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According to my mother, the man who looked well over 40 years old that sat next to her started sniffling quietly before bursting into tears at the final scene of Toy Story 4. I immediately figured that he must have been one of the thousands of kids in 1995 who got to see the first film in theaters—back when just the idea of a fully CGI-animated film was as revolutionary as the technology the Pixar team used to create it.
There's not much I can say here that wouldn't sound like a broken record; that Pixar is a delight, their imaginations are boundless, that they always—somehow, incredibly, even with unfavorable odds—manage to deliver visceral, powerful, enjoyable viewing experiences every time. Even their less memorable outings (such as Brave or The Good Dinosaur) still have some semblance of that classic Pixar charm that rarely fails to entertain at least slightly. But I rarely see any of my fellow animation geeks talk about how well the studio treats its sequels; yes, I'm always just as excited for their original stories as much as the next fan (I mean, I've already practically sold my soul to Onward), of course, but I feel like people underestimate their skill with sequels and continuations. Compared to other studios, Pixar tends to create sequels only if they have a good idea for one; the demand doesn't matter to them, in fact it feels like they would sooner sign away the rights to their beloved characters than pump out a rushed, very likely sub-par add-on to one of their classics just because fans asked them to.
What I love about Pixar's sequels and what makes me respect them even more as creators is that their sequels aren't self-contained—as counterintuitive as that may sound at first. Every sequel that they've produced so far continues the story not just in an episodic, "Guess Who's Back Again" adventure, but in a further exploration of the characters and their arcs. They take their developments from the previous story and build upon them, such as Lightning McQueen coping with old age just as his mentor did in Cars 3 or the Parr family working to reverse superheroes' illegal status in Incredibles 2; they take what was established in the past films and expand on those ideas so that they can create a "Next Chapter" in the characters' lives, rather than "Just Another Adventure" for them. This helps make the film feel more organic to the overarching story instead of an add-on, something that I personally want more filmmakers and creators to take a chance with.
Toy Story 4, just like it's predecessors, fits right into this wheelhouse, and does so with as much skill and tenderness as the previous films that, at some points while watching I honestly felt like I was dreaming. Seriously, how is it that, after 24 years, Pixar can still tell such emotional and complete stories about the same characters they began their entire filmography with?
As per usual for the franchise, this film focuses on the ragdoll-cowboy Woody (voiced beautifully as always by Tom Hanks) as he ponders what the next stage of his life will be. Of course, at the end of the third film, he and his fellow toys were taken in by the young girl Bonnie (voiced by Madeleine McGraw) after their previous owner Andy (John Morris, with younger vocals provided by Jack McGraw) had to leave for college. However, unlike Andy, Bonnie isn't nearly that attached to Woody compared to the other toys; in fact, at the very start of the film, he's stuck watching her play joyously with his friends from her dusty closet. This doesn't make him resent Bonnie though; far from it in fact, and his "parental" instincts kick in tenfold when he sees her reluctance to begin kindergarten. This leads him to do everything in his power to ensure her wellbeing, which includes protecting her hand-crafted toy, a crayon-stained plastic spork with pipe cleaner arms and glued-on googly eyes named Forky (Tony Hale), and stopping him from throwing himself back into the trash when the family sets off for a road trip.
(By the way, I'm more than convinced that Forky is a direct response to all the doubtless questions Pixar has received from internet theorists about how the toys could, "logically," be alive—just that alone makes him one of my favorite characters in the series, hands down.)
And that is literally only the beginning; the rest of the film follows Woody as he's confronted with difficult questions about his quality of life and meets a plethora of enjoyable characters, including the beloved classic leading lady Bo Peep (Annie Potts), the cheery if blunt Giggle McDimples (Ally Maki), disillusioned stunt toy Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves), the deceptively sweet antique doll Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), and—the ones I personally was most excited for—the carnival prize-plushie comedy duo that are Bunny and Ducky (voiced by Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key, respectively).
It's difficult to describe the deeper plot of this one, not just for spoiler reasons but because there's just so much to unpack from it. I would argue that this is the most complex Toy Story film to date, with how many themes and arguments it presents in between the humor bites, and with every new character representing a different angle to look at the themes with. Despite these though, not once does the film feel cluttered or incomplete because of them; instead, sort of ironically, they enhance the story and allow the audience to connect with the characters and their struggles even more. The film continues the series's exploration on parenting, growing up, moving on, etc., but this story takes a unique approach and looks deeper into how such ideas affect Woody and other toys on a personal level, which goes far deeper into the toys' perspectives about their own selves and their own personal happiness.
I can't go on much further about these plot points without spoiling the latter half of the movie, but just know this: Woody's internal journey here is the most unique out of all the films while still staying just as human and emotionally real as he was in the past. Where the character ends up thanks to that journey conveys a surprising but mature idea that more adults need to consider in their lives. It certainly had an effect on me (which I want to go into more detail about in a future story), and I applaud Pixar for taking a risk like this.
But of course, I can't go much further in a Pixar review without talking about the absolutely beauty that is their animation.
It goes without saying that any film created over at Pixar would have incredible graphics—and maybe it's just because I'm a huge nerd for this stuff, but I still can't help feeling so impressed with the visuals every single time I sit down to their newest films. The character animation is top-notch, as usual, rivaling even the most talented live actor with the facial expressions and subtle mannerisms that make the CGI characters feel believable, like real, breathing people (even when they're made of plastic). You'd be forgiven, if you didn't know before that they were animated, for believing the backgrounds were live photos. Every detail is so painstakingly accurate and realistic—special mention goes to the detail in the raindrops from a storm and the dust floating around the antique store rafters—and I loved staring at every gorgeous second they were onscreen.
(It really makes me wonder how the original Toy Story would look if they reanimated it today...)
The humor in this film was on-point as well; it still boggles my mind how, again, after 24 years, Pixar can still come up with clever jokes about toys this still make me laugh long after the movie's over. And I didn't just laugh from the in-your-face jokes either; from certain character designs, to the way the actors said lines, or just little background references thrown in for the hardcore nerds in the audience, I can assure you that even if you aren't that into comedies or animation, something in this film will surely make you laugh.
Recommending this movie is too easy: Go see it. Whoever you are, you should see it. Regardless of how you feel about how "necessary" this film is, you can still go into Toy Story 4 and enjoy yourself thoroughly—as to be expected, coming from Pixar and its distributor, Disney. Whether it's the emotional story, the gorgeous animation, the smart humor, the voice cast, or just the background Easter egg hunts, this film has something that will make you smile. I really don't know what else I can say about this one other than I loved it. The only tiny complaint I have regards a running gag that involves Buzz Lightyear, but that still hardly counts as a dealbreaker.
So do yourself a favor, unwind and spend the weekend with Toy Story 4. You won't regret it.
Toy Story 4 was directed by Josh Cooley, produced by Jonas Rivera and Mark Nielsen. This review was written for fair-use critique purposes only; the properties discussed belong to their respective owners.