My love of the Toy Story franchise cannot be overstated, especially since Toy Story 3 became not only my favorite in the series, but my favorite movie of 2010. When the first Toy Story was released in 1995, it established Pixar Animation Studios as the industry standard for CG animated features, for visual impressiveness and storytelling power in equal measure; with Toy Story 2 in 1999, Pixar’s first-ever sequel proved that they were capable of sequels equal to their predecessor. But, a second sequel, eleven years after the last installment? Which was more emotionally affecting even than the previous to put together? The achievements of Toy Story 3 astonish me to this day.
So, I had mixed expectations for Toy Story 4 — and, in the end, somewhat mixed feelings about it after the fact. Could the lightning in a bottle they managed with a third film in a series, which still woks perfectly as the final installment of a trilogy, be repeated with a fourth installment? In short: no. But, it’s more complicated than that. Toy Story 4 feels like a revisit to a world we all love, and it is undeniably fun and emotionally affecting in its own right. But it also doesn’t not particularly innovate the story in any way, doesn’t move these characters’ universe any further forward than they had gone the last time around.
With eleven years between 2 and 3, and nine years between 3 and 4, there has been an average of ten years between the release of every Toy Story sequel. Entirely new generations of kids exist with the release of each new installment. It seems kind of fitting that much of this new one takes place inside an antique store. Granted, these toy characters have been talking about their conditions as antiques since the second film, but 4 contains a fully contained environment housing relics collecting dust. It feels like a vague allusion to this franchise itself, were they to continue making them.
Sadly, the truth is, of all four of these movies, Toy Story 4 is the least vital. Unlike the first three movies, this one doesn’t even have Andy as part of the narrative thread that connects them all — only the memory of him, which Woody (voiced, as everyone should know by now, by Tom Hanks) can’t learn to let go of. And strangely, even though Toy Story 3 aged its characters close to the amount of time passed between the Toy Story 2 and 3, Toy Story 4 starts with a flashback to “nine years ago” that would actually place it closer to the time of Toy Story 2. In the narrative of 4, Bonnie, the little girl Andy gifted all his toys to at the end of 3 as he headed off to college, is still the same little girl. It has a slightly discombobulating effect, a decade between movie releases but time passing that much in the story with one but not at all with the next.
But. But, but, but! I freely admit I am being nitpicky here. I can nitpick even more: if Bo Peep has been living such a wild outdoor life all this time at a carniva (Annie Potts, who voices the character, did not appear in Toy Story 3), how the hell does her porcelain face and clothes remain so clean and spotless? Pixar is usually better at attention to detail than this. But I’m digressing again! Because: seriously, so what? Toy Story 4 not being the truly great movie I wanted it to be certainly doesn’t change the quality entertainment it offers in its own right and on its own terms.
The new toy characters alone make this movie worth seeing. “Forky” (Tony Hale), a spork with googly eyes made by little Bonnie at kindergarten orientation, is a delightfully weird addition to the gang. Keanu Reeves voices Duke Caboom, a Canadian toy daredevil motorcycle rider with a hilarious amount of pride in himself. Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele show up as the voices of insanely cute and also unruly plush carnival prizes, a bird and a bunny, with overactive imaginations. An antique doll with a pull string but a malfunctioning motor that makes her borderline villainous in her desire for the working motor in Woody’s back, is voiced by Christian Hendricks.
And yes, of course, Tim Allen also returns as Buzz Lightyear, with an amusing running joke about considering his button-press recorded sayings his “inner voice.” Pretty much all the rest of the regular toys return as well, particularly Bo Peep, here basically getting a co-lead part in the story.
Thus, as you might imagine, a whole lot is going on in this movie. It’s an hour and forty minutes long, and it zips along so quickly it feels much shorter than that. And, I must also admit, the more I think about it after the fact, the greater my appreciation for it becomes. That doesn’t make it any more vital as an addition to the series, but it does illustrate that not a single moment of time is wasted watching it either. As with its predecessors, I will no doubt by happy to go see it again.
As always, I must mention the animation. It is as impressive as ever, and here easily the most impressive part of the film — pretty on-brand for Pixar. Because Bonnie’s family has chosen to take a road trip in the interim between kindergarten orientation and the official start of the school year, the majority of the story takes place first on the road, and then at the aforementioned carnival — only a fraction of it takes place in Bonnie’s bedroom. And this carnival allows for some spectacular visual backdrops, the lights, the colors, the spinning rides, the occasional fireworks. This could easily have been a sensory overload, but the animators here present it with a unique beauty, often as deliberately blurred background for the action of the story. It’s animation that looks remarkably like a location shoot.
I suppose these flourishes are increasingly necessary, lest the repetition of the conceit, that toys get misplaced and must find their way back to their kids, get stale. It’s true that these stories are really just variations on the same basic concepts — but then, aren’t all stories? The joy is in the details, and this is a film with plenty such joy to offer.