Following the studio’s great accomplishment in the wake of the immaculate Toy Story 3, Pixar repeatedly stated that it had no plans to continue the series if it couldn’t put together something worthy enough. Only a few years later, John Lasseter was teeming with inspiration for a fourth film, and after whipping up a star team of writers including Andrew Stanton, Will McCormack, and Rashida Jones, was set to direct in the series for the fourth time.
Cut to 2017, the #MeToo movement, and multiple resounding allegations of inappropriate workplace misconduct and Lasseter steps down from the project, along with Jones and McCormack from a very likely related conflict stemming from “philosophical differences.” All this creative mess aside, Toy Story 4 is a film that, for me, wasn’t wanted, and certainly less needed, but still comes out in tip-top condition.
Nine years have passed since the release of Toy Story 3, but this sequel picks up soon after the college-bound Andy gifts his collection of dear toys to his kindergartner neighbor, Bonnie. Unfortunately for the previous favorite, Woody, Bonnie finds room to play with all her new toys except for him, but he soldiers on by looking for new ways to take care of his ditzy owner.
After sneaking into class with her, Woody is one day witness to the creation of a new toy, Forky, and he goes on to teach the talking spork the ins and outs of being a toy on a road trip, though not with some resistance. Forky hurls himself out of the family RV, and seeing how smitten Bonnie is with her new creation, Woody follows him into the wilderness to take him home. On the road back, the two toys take a detour into a pawn shop and run into the long-lost love of the cowboy’s life, Bo Peep.
More than the other three movies preceding it, Toy Story 4 has a weirdly existential vibe to it, and the movie gets stranger and stranger the more thought you put into it. With a crisis-bound Woody in the lead, along with newcomer Forky’s self-reflections about being trash (his words), the film puts deceptively deep ideas about purpose and meaningful existence together that should for no reason work as well or as accessibly as they do. Carrying on through Bo Peep’s part in the narrative and the refreshing antagonist Gabby Gabby (and her joyously creepy set of ventriloquist dummy goons), the sheer craftsmanship at work in the film gives and gives without faltering. It really shouldn’t be a surprise that the geniuses at Pixar one-up themselves in that regard for the fourth time in this series alone (with toys, of all things!), but the writing truly is as incredible as ever.
Toy Story 4 also keeps packing the same devastating emotional punch that hits as hard as ever after twenty-four years of filmmaking, a credit again going to the excellent writing, but also one heavily carried by Randy Newman’s heart-rending fourth score for the series (and ninth for the studio). Even with Lasseter gone and the rough initial production, director Josh Cooley’s storied time at Pixar proves learned; he and his writing team wholeheartedly understand the material as Cooley’s feature-length debut goes off without a hitch.
It doesn’t hurt that Toy Story 4 also boasts what are probably the best visuals Pixar has pumped out yet. A good chunk of the film takes place in darker, warmer environments appropriate to its tone, a contrast that goes nicely against the more vibrant, popping colors of the past three entries. The Pixar animation team outdoes itself for the umpteenth time, taking its look further still by mixing the rich new hues with dazzling lighting bouncing off the homey pawn shop’s décor and Bo Peep’s shimmering porcelain body.
And yes, the voicework holds up as perfectly as you’d expect in conjuncture to the animation. Tom Hanks delivers an incredible range of emotion as the existentially lost Woody, a matter beautifully upped by his sparkling chemistry with Annie Potts’ vibrant return as a developed, much more interesting Bo Peep.
The rest of the typical cast is strong as ever, Tim Allen, Joan Cusack, etc., but the film’s strongest voicework comes from its fantastic lineup of newcomers. The iconic duo of Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele are as relentlessly energetic in plush toy form as you’d expect, churning out stupidly entertaining one-liners and gags at the drop of a dime. And in addition to the chillingly captivating Gabby Gabby voiced by Christina Hendricks alongside Tony Hale’s existentially challenged Forky, the 2019 Keanu-ssance continues with Keanu Reeves’ charming inclusion as the Canadian stuntman action figure, Duke Caboom.
At the end of the day, Toy Story 4 really is another pretty seamless Pixar masterpiece, just with a mildly sized “but” punctuating it. Given how perfectly Toy Story 3 ended the trilogy, the very existence of 4 is bittersweet as it somewhat steps on the tonal, character, and definitively conclusive narrative arcs of 3. The finality of the third film is soured just a little in exchange for a great epilogue to an already flawless epilogue, so despite its quality, it’s a little hard to appreciate the gift of Toy Story 4 without looking the film in the mouth.