It’s been a good nine years since Toy Story’s third installment had been released. A film that was once universally regarded to be the definitive and beautifully bittersweet capstone of the genre-defining Toy Story films. But, knowing Disney’s habit of capitalizing on its more nostalgic properties as of late, the release of a fourth installment to this beloved franchise was, more or less, to be expected, albeit with relative scepticism of its quality compared to its predecessors. With a new director, Josh Cooley at the helm along with writers leaving the project due to creative differences, and an almost 2-year delay of the film due to other projects, such as The Incredibles 2, audiences were nervous that Toy Story 4 was doomed to fall short of their expectations set by previous installments. For nine years, audiences were convinced that the potential of Toy Story had been fully realized, but with Toy Story 4, this make-believe world of charm and wonder could still breathe new life into the toys that inhabit it.
The main draw of Toy Story 4 was, to me, the impressive lengths it went in expanding its world of sentient toys and exploring further themes about them that it’s predecessors did not. For example, the existentialist idea of Forky (voiced by Tony Hale) the first toy to be physically crafted by a main character was a concept that was as imaginative as it was adorably charming. Confused and frightened of his own existence as a crudely made toy, Forky constantly goes to hilarious and absurd lengths to be thrown into the nearest dustbin as he believes his only purpose is to be trash, only to have Woody constantly fish him out and force him to endure the gift of life he had been granted, making for some delightfully memorable slapstick. The film’s myriad of colourful newcomers further remind us that the world of Toy Story is still brimming with unique and imaginative story possibilities, though it did feel somewhat overly-crowded in places resulting in their potential going unrealized. My personal favourite of these newcomers has to be the Evel Knievel-inspired stunt cycle toy, Duke Caboom. A character who was brought to life by a joyously buffoonish performance by Keanu Reeves, which stands as a testament to how incredibly the man’s acting has improved over the years since The Matrix. Other characters I particularly enjoyed included a pair of carnival plushes, Ducky and Bunny (voiced respectively by Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele), a hilariously obnoxious duo that had me laughing and crying like a child every time they were on screen. I also enjoyed the presence of the evil cat in the Antiques store as a callback to Sid’s dog.
That being said, this plethora of newcomers had come at the cost of classic recurring characters like Mr Potato-Head, Hamm, Rex and even Jessie being placed on the sideline this time around. This could be partially attributed to the unfortunate passing of Don Rickles (Mr Potato-Head) before he was able to record any dialogue for the film. As a result, Potato-Head’s dialogue in Toy Story 4 had been cobbled together from 25 years of vocal material from the first 3 films, video games, and other media. An admirable production feat that honours the memory of the legendary comedian. The obvious exceptions to this exclusion of older characters include the return of Bo Peep (reprised by Annie Potts) and Buzz Lightyear who is given a side-plot that is both hilarious and ties into a central theme of finding one’s own inner voice. I had always been personally endeared to Buzz’s character more so than the other cast so I was afraid that the directors had run out of ideas for Buzz, but while it was somewhat brief, this side-plot, along with his equally funny interactions with Ducky and Bunny had me pleasantly surprised.
The ‘villain’ of this movie takes the form of a creepy pull-string doll with a broken voice box, Gabby Gabby (voiced by Christina Hendricks). I use the term ‘villain’ very lightly, because unlike most previous recurring antagonists such as the ever-terrifying Sid, she’s a far more tragic and sympathetic character who had never known love and had spent her days in the confines of an old Antiques store. Her goal was to simply take Woody’s voice box so that she would be loved by a girl, only to be tossed aside and abandoned once again. This also ties back to the aforementioned theme of finding one’s own inner voice. In the end, however she manages to find a new owner, a lost girl at the travelling carnival and finds happiness, a stark contrast to past villains getting their comeuppance.
Being the 4th instalment in Pixar’s 23-year running chief franchise, Toy Story 4 seems to show it’s franchise’s age more so than it’s predecessors and it’s prominent issues have made it a rather contentious sequel. One issue that I had with the film included the re-surfacing of Woody’s abandonment issues as he is, once again, left to gather dust and has to grapple with not being wanted by his new owner, Bonnie. An obvious call-back to the main conflict of the first Toy Story that felt completely unwarranted to me. Another more divisive issue that audiences had found difficult to accept was Woody’s decision at the film’s climax to leave Buzz and the other toys to stay with Bo Peep, and essentially leaving behind an owner who didn’t want him. On the one hand, people had felt that this decision flies in the face of the message of previous instalments as well as Woody’s original characterization as a loyal toy to his owner, dismissing it as a cheap opportunity for Disney to milk the franchise for what it’s worth. On the other, some people had felt that this was a perfect, sentimental end of an era for Woody and an opportunity for him expand his horizons and provide fresh story ideas. I personally felt that it was an effectively heartfelt and touching moment, capped off with a neat little passing of the torch to Jessie, and wrapping up Woody’s arc in the film quite nicely. But simultaneously, I’m also concerned that this ending could mean that Toy Story’s universe could end up expanding too much, potentially resulting in the loss of it’s original identity in future instalments. One celebrity cameo too many could result in this beloved franchise becoming a mere husk of its former self, after all. A cute little farewell that nonetheless carries worrying implications for the franchise’s prospects down the line.
Ultimately, Toy Story 4 didn’t entirely live to the potential or have as much emotional weight or resonance as Toy Story 3, but it certainly made an admirable attempt to emulate the charm and hilarity that the first Toy Story had stolen my heart with, if only for the fantastic character writing and comedic pacing. There’s no denying that it’s fair share of issues such as it’s unnecessary conflict in the first act, it’s shoving of it’s classic characters into the background in favor of a slight over-abundance of newcomers, along with it’s off-putting conclusion place it behind the rest of its predecessors to me. But personal opinions of how it ranks with them aside, Toy Story 4 is still a charming and fun sequel that plays to the strengths of what made the Toy Story films animated classics.