If there was any franchise that didn’t seem to warrant any continuation, it was the Toy Story series. The nearly perfect trilogy, whose first movie launched Pixar and changed the animation game back in 1995, came to a darker but profoundly moving close in 2010 with Toy Story 3. It seemed as if there were very few places that the story of Woody, Buzz, and the rest of Andy’s anthropomorphic toys–now belonging to toddler Bonnie at the third film’s fadeout–could have gone after that.
But business rules all in the world of high-roller Hollywood filmmaking, and the nearly $2 billion grossed by the Toy Story films (let alone merchandise and other ancillary profit streams) almost demanded that the series continue. So now nine years after we bid farewell in Toy Story 3, the gang is back for Toy Story 4, and we’re more than delighted to say that director Josh Cooley, more than eight screenwriters, and Pixar’s magnificent team and cast have found a way to tell one more story that is worthy of the previous ones and a joy on its own terms.
The way into the tale is an unanswered question from the previous films: Whatever happened to Bo Peep (voiced by Annie Potts), the unrequited love of Woody’s (Tom Hanks) life? The new film opens with a flashback as we see Woody and Bo leading a daring rescue of a toy car left outside in the rain, lest he become a “lost toy.” But the rescue is barely completed when Bo herself is lost, in a way, taken along with her sheep and her lamp by a new owner after Molly has lost interest.
Toy Story 4 then skips ahead to the present where Bonnie still plays with her adopted toys–including Buzz (Tim Allen), Jessie (Joan Cusack), Rex (Wallace Shawn), Slinky Dog (Blake Clark), and the rest–although Woody finds himself increasingly left behind in the closet. Nevertheless, stubbornly attached to the idea that it’s his mission to make Bonnie’s life as easy and happy as possible, he sneaks into her backpack on her first day of kindergarten and once there, surreptitiously helps her create a new companion to battle the fear and loneliness she feels on her first full day away from her parents.
That makeshift toy, a plastic spork with mismatched eyes and popsicle sticks for feet, is Forky (Tony Hale), who becomes the most important object in Bonnie’s life, even though he wants to compulsively return to the trash from which he was born. When Bonnie and her parents head out in an RV for vacation, it’s Forky’s insistence on hurling himself back to any garbage pail he can find that sends Woody on a quest to retrieve him for a grief-stricken Bonnie after he escapes out a window. Their journey leads to an antique store ruled over by a Gabby Gabby doll (Christina Hendricks), an Evel Knievel-style motorcycle action figure called Duke Kaboom (a brilliantly cast Keanu Reeves), and of course… Bo Peep.
Rather than go bigger–because you really couldn’t get any bigger in terms of spectacle, theme and subtext than the climax of Toy Story 3–the new movie goes smaller, acting more as a coda to the original three films instead of a larger extension of them. As a result, Toy Story 4 does struggle a bit in its early going to avoid feeling perfunctory, and it hits a snag or two again in the latter half of the film, as the story feels like it’s literally going around the same territory (mainly the antique store) perhaps once more than it should, with a couple unneeded complications.
But, and this is what makes this franchise stand tall in its genre, even among a number of its Pixar brethren, the story is always driven by the characters instead of heavy-handed messages or strings of unearned sight gags and pop culture references. It’s a profound lesson that other major studio animation shops keep failing to learn.
It’s those characters, led by the complicated and flawed Woody, that keep drawing us back to the Toy Story saga and who ultimately make Toy Story 4 endlessly funny, empathetic and, toward the end, deeply moving even if the stakes aren’t life-and-death as they were the last time out. Add in glorious, immersive, and detailed rendering from the Pixar team, that familiar yet heart-tugging score by Randy Newman, and an ending that is poignant and yet organic to the story, and Toy Story 4 more than makes the case for its own existence–an oddly meta aspect of a movie we’d never thought we’d want, but are now glad to have in the world.
Toy Story 4 is out in theaters on Friday, June 21.
Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye