it would be any good. After Toy Story 3 brought a heart-wrenching and satisfying conclusion to the series, it was almost baffling that Pixar would go back and retcon the ending to a trilogy widely considered among the best there is. So one has to ask: why in the world would they do this?

Well for one, money. The film was announced on an earnings call after all, but if you put that aside, there must have also been some compulsion to tell one more story in the Toy Story saga. With first time feature director Josh Cooley at the helm, the behind the scenes drama at Pixar, and the tepid response to the studio’s sequel efforts, a fourth entry seemed destined for failure. However, and I can’t believe it, I can gladly say that Toy Story 4 averts disaster and tells a story worthy of Andy’s Bonnie’s ragtag bunch of toys. While it undoes the insurmountable perfection of the third film, Toy Story 4 finds purpose for itself in the same way Woody does in the film, providing a nice appendix to the original trilogy and evoking the same emotional response as the films before it.

Set after the events of Toy Story 3, the film picks up with Andy’s toys in the possession of Bonnie. In the wake of their transition, Woody finds himself without a role in Bonnie’s world. Though he can’t take an active part in playtime like he use to, he finds solace in protecting Forky, an arts and crafts project Bonnie makes during kindergarten orientation. When Bonnie and her family go on a road trip, it becomes Woody’s responsibility to ensure Forky’s safety and make sure he makes it back in one piece.

The usual lineup of characters make their return like Woody, Buzz, Jessie plus Bonnie’s crew, but as with all entries to the series, we are treated to some new toys to play with ourselves. There is the aforementioned Forky voiced by Tony Hale who brings a likable and comedic naiveté to the film as he learns he isn’t trash but rather Bonnie’s new favorite creation. There’s Keanu Reeves as a washed up, but emboldened Canadian stunt figure named Duke Caboom. Jordan Peele and  Keegan-Michael Key play a stuffed, fair-ground-prize duo named Bunny and Ducky. And Christina Hendricks gives life to an antique tea doll who longs for a new voice box. 

It’s a cast of who’s who filled to the brim of top tier talent, and their contributions are well tailored to the series’ signature tone: comedy with an emotional heart. Some great beats come out of something as simple as a well composed facial animation or a well delivered line of dialog, and the creativity on display in the world of sentient toys never ceases to evoke a smile. It’s great fun that is nothing short of wholesome, quality writing that naturally works with the emotional themes at hand. The singular essence of the Toy Story series is hard to define, but just know that Toy Story 4 maintains what you have come to know tonally from the series.

That being said, it goes without saying that the animation is unwordly. Pixar has always been on the bleeding edge of animation and Toy Story 4 proves once again why they’re the industry standard. The franchise itself is a reflection of Pixar’s technological advancement, going from Toy Story in 1995 as the first feature length animated film, to the considerable refinement in 1999’s Toy Story 2, to the exquisite polish of 2010’s Toy Story 3, and now this. Each subsequent entry gets better and better, and the gap between 4 and 3 — which still holds up might I add— is remarkable. Lighting in particular made a big jump as we are treated to a more realistic rendering of light as if captured through a real camera sensor/film strip (most notably the blown out exposures in brightly lit scenes). Complimenting that is a more subdued color scheme that is dialed back from the saturated look of prior films. Detail in character models and environments continue to amaze with special attention to fabric fibers, dust, and textures. Animation, shading, character design, and the whole kit-and-caboodle is firing on all cylinders and it’s the best work they’ve ever done (at least until next year).

The original Toy Story trilogy has been about relationships and the distance between the individuals in them. Whether it be a friendship, a marriage, or a familial tie, the series addressed how those relationships are formed, stressed, and ultimately brought to an end. Toy Story 4 is, like I said earlier, an appendix to this theme. In the wake of a concluded relationship, how do I find resolve? What is my purpose under this new view of the world? What am I to do now?

These existential questions and more are addressed through Woody’s character arc. As Woody surrenders what he had with Andy and as he falls out of favor with Bonnie, the rootinest tootinest cowboy in the wild wild west struggles to find a purpose. There’s some merit in protecting Forky, but what’s best for Bonnie and what’s right for Woody comes into constant conflict. It is this strain where Toy Story 4’s greatest emotional moments come through. Seeing Woody’s loyalty come into question as he finds any sort of purpose is genuine here, and like prior films, this film will make you feel the feelz and swell up in tears. 

As an aside, the series’ fixation on relationships takes a considerable presence in how parents deal with the relationships with their children (perhaps the strongest argument for the entire series), and this film can easily be read as a parent’s journey in finding a purpose after their kids are gone. Also the teaser trailer’s use of Both Sides Now takes on a whole new meaning in retrospect, and it’s pretty eff’n sad.

For a film that had no right to be this good, Toy Story 4 gives itself purpose in creating an additive story to the original trilogy. It undoes the conclusion of the last film, but if you look at this film as an epilogue or appendix, the film certainly warrants its creation, and for something as endearing as Toy Story, it’s reassuring to know the series didn’t lose itself.

One last thing, The Shining and 2001: A Space Odyssey easter eggs are awesome, and you should stay to the end of the credits. That is all.