Is there a better tetralogy of films than the recently completed (?) Toy Story franchise? It’s a question I didn’t immediately ponder upon viewing Toy Story 4, but in the days that followed it’s something I’ve started to consider. I’m not sure what the most famous tetralogy is, but my mind first went to the Indiana Jones franchise. While that one is quite good, I think most would agree the fourth film is okay at best. After that, and it gets murky for me. There’s a lot of trilogy franchises that were turned into four films like The Hunger Games and Twilight. I’ve seen The Hunger Games, I’ve never bothered with Twilight, but I don’t think many would argue for either as being great. There’s also Avengers, but that feels like another beast entirely given how interconnected it is with other Marvel films. And then there are a bunch of former trilogies turned into long-running franchises like Star Wars that took themselves beyond four films.
I’m surely missing out on some and there’s probably a good tetralogy or two I’m spacing on, but I’m having a hard time finding a worthy contender to what Pixar has done with its Toy Story franchise. It’s surprising how successful it has been considering Pixar never even envisioned doing a sequel. Disney all but mandated Toy Story 2 be a thing because of how successful the original was. It even started as a direct-to-video feature that earned a theatrical release and, for many, is the most beloved entry in the series. Toy Story 3 surprised and delighted movie-goers in 2010 and seemed to put a bow on the franchise as it dealt with the toys moving on from their beloved owner, Andy. A few TV specials have emerged since and it seemed like that’s where Toy Story was destined to reside. Then the world was surprised in 2014 when Toy Story 4 was officially confirmed as in development.
Toy Story 4 had probably the most treacherous development cycle (though most treacherous moment still belongs to Toy Story 2 when that film was accidentally deleted) of any of the films in the series thus far. A lot of writers came and went and the picture was delayed a year not once, but twice. John Lasseter was unceremoniously dumped by Disney and Pixar following some allegations of inappropriate conduct which was made worse when actress/writer Rashida Jones left the picture citing a disagreement on where the story was heading and renewing concerns that Pixar was not a great place for women creators. Given the turmoil behind the scenes, and the already high bar set by the previous films, it would not have been at all surprising if Toy Story 4 turned out to be a bust in the end. Pixar has a tremendous track record, but a similarly troubled picture like The Good Dinosaur wasn’t able to overcome development hell.
Unlike The Good Dinosaur, this is Toy Story. This is the franchise that essentially made Pixar was it is today and it’s these characters that the company will be most identified by for as long as humans are around and talking about movies. There was likely a different kind of focus behind the scenes and a determination by those involved to make sure that this movie did not harm the reputation of the studio and the franchise as a whole. A lot of credit seems to be going to Andrew Stanton who has helmed several Pixar projects and director Josh Cooley, who was selected by Lasseter to helm his first feature-length project. Further credit should also go to these wonderful characters created by Pixar who quite simply refuse to stop being so damn charming and interesting despite appearing in now four films where the plot is nearly the same in all four with just slight variations on the setup.
Several years ago I ranked Pixar’s 10 best features and selected Toy Story 3 as my favorite in the Toy Story trilogy. It’s still my favorite, but following it I also had no idea how the franchise could go on. Well, that’s not entirely true. Pixar could have easily just stitched together another adventure only now instead of Andy in the background it’s Bonnie. After all, at their core all four films are just the toys getting lost and having to find their way back. That, however, isn’t really Pixar’s philosophy. Their features have purpose, and for Toy Story 4 the concept of self-identity and self worth are its purpose and main story. And the vehicle for that story is Woody (Tom Hanks), who was once the favorite toy of Andy but is now a cast-off in the eyes of Bonnie. He’s going to be paired up with newcomer Forky (Tony Hale), a spork turned into a toy via Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw) who has a hard time coming to grips with the fact that he’s no longer a discarded utensil but an actual toy.
Bonnie takes an immediate liking to Forky, and at least for the duration of the film, Forky is her new favorite toy. Forky though considers himself trash and all he wants is to be thrown away. It’s up to Woody to make sure that doesn’t happen. It’s a task Woody gives himself because he has no other purpose at the moment and he’s not even willing to share the responsibility of safeguarding Forky, which becomes quite a problem when the family hits the road for a good old fashioned RV vacation.
The film opens with a flashback revealing what happened to Woody’s old flame Bo Peep (Annie Potts), the porcelain doll who adorned a lamp belonging to Andy’s sister Molly. She disappeared between Toy Story 2 and 3, and in Toy Story 4 she is reintroduced as a lost toy. During an attempted escape from the RV by Forky, Woody and he end up on their own in search of the RV. During that time they happen across an antiques store where Woody recognizes Bo Peep’s lamp in the window, but without Bo Peep. He’ll eventually find her, and the film turns into a story about Woody and Bo Peep that’s essentially a G-rated rom-com.
Along the way, new toys will be introduced like Keanu Reeves’ Duke Caboom, a dare devil motorcycle toy with confidence issues, and the comedic duo of Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele voice Ducky and Bunny, a pair of carnival prizes looking for an owner of their own. Old favorites like Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) and Jessie (Joan Cusack) are here as well, but they play very minor roles compared with past films. Really, only Buzz has a substantial role as the others are mostly left waiting on the RV absent from the adventure being experienced by Woody. It’s something that does not read well in a review, or at least it wouldn’t had I read any reviews going into seeing this film, but I honestly did not miss those characters even if I mostly adored them in the prior films. That’s a testament to the engrossing nature of the film’s main plot, the questions it asks, and the stakes it creates.
Those stakes are partially created by outside forces. There’s a sense of finality going into this film, as there was with Toy Story 3, which makes it feel like almost anything could happen. And then there was also the impossible to avoid press on the film (even by someone like me who does his best to avoid such) in which Tim Allen and Tom Hanks openly talked about the emotional ending to the film. That had people speculating wildly on what could happen, and it was in the back of my mind while viewing the film. Even so, probably around the one-hour mark in the movie I could see where the picture was headed. That did not diminish my enjoyment of the film, though it probably contributed to my finding of the film’s resolution less emotional than its predecessor.
Toy Story 3 is a film that hit me right in the feels, so Toy Story 4 not matching that level of emotion is hardly a negative. It would have been hard to pull that off, but what Toy Story 4 did manage to do in terms of topping the prior films is up the comedy. This is, especially in the first half of the film, the funniest Toy Story movie yet. A lot of that comes from Forky who is basically suicidal, in a sense. I was quite skeptical of the character going into this one, but he absolutely won me over and he basically steals every scene he’s involved with. Ducky and Bunny also lend a certain level ludicrousness to this one that wasn’t found in past installments, or really in any Pixar film I can think of. I’m curious how much, if any, ad-libbing Key and Peel were allowed to do for their characters as it feels like their brand of humor certainly had an influence on their parts. Reeves is more charming than truly funny as Duke Caboom and Kristen Schaal’s Trixie is also good for a chuckle when she’s around.
Toy Story 4 is not only the funniest film in the series, it might also be the scariest. While there is no moment where all of the toys look like they’re going to perish in a fire as there was in Toy Story 3, there’s some pretty scary imagery that may freak out the younger members of the audience. In particular is the army of old school ventriloquist dummies which occupy space in the antiques store. Those puppets, like clowns, are never not scary so when they’re trying to be terrifying it works. The film’s villain, Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), is quietly unsettling as well and I always felt a feeling of discomfort when she was around, similar to Lotso from Toy Story 3.
The scary and the funny moments are just entertainment beats along the way to telling the story of Woody and Bo Peep. They have quite the adventure in this picture not unlike the past ones and everything looks quite spectacular along the way. The leap in terms of visuals from Toy Story 3 to 4 isn’t as impressive as what we saw in going from 2 to 3, but it’s still noticeable and this is a high point for Pixar. Whether it’s the toys or the few humans on display, this picture is marvelous to look at. The action pieces are thrilling and the novelty of viewing a world through the eyes of a toy has yet to grow stale. While I do think some liberties were taken in this picture in terms of the actions of the toys going unseen by the humans they share space with, it never diminished my enjoyment of the film.
I have heard there’s some disappointment amongst the fanbase in how this film resolves itself and some of the plot points it took to get there, but I can’t say I share them. Is this the story I would have told had I been given the keys to the franchise? Probably not, but I also would never be put in that position, and with good reason. I never desired to find out what happened to Bo Peep, just as I don’t really care what happened to Weezy or that shark who momentarily wore Woody’s hat in the first film, but Pixar created a story and a film centered on Bo Peep and it works. She is everything Woody fears as she’s a lost toy who is beholden to no owner, and Woody has to struggle to understand that world view. I get a sense some are disappointed to see that Bonnie has also essentially discarded the cowboy she appeared to love in Toy Story 3. To those I say how many of you continued to love every toy you received as a four-year-old? It would be more improbable for that four-year-old girl to continue to adore an old cowboy as opposed to finding something new (and in this it’s clearly established that she prefers Jessie to Woody). And while it’s unlikely any child would continue to love and adore a plastic spork turned into a toy, it’s totally probable in the short-term. I know my own kids have professed to love a Happy Meal toy or something similar for a few days or a week at most only for it to wind up under a bed or in a toy box for months on end (and then when I go to get rid of it they suddenly love it all over again).
As it is, I find nothing improbable about the film’s overall plot, aside from it being about sentient toys. I accept the story for what it is, and found the film delightfully entertaining for its entire duration. There are parts that made me a touch uncomfortable with where these characters were going, but good films and stories should do that. They should challenge the viewer and take them out of their comfort zone at times, otherwise what’s the point?
Naturally, folks will debate what is the best movie in this franchise. It’s perhaps too soon to tell, but I do think Toy Story 4 is probably going to be the least liked film in the series, and yet it’s still going to be held up as another Pixar masterpiece. That says less about the movie than it does about the franchise as a whole, which has been remarkably consistent. It brings me back to my original question when I started this review: what is the best tetralogy in film history? I’m not qualified to answer that definitively, but I’m having a hard time coming up with a series of four films better than what Pixar has given us with Toy Story. These are four delightful films populated by interesting and wondrous characters who have already managed to stand the test of time for nearly 25 years. Toy Story 4 is probably the end for these characters, though if you asked me I would have said the same after Toy Story 3. It’s always possible another movie comes along, and additional shorts will probably happen, but I wouldn’t hold my breath on Toy Story 5. If this is indeed the end then it’s a wonderful way to go out. Maybe it didn’t answer all of the questions fans had been asking (Who was Andy’s dad? Did Andy’s mom once own Jessie?), but it kept the focus on the toys and it gave us a pretty full look at what it means to be a toy. It made us laugh and it made us cry and it probably also caused more than a few viewers to feel a little guilty about all of those toys we left behind ourselves, but mostly it captivated us and showed us a new way to enjoy animation. Toy Story is a franchise with an amazing and unforgettable legacy attached to it, and Toy Story 4 adds to it and is yet another film that will be enjoyed by kids and adults alike to infinity and beyond.