A current Hollywood truism: franchises and studios can’t leave well-enough alone, especially Disney. In 2019, Disney’s output amounts to mediocre releases of Aladdin, Dumbo, and technically Dark Phoenix. Avengers Endgame, so far, is the only clear success. And when Toy Story 4 arrived, no one wanted it. Toy Story is one of the great trilogies, and Part 3 ended so perfectly and succinctly that Part 4 could only disappoint. Except, the film doesn’t. Surprisingly, Toy Story 4 triumphs. Director Josh Cooley‘s installment is the most beautifully animated and shot of the series: a pure hilarious delight, and concludes on a more devastating and truthful note than Toy Story 3.
Part 4 opens darkly. The film flashes back to nine years earlier, when Woody and co. were still Andy’s toys. A rainstorm rages outside; RV clings trapped in a gutter, holding on against rain water rushing into a sewer. Woody (Tom Hanks) devises a plan to save him, and while the team prevails, they lose more than they bargain for that night when Bo Peep (Annie Potts) is sold by Molly to a new owner, causing Woody to make an impossible choice.
Back to the present day, Woody, Buzz (Tim Allen), Rex (Wallace Shawn), Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head (Don Rickles, from archival sound and Estelle Harris), Jessie (Joan Cusack), Bull’s Eye, Hamm (John Ratzenberger), and Slinky (Blake Clark) are now Bonnie’s toys. However, Woody isn’t THE toy. Rarely picked for playtime, he occupies a dusty closet. Though not in charge, Dolly (Bonnie Hunt) runs the show now, Woody, through years of experience, still knows what a kid needs and feels. And when the first day of kindergarten comes for Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw), and she’s scared, he sneaks away in a bookbag to offer support. There, out of trash: a plastic spork, red and blue pipe cleaners, and a Popsicle stick, Bonnie creates Forky (Tony Hale): her new favorite toy.
Cooley’s film, and Stephany Folsom and Andrew Stanton‘s screenplay, take the toys out of the city and into small-town America. Toy Story 4 exceeds 3 in terms of animation: The textures, colors, and control of lighting exhibit an incredible command of composition not seen since the glory days of Disney. The depth of field consistently consumes a breathtaking range of sights: forests, roads, carnivals, and shops — with fuller frames rendered to impossible detail. The camera movement too, relying on intricate and extended tracking shots impresses. Toy Story 4 is a landmark achievement in the pure creation of computer animation.
Additionally, Toy Story 4 combines a couple prevalent themes from the previous installments: sentience and a “toy’s purpose.” Forky inhabits both, suicidally tossing himself into the trash because he believes he is trash. The character’s simple disposition infectiously captures hearts, and more than existentialism, Forky might represent a model of depression delivered in heartwarming, yet comedic fashion. Nevertheless, during Bonnie’s family trip, Forky’s suicidal tendencies get the best of him, jumping out of the RV’s window to “freedom.” Woody must then rescue the new toy and return him to Bonnie, knowing how much comfort the spork brings to the young girl.
Folsom and Stanton’s script also adds new dimensions to Buzz. Woody confides to the space ranger that an inner voice speaks to him, guiding the sheriff in times of trouble. Buzz misinterprets the inner-voice as his programmed catch phrases. In some sense, the character reverts to the one we see in the first Toy Story. Perpetually turning to his buttons for counseling, he’s endearing, “dimwitted,” and hilarious. The script pushes Buzz back into a leadership position, an area he’s initially uncomfortable to occupy.
And there’s also Woody and Gabby Gabby’s (Christina Hendricks) allegorical arc. A porcelain doll left on the shelves of “Second Chance Antiques” — located in a small town where Bonnie’s family’s RV is parked — Gabby Gabby craves the affection of Harmony. In Toy Story 4, every doll and plaything searches for a human to call their own. “There’s no higher purpose.” And for Gabby Gabby, Harmony is that perfect little girl. The doll, created with a defective voicebox, supported by creepy ventriloquist dolls, commands the shop, foraging for a new voicebox in the hopes of earning Harmony’s affection. And one enters, when Woody, traveling with Forky, notices Bo Beep’s lamp in the window. Gabby Gabby’s sole desire becomes taking Woody’s voicebox.
Other toys also occupy this small town. As Buzz hunts for Woody, he teams with two darkly homicidal plush dolls from a carnival game: Ducky (Keegan-Michael Key) and Bunny (Jordan Peele). They’re also searching for a child’s love, but their morbid tendencies offers up one of the best reoccurring bits of the film.
However, it’s Woody reuniting with Bo Beep that signifies the major theme of Toy Story 4: feminism. Unlike Captain Marvel, Dumbo, or Aladdin, the employment isn’t heavy-handed. Woody discovers Bo Beep living “childless:” A mountain woman surviving in the wild with her own wits and toughness. No more the soft-talking eye candy, she often takes charge of situations and more often than not, knows better than Woody. Perfectly happy without the sheriff, assuredly content without a child (a definite piece of symbolism by the screenwriters), her love for him consumes her, but doesn’t define her.
On the other hand, Toy Story 4 also forces Woody to take a backseat to the stronger female toys around him: whether Dolly or Bo Peep. Bumbling into danger, on a few occasions, nearly costs the sheriff everything. In some ways, Toy Story 4 is a story about grief, Woody’s grief. Woody must battle his own male insecurities and figure out the purpose of a life without Andy.
In the meantime, the two: Bo Peep and Woody, and ultimately Buzz, Ducky, Bunny, and Duke Kaboom (Keanu Reeves) — a daredevil toy haunted by the memory of his former child, commanded by another memorable Reeves performance — must spring into Second Chance Antiques, save Forky from Gabby Gabby, and return him to Bonnie.
Toy Story 4 brings the film back to the pure definition of its title. This story is Woody’s story, and the ending is a tearjerker and a bigger emotional rollercoaster than Toy Story 3. The final 10 minutes, in particular, devastates tear ducts. The concluding scenes rope together the enduring components of the films: the fears and feelings felt by children, and those same emotions mapped onto toys. While Part 3‘s attraction comes as pure nostalgic fan service, as a film, Part 4 exceeds the former in every single facet. A beautifully animated, poignant, and hilarious conception, with every character crafted to better individualized endings, and a more significant multi-dimensional story, Cooley and co. accomplish the impossible and take a perfect ending and make it even more perfect: to infinity and beyond.