For years, Disney Pixar has remained the leading animation studio in film. It has brought forth some of the most favored films of the century, including Finding Nemo, Up, and the perhaps the most beloved animated franchise of all time, Toy Story.
Toy Story‘s prolific integration into pop culture is a testament to its effortless comedy, innovative animation, and thematic universality. The surprise third entry, released in 2010, seemed to conclude the series so perfectly that the fourth film’s announcement left the public skeptical of its intention. Was this a cash grab? A sign that Pixar has lost its creative spirit?
The answer is decidedly no. Toy Story 4, while the weakest entry in the franchise, presents a strong, beautifully animated story that focuses on identity, moving forward and letting go of the past. It is the necessary catharsis many characters and fans of the franchise needed in order to move on from the acclaimed series.
The film largely places a spotlight on Woody, as he struggles to find his new role in an already established community. Beginning with a flashback to his glory days as the leader of Andy’s toys, the first act juxtaposes his past from his uncertain present. Woody’s lack of purpose is the launching point for a thrilling adventure that takes him and amazing new character Forky to never before seen heights in the franchise.
The plot of the film is very reminiscent of the first entry, with an updated environment and revolutionary visual palette making it a standalone project. The story, though at times burdened by the repetitive lost toy narrative, is equal parts superficially entertaining and deeply impactful. What the film lacks in novelty, it makes up for in emotional resonance and character.
Toy Story 4‘s greatest asset is its rich cast of characters. In fact, it’s the newly introduced characters who largely carry the team. From Tony Hale’s Forky to Key and Peele’s Ducky and Bunny, the new characters offer a welcome addition to the already crowded collection of toys in the franchise. Perhaps the most pleasant surprise is Keanu Reeves as Duke Caboom. These new characters inject a sense of wonder and unfamiliarity to the cast of characters fans have come to know in the decades since the franchise began.
With that said, one of the few disappointments is the lack of screen time these classic characters received. While Buzz Lightyear has moments of comedic gold and offers some assistance to the film’s narrative, he, Jessie and the others take a backseat to Woody and the new characters.
This change, however upsetting, is intentional, as this is a film about Woody. Further, the final act is nearly perfect, offering closure to fans of the series and wrapping up the franchise with grace and excitement. Surprising, epic, and emotional, the Pixar team manages to extend the franchise without burdening its already immaculate legacy.
Did Toy Story 4 need to be made? Perhaps not. Is it nevertheless wildly entertaining and reminiscent of the past heights of the franchise? Absolutely.