Toy Story 4: On the Island of Misfit Sequels, by Tyler Smith
When it was announced several years ago that there would be a third Toy Story film, I was wary. The first two were so effective–stylistically, emotionally, and thematically–that for Pixar to return to the franchise after more than a decade seemed almost desperate. Surely, these characters had gone as far as they could go, right? With so many great films already released – including Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Wall-e, Ratatouille, Up – surely Pixar wasn’t lacking in imagination and didn’t need to dredge up its flagship for a third time. Of course, we all know how that turned out. Toy Story 3 was not only a vital part of the trilogy but also a masterpiece of animation; an example of just how sophisticated a “family film” can be.
And so, when Pixar announced the production of a fourth film, my instinct was to, once again, question its reason for being. With the series so perfectly and thoughtfully wrapped up, where else could they go at this point? But then I reminded myself of just how wrong I was about Toy Story 3 and I went in with an open mind and open heart.
Unfortunately, it turns out that my initial concern was correct. While there are many enjoyable aspects of Toy Story 4, the film doesn’t add much to the larger story of Woody, Buzz, and the rest of the characters we’ve come to know and love. The film is, instead, a delightful diversion that never quite justifies its own existence.
The story picks up in Bonnie’s room, where our characters have been living peacefully for several years. Unfortunately, the ever-neurotic Woody (Tom Hanks) has noticed just how little he is being played with. The other toys comfort him but he is inconsolable. Nonetheless, he tries to stick by Bonnie despite her growing indifference to him. He accompanies her on her first day of kindergarten and sees her create a new toy named Forky (Tony Hale) out of a plastic spork, some pipe cleaner, and glue. Bonnie’s personal connection with her new makeshift toy makes it all the more dire when Forky eventually needs to be rescued, leading Woody into the dangerous world of lost toys, helped along the way by Bo Peep (Annie Potts), the porcelain figure whose absence from the third film was loaded with meaning and sadness. Of course, along the way, Woody encounters various other toys whose intense desire to “get a kid” mirrors Woody’s desperation to be loved by one.
Of course, this all fits in very well with the larger Toy Story universe, where toys are defined largely by their relationship to living children. The instinct to explore those toys that have no such relationship is a good one, but the story never quite adds up to anything more than an interesting sidenote; a fun-but-forgettable asterisk within the franchise. The story itself is little more than a series of enjoyable action sequences with little to anchor them beyond Woody’s own persistence, which actually becomes a bit tiresome as the film goes on. By limiting the action primarily to Woody and several new characters, and sidelining the gang that we’re more familiar with, the film feels like an ungrounded one-off; like one of those ancillary Toy Story short films that precedes other Pixar releases, but padded out to feature length.
Is the film recommendable? Absolutely. It features dazzling animation and entertaining setpieces. And it is by far the flat-out funniest of the series. But despite some good work by Hanks, it lacks the heart of the first three films. It certainly attempts to deepen the world but in ways that feel more perfunctory than organic. In the end, it is a perfectly enjoyable way to spend an afternoon but, as a film that would attempt to live up to the emotional complexity of its predecessors, it falls regrettably short. After the brilliance of the third film, any subsequent entry in the franchise was always going to run the risk of being ignored. The problem with Toy Story 4 is that it so easily can be.