Warning: contains spoilers for Toy Story 4 (2019).
The third entry in Pixar’s now 24-year-old Toy Story saga had seemed like the perfect send-off for Woody, Buzz, Jessie and the gang upon its release nine years ago, bringing our heroes to terms with their own mortality and tying up remaining plot threads along the way – it just didn’t seem like we needed a Toy Story 4. By then even, despite its still present charm and whimsy, the franchise was beginning to show signs of wear; how yet another outing could succeed in living up to its predecessors, find a new story to tell, and avoid coming off like a blatant cash grab all seemed a bit too much for my cynicism to handle. It was hard, initially, to avoid drawing comparisons between Toy Story 4 and the series’ earlier offerings, after all this is the genre Pixar first helped popularise in the ’90s. After surpassing a few initial narrative hurdles though, Toy Story 4 begins to chart its own course. While it’s no Toy Story 2, the fourth entry in the series is fun, nostalgic, and surprisingly mature.
One of many fresh faces, the introduction of the hysterical Forky – a farrago of discarded craft items, given sentience when Bonnie builds him in kindergarten – is what kicks off the narrative, after the film at first retreads some ground previously covered by its predecessors. In being born from trash Forky craves nothing more than to find relief in the warm comfort of the rubbish bin, so when he tosses himself out the window of the family’s RV, Woody gives chase in an effort to save him, happenstantially bumping into Bo Peep (voiced by the standout Annie Potts) – a notable absence in the third film, her fate is detailed in the film’s beautiful cold open – on the way. After abandoning her owners, Bo has refashioned her image into one of a kick-ass renegade, finding a new purpose in life beyond being loved by a kid.
Through Bo, we are introduced to mustachioed stuntman Duke Caboom – lended a wonderful Dorkiness by Keanu Reeves – embarrassingly incapable of performing his advertised daredevil jumps, aswell as Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), a defective pullstring doll – eerily reminiscent of The Twilight Zone’s ‘Talking Tina’ – who serves as an interesting ‘anti-villain’ of sorts, having never known a child’s love. Meanwhile Buzz encounters the hilarious Key and Peele-voiced Ducky and Bunny, all but unwinnable prizes in a rigged carnival game. The new character roster lends the film a bout of new interpretations of what is ultimately the story’s nexus: a toy’s true purpose – and by extension, the meaning of life. While past entries played around with a very tangible separation anxiety, Toy Story 4 carefully treads across what is now a complete narrative minefield, focusing on sentience and obsolescence – is there a life for a toy beyond being… a toy? After 24 years, even our lead hero finds a new emotional arc to complete: finally taking control of his own destiny rather than devoting his life to the pleasure of his owner.
However, the film’s provocative themes only really occurred to me once the credits had rolled (make sure to wait until the very end). Watching the film itself was a nostalgic experience; once it had found its feet, I was chuckling and weeping the same as I did a decade ago. The animation studio’s visuals have come along way since my first Pixar, Finding Nemo in 2003, and are first-rate as usual. Gags land with exceptional precision and emotions are sparked like magic with refined proficiency. As I left my seat, I was happy in the knowledge that Toy Story‘s reputation had not been tarnished, but that we should really leave it alone now.