Just when you thought play time was over, Toy Story is back. Nine years after concluding their critically-acclaimed and widely-popular animated trilogy, Pixar has produced yet another emotional capper to a masterful series of films that already had one. While inessential and unasked for, Toy Story 4 is another rousing instant classic up to par with some of the studio’s best, even if it doesn’t reach the delirious heights of the unprecedented three films that precede it. With state-of-the-art animation and lively new characters, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better sequel you didn’t need.
Following Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs from 1937, there has never been a film as impactful on the film industry as 1995’s Toy Story. Not only did Pixar produce the first-ever feature-length film using computer-generated imagery, they pioneered the technology to do so. It’s as if Picasso invented the canvas. Toy Story wasn’t just a technical marvel that propelled the art of motion pictures leaps and bounds forward, it was a masterpiece from a storytelling standpoint; an ambitious concept with instantly iconic characters, and sparkling humor.
As CGI quickly became the standard not only in animation but in live action films, Pixar grew to become the behemoth it is today, and defied any reasonable expectation to produce two sequels to Toy Story that both matched the original in terms of technical as well as artistic merit. Tory Story 2 expanded the world of Toy Story by adding new characters and traveling farther from the walls of Andy’s room than ever before, and Toy Story 3 cleverly riffed on old-time prison-break movies in a daycare center with an intensely poignant emotional climax no one saw coming.
With Andy growing up, moving to college and donating the core group of toys to the likes of little Bonnie, Toy Story was perfectly positioned to ride out into the sunset in spectacular fashion, leading our beloved characters into a new chapter to provide fans chances both for closure and to imagine future adventures for the varied playthings. With the occasional half-hour t.v. specials known as Toy Story Treats, one would think the shorts such as Toy Story of Terror! would be enough to tide the creators over, but it turns out the studio had one more delightful classic up its sleeve.
In Toy Story 4, Woody (Tom Hanks) and Buzz (Tim Allen), are adjusting to life with their new owner and fellow toys at Bonnie’s house (Madeleine McGraw). The transition is especially difficult for Woody, who is used to being the favorite toy and in charge, and is now spending a lot of time forgotten in the closet. He’s also grieving his separation from Andy the way an empty-nester might miss their grown child who has moved away from home. On the day of Bonnie’s Kindergarten orientation, he stows away in her backpack for an opportunity to help his kid.
At Kindergarten, Bonnie is anxious and nervous to meet the other children, so Woody devises a way to make her more comfortable by providing her with some art supplies. With a plastic spork, some googly eyes and some pipe cleaners, Bonnie creates a new friend: Forky! (Tony Hale). Forky quickly becomes Bonnie’s new favorite toy. The utensil is desperate to escape, however, so Woody is dedicated to keeping him around. With Bonnie and her parents embarking on a family vacation before she starts school, his job is about to become much more difficult.
As this is a film 24 years into the advent of CGI animation within the series that started it, you’ll find the technology has come a long way. That’s abundantly clear as soon as the opening scene, where the toys boast a level of detail that is far beyond that of the original Toy Story, complete with reflective surfaces that were previously impossible. An early sequence immerses the viewer into a stunning scene of epic peril in which the toys are racing to carry out a task in a rainstorm, a feat that demonstrates that Pixar is still able to impress in their third decade of operation.
Toy Story 4 then introduces two major locations that serve as rich new environments to further explore the world of anthropomorphic toys: a carnival and an old antique store, which effectively offset each other to furnish a distinct visual aesthetic for the film. The carnival offers a vibrant yet smoky playground of vivid colors and tasty cotton candy without getting too garish, and the antique store Second Chance offers a dusty and dank host of horrors ruled by a doll (Christina Hendricks) with a broken voice box commanding an army of unsettling dummies.
The Annabelle–esque Gabby Gabby of the antique shop is similar in concept to Lots-O’-Huggin’ Bear (Ned Beatty) of the daycare in Toy Story 3, though she is differentiated with an arc that takes a turn you might not expect. Keanu Reeves shines as the motorcycled daredevil figurine Duke Kaboom, who is hilariously inspired after the actors’ abilities with stuntwork in films like John Wick. Tony Hale is endlessly-amusing, yet underused as the twitchy Forky, and famed comedy duo Keagan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele entertain as carnival prizes Ducky and Bunny.
The antics are predictably a blast, but this material is aging, and that is no more evident than in Woody’s situation in this third sequel. The old cowboy doll has been through all of this and then some, but like the filmmakers, he’s struggling to hang up his hat, unable to let go of the kid he played a role in raising. His determination in retaining a sense of purpose is heavily compelling, as is his reunion with Bo Peep (Annie Potts). Toy Story 3 may have been the perfect place for Pixar to finish things off, but you may never see an unnecessary sequel as fulfilling as Toy Story 4.