In my opinion, the original Toy Story trilogy is one of the greatest film trilogies ever made. All 3 instalments of that trilogy are entertaining, heart-warming and a brilliant demonstration of the progress in computer animation. At their core, they are all about growing up and grappling with the world around you, which is perfectly bookended in Toy Story 3 when Andy leaves for college and passes his toys on to the new child, Bonnie. As somebody who has grown up alongside these films and was 13 when Toy Story 3 came out, I straight up cried watching it. I struggle upon every re-watch not to tear up. It is one of very few cases that I can think of where people found the third film in a trilogy to end that trilogy perfectly (in a list that includes such hits as Back to the Future Part 3 and Star Wars: The Return of the Jedi). So you can imagine my surprise when PIXAR Studios announced that it would be entering production on Toy Story 4, a mere 9 years later. Over the course of those 9 years, there were short films which returned us to Bonnie and the rest of the toys, and this seemed to be all we would ever get, which was and is absolutely fine, but apparently PIXAR had a bigger story that they needed to tell.
The plot follows Woody as he attempts to look after Bonnie’s new favourite toy- a spork named Forky- whilst on a family roadtrip. Along the way, Woody loses track of him in an antique store and is re-acquainted with his former one true love Bo Peep, who is existing as a Lost Toy. Together they embark on a mission to rescue Forky from the clutches of an antique doll named Gabby Gabby, who has a broken voice box and wants Woody’s as a replacement. The first thing you may notice about this plot description is that I have not mentioned the rest of the toys. Rex, Slinky, Jessie, The Potato Heads and all the rest have gone unmentioned, because whilst this is a Toy Story movie it might be more accurate to call it Woody: A Toy Story, which is not inherently a bad thing. Woody is a hugely entertaining and lovable character, but if PIXAR was just going to focus on him instead of the group I think the title should have reflected that. The other toys do have a subplot, but sadly it doesn’t have much to do with the main plot and it is a little sad to see these terrific characters sidelined. Nowhere is this more true than in the case of Buzz Lightyear.
Over the course of the Toy Story trilogy, Buzz has undergone some major character development. He’s gone from a deluded Space Ranger to accepting his place as a toy to being a great leader for the rest of the toys with his own moral compass. He is as much a fleshed out character as Woody is, but Toy Story 4 relegates him to being a punchline. His subplot is that he thinks his audio files (activated by the buttons on his chestplate) are his conscience, and that doesn’t track as character progression to me. That being said, when the film isn’t doing that he gets to have some genuinely good interactions with the rest of the cast, in particular the new plush toys Ducky and Bunny. These two characters are voiced by the always hilarious duo Keegan Michael Key and Jordan Peele, who bounce off of Buzz’s dialogue with ease, providing a really fun relationship. On top of this we have newcomer Duke Kaboom: Canada’s Greatest Stuntman who is a wind-up motorcyclist voiced by the soothing tones of Keanu Reeves. I actually had a similar toy during my childhood, so I can personally attest to how fun these toys can be- and how heartbreaking Duke’s story is. All behind the scenes information will tell you that this was supposed to be a small role, that supposedly Keanu had concocted so much backstory for that PIXAR fleshed out the role. I have nothing to say about this and this was purely an excuse to remind you all of how wonderful Keanu Reeves is.
The real stand out performances for me are the female leads Bo Peep and Gabby Gabby voiced by the effervescent Annie Potts and Christina Hendricks. Both characters have clearly decided what they want from life but have to amend their way of thinking. Bo is a Lost Toy who clearly enjoys living without an owner, and has concluded that this freedom is the best thing for all toys. She only helps to rescue Forky because she loves Woody, but in doing so she comes to realise that a child’s needs are just as important as her own. Gabby Gabby on the other hand wants nothing but to be played with by one girl named Harmony. When this does not go as she expected, she realises that she doesn’t need the love of one particular child but of whichever child chooses to love her. In essence, both Bo Peep and Gabby Gabby come to the conclusion that they can be played with and loved by anyone, but Gabby is willing to stay in one place for longer than Bo. Both characters are more similar to each other than they would admit, and so they start off disdainful of each other before their relationship progresses naturally. Again, Toy Story 4 only focusses on a few characters, but these stories are handled with real care and have as much heart as was present in any of the 3 previous films.
While we’re on the topic of “things that are present across the quadrilogy” it’s time to talk about composer Randy Newman. I really like his music and I think that it suits this franchise beautifully. You’ve Got a Friend in Me is so globally recognisable that I’m surprised that PIXAR haven’t made it their official theme like Disney with When You Wish Upon a Star. I’m also incredibly grateful that they haven’t, because it would completely alter that songs context and limit the way that PIXAR films can open (like the subtle Incredibles 2 opening). However there is a noticeable difference to me between the score for Toy Story 4 compared to the former trilogy and that is the amount of re-used music present. I am all for continuing musical motifs, and it is one of my favourite aspects of film scoring, but the blatant use of it here is really jarring to me. Operation Pull Toy and Buzz’s Flight are particularly guilty of this, but on the other hand the new pieces of score are as good as anything that he has previously composed. My personal favourites are School Daze and A Spork in the Road which hit all the right emotions.
Finally, I couldn’t do a PIXAR film without talking about the animation. I think that if you want an accurate timeline for this company’s progression in computer animation then the Toy Story quadrilogy provides 4 perfect snapshots. Toy Story in 1995 was their first full length feature film demonstrating where PIXAR started from. By the time Toy Story 2 was released in 200 the technology had improved so much that they had to rebuild the character models from the ground up. By Toy Story 3 in 2010 their human characters finally looked closer to humans than clones of Andy, and in Toy Story 4 you can see Woody’s stitching. I don’t think that this progress will ever cease to amaze me, and I hope that I never take any of this progress for granted.
Ultimately, the world did not need Toy Story 4. It was probably ever going to serve as the epilogue to an already close to perfect trilogy, but despite its flaws, it still has the heart that made this franchise great. Toy Story 4 was unnecessary but, frankly, I don’t think that matters. I don’t think it ever matters because while some people might not like it, we are always going to get sequels, prequels and reboots for as long as the cinema industry continues to exist. All we can hope for is that we enjoy them, and in the case of Toy Story 4, I did. It still made me feel emotions, and I would absolutely watch it again. As far as I’m concerned, that’s good enough to exist.
Until Next Time…