Back in 1995, animated classic Toy Story explored the premise of how the relationship between children and their toys can define a childhood. And as the trailblazing movie rose to historic relevance and wide acclaim, it also demonstrated the potential for movies themselves to be a central aspect of one’s childhood. For me, it was that original Toy Story movie that had such an impact on me, a movie I virtually memorized line-for-line and one which has not faded from my memory after all these years (it ranks number 5 on my all-time list). Sure, the movie’s animation is outdated by today’s standards, but the movie still managed to create an authentic and engaging world with relatable characters like Woody and Buzz. The movie’s soundtrack brings up just as many memories of my childhood as the movie itself.
So I was naturally hesitant when I heard rumblings of a fourth installment to the Toy Story saga. I counted down the days until another Pixar sequel, Incredibles 2, but given the Toy Story trilogy’s neat and emotional ending in 2010, there seemed to be more potential for the new movie to detract rather than add. Though I didn’t come in with massive expectations, I did come with a strong emotional attachment to the saga and its iconic characters. And from a movie standpoint, it was a well-crafted, interesting film, one that was well worth the price of admission. But to the Toy Story fanatic and kid in me, I left the theater short of satisfied and grasping for something more.
Toy Story 4’s protagonist, Woody, spends the opening act of the film on a mission to protect Forky, a recent creation of Woody’s owner Bonnie, as Bonnie’s family embarks on a road trip before her kindergarten year begins. In his quest, Woody meets new allies and enemies and reunites with Bo Peep, a central figure from the original movie. Along the way, he and the movie’s other characters grapple with what it means to be a toy.
What Toy Story 4 does well, it does extremely well. The animation is stunning and attractive, and the new settings of a carnival/road trip are a refreshing touch to the Toy Story movies. Some of the sequences are simply jaw-dropping and are a galaxy beyond what the original Toy Story accomplished. The humor doesn’t miss a beat with new characters like Key and Peele’s Ducky and Bunny and Keanu Reeves’ Duke Caboom, and the film’s soundtrack does a similarly masterful job of mixing the old and the new. The best praise I can give the movie is that it’s authentic and truly creative, characteristics we see too infrequently in today’s box office flicks. For me, the emotional punch of this movie topped the conclusion of Toy Story 3, which is no small feat.
That punch is powerful, and its impact is what soured me on seeing Toy Story 4 as up to par with its predecessors. Without giving too much away in spoilers, the choppy plot explored the morality and purpose that the toys see in themselves. It was a heavy topic that made me think, but one that bogged down the movie and tried excessively to pour doses of emotion into the plot. And unlike the previous three movies, Toy Story 4 deviated from the relationships that made the first three movies so magical and, as a result, the joy of Toy Story movies just wasn’t there. There were plenty of playful jokes and inventive animations that would make this seem like a movie for younger audiences, but its tone felt more sobering than hopeful. And sometimes, reality hurts- Toy Story 4 is no different. The resolution felt like a let-down that left me with many questions and some unsatisfying answers and sent the Toy Story saga in a direction that felt distant from the one that made it so special.
Pixar has recently released a boatload of sequels, and most of these have been conservative and inside the lines. Toy Story 4 was different, and I respect the filmmakers for trying for something more than just a cash grab. I’d even consider the movie to be one of the best of the year and a great achievement in many ways. But the direction the filmmakers took and the deviance from what made Toy Story such a crucial part of my childhood make me question whether this fourth Toy Story installment was a story that really needed to be told.
Rating: 81 out of 100, 12th out of 21 Pixar movies