This review will have very mild spoilers for Toy Story 4
I was obsessed with Toy Story as a child. It frequently comes up at family get-togethers, about how I used to insist I had wings like Buzz Lightyear and was forever throwing myself off things. Toy Story 2 only improved on the formula, introducing new characters to fall in love with. Toy Story 3, by comparison, fell short of my expectations, but with everyone else raving about it, I eventually conceded that maybe I had just grown up. Having just watched Toy Story 4, I feel like I was right in my assessment the first time. The fourth instalment of this groundbreaking franchise sparked such emotion, I am not ashamed to say, that I was crying at points. 3 was a fine send-off. 4 is THE send-off.
The film got off to a slow start, making me momentarily concerned that it would just be retreading old ground, namely the dread of being a ‘forgotten toy’. Woody is relegated to this status, having been left in the wardrobe multiple times, and feels he now lacks purpose. This is only exacerbated when Bonnie makes a new friend from a spork and some pipe cleaner, affectionately naming him Forky. Forky is immediately elevated to favourite toy, causing Woody to sink deeper into his feelings of redundancy.
Forky, on the other hand, suffers an existential crisis over his existence; the handmade toy longs to go back in the bin where his components came from. Forever loyal, Woody makes it his mission to keep Forky safe, and in the process, impart what it means to be a toy, and the huge significant impact they can have on a child’s life.
“I don’t remember it being this hard”
It was only once the film had finished with the formality of setting up the premise that it really began to shine. With newly-created Forky made, and kindergarten orientation out of the way, Bonnie’s family decide to go on a road trip. It’s a somewhat cliche activity in family films, but it really granted Pixar the space, physically and in terms of storytelling, to go wild with their designs.
Firstly, the visuals are gorgeous. Pixar have always been good with animation — Toy Story was the first completely computer generated feature film — but here it felt like they’d taken another leap forwards. From the grains of sand in the sandpit, to the leaves, to the movement of the fluff on some of the toys, it was a joy to look at. Bright and colourful, the visuals alone will be enough to entertain children.
But Pixar has almost always succeeded in appealing to both children and adults, and I think this was the first Pixar film in a long time to really resonate with me. Go beyond the beautiful visuals and the great jokes, and you get to a story that is about identity, and moving on – themes very relatable to adults and those in their 20s, who are either struggling to find their place in the world, or are perhaps starting to see their own children grow independent.
All the classic characters are back for Toy Story 4, including Ham, Rex, Slinky Dog and Jessie, as well as all the other toys given to Bonnie at the end of the last film. Surprisingly though, most of them were merely incidental extras for large parts of the movie. Instead, this is a film ostensibly about Woody, as he wrestles with his reduced role in his child’s life. Even Buzz is sidelined, given an amusing but ultimately meandering subplot about finding his inner voice. I’m also sure they dumbed his character down, but maybe I’m imagining things.
It was a shame to see the characters we’ve loved and grown up with reduced to just hanging around, but it opened the door to new toys who were arguably more interesting. They had the space and depth to grow throughout the film, and actually go through a character arc.
Duke Caboom — voiced by the internet's favourite Canadian, Keanu Reeves — was a particular delight. Struggling with the mental anguish of not being able to live up to his advertised potential, he injected a sense of speed and energy to the film that stopped it getting too introspective. And Gabby Gabby, the film’s antagonist, is perhaps one of the most compelling villains Pixar has ever made. I won’t ruin it for you, but I really enjoyed how the film handled her arc.
I do wonder whether the marketing perhaps revealed too much. I felt like I largely knew each beat of the film, frequently recognising scenes from the trailers, and immediately knowing how it was going to play out. This is particularly true of fairground prizes Ducky & Bunny, who were both hilarious additions – although the film would have benefited from them being kept out of trailer altogether.
“He’s not lost, not anymore”
This film had a finality about this, a coming of age, an acceptance of change and an emphasis on moving on. To be fair, the third film did too, and many feel this was an unneeded sequel. I disagree. However, sometimes you have to let things go, and that is what this film declares in no uncertain terms.
As hard as it is to say, having had my love for it reignited, I think Pixar should let Toy Story go. Starting back in 1995, the franchise has only gone from strength to strength. Its latest instalment delivers a perfect endpoint for the characters, and I struggle to see how they could bring it back without it feeling insincere or forced.
Old or young, new to the franchise or a lifelong fan, Toy Story 4 is a must-see film.