I was not too excited for Toy Story 4. It seemed really unnecessary to me. That is not usually a term I like to throw at movies; what movie is necessary when you get down to it, but it seemed to me that Toy Story 3 really wrapped things up for these characters and there really wasn’t anywhere to go. I am not sure Toy Story 4 changed my mind, but it showed that, if it were somehow in doubt, Pixar can still delight with fun and emotionally resonant movies that work for people of all ages.
Toy Story 4 deals with endings in a different way than Toy Story 3. Toy Story 3 was more about mortality. With Andy grown, the toy characters’ lives were essentially over. They were being boxed up and placed in the attic, never to be played with again. Or at least not until Andy had kids of his own. While the toys spend the movie reconciling themselves to their fate, including a harrowing scene in an incinerator, the movie becomes about Andy passing the torch to Bonnie. They are her toys now, she decides how to play with them.
The themes of Toy Story 4 mostly seem to overlap with those in Toy Story 2 and 3 without actually duplicating them. It feels a much more gentle movie than the previous entries in some ways. The villain of this movie is reminiscent of Stinky Pete from Toy Story 2. Like Pete, Gabby Gabby is a toy who has never had a kid, who has never been played with. Pete had turned bitter about it, tying his worth to his status as a mint in box toy. Gabby, on the other hand, wants nothing more than to be played with, and she lets her desire to be useful justify some abhorrent actions. Ultimately, the movie finds empathy for Gabby it’s refreshing and satisfying conclusion. That a toy is meant to be with its kid idea echoes TS2 without just retelling that story. It also echoes TS3 in how it deals with toys moving on from owners who have grown up.
One problem I had with this movie is how much most of the returning cast gets sidelined. That is a difficulty in doing sequels; if you do not add new characters, then it all feels the same, but if you do the new guys can overwhelm the old favorites. Toy Story 4 definitely goes the latter route. Woody is the star, and Buzz is given a decently large subplot, but most of the rest is focused on newcomers. And yes, I am including Bo Peep with the newcomers, as she is essentially a new character here. Forky is the most interesting and somewhat terrifying new addition. He is a toy Bonnie made in kindergarten, constructed out of a pile of trash. He sees himself as trash and wants nothing more than to return to the trash. Once Woody takes the time to talk with him and learn his motivations, they come to an understanding. Forky never really quite gets to seeing himself as a toy, but his motivations ultimately align with those of Woody. Bo Peep gets a significant reimaging here. In previous Toy Story movies, though not 3, she was mostly just a concerned voice. She was kind of Woody’s love interest, but that thread was never really explored. Here, she takes on a more active role and is essentially a new character. Part of the that is what happened between when she was separated from the rest of the toys and now, and part of that is just actually making her a realized character. She works amazingly well as a foil and counterpart to Woody. Sure, she is now a badass survivalist, but she shares Woody’s loyalty and sense of responsibility. Making her work as a character was essential to making the biggest moments of the movie, especially the ending, work and Pixar really made her work.
The thing is, even though I would call this a more definitive ending than in Toy Story 3 in some ways, it also leaves many avenues for future Toy Story movies, should Pixar wish to pursue them. The less enticing option is to follow Woody’s new adventures as a lost toy, as he helps other toys find homes. While I can imagine a full on Western themed Toy Story movie using this set up with Woody as the central figure, that route is less enticing because we have four movies of Woody’s story already. Let him have his ending and let’s see what a Toy Story movie looks like focused on Buzz or Jessie or any of the rest of Bonnie’s toys. Toy Story 4 is mid-tier Pixar. That still means the movie is hitting a high bar of quality. As much as I prefer it when Pixar is exploring new stories, if putting out a Toy Story movie every half decade is part of the deal, then I am all for it.