Pixar has only been around for 24 years, and yet it feels like they’ve been around forever. Ingrained in the hearts, minds of souls of all movie lovers, Pixar movies serve as touchstones in many of our lives. They have moved us, made us cry, made us laugh and made us feel. And, for Pixar itself, the original and still seminal touchstone for the studio has been Toy Story. The first movie ever produced under the Pixar label, Toy Story came out in 1995, and was hailed as an animated achievement that few had seen before. Its success not only launched a company, but reinvigorated a genre. 3 years after Toy Story, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences added a category for Best Animated Feature, which Pixar has won 9 times. Pixar’s domination of the genre and massive success forced other studios to enhance their own animated divisions—to push for smarter, more meaningful and better-produced movies— and the boom of quality animated feature offerings in the past 24 years has been a joy to behold. Franchises like Despicable Me/Minions, How to Train Your Dragon, Shrek, Kung Fu Panda and blockbusters like Frozen and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse all have Pixar to thank for their very existence, and more specifically, Toy Story. If Toy Story had failed, who knows what the state of animated film would be now, and who knows if Pixar would even still exist.
But Toy Story did succeed, and it’s easy to see why. It was silly, smart, funny, heartfelt and eye-popping. But, most of all, it had a story and characters that anyone could relate to, as long as you were a child at heart. But even more bewildering than its success was the success of its sequel, Toy Story 2, which I remember thinking at the time was the best sequel I’d seen since The Empire Strikes Back. Not content to rest on their laurels (or to walk away from a certain windfall), the Pixar brain trust decided that they would make a third Toy Story, which, everyone assumed, would spell certain doom. I mean, even Godfather choked on #3. But, continuing to buck tradition and Hollywood expectations, Toy Story 3 turned out to be the biggest one yet, and actually was the first in the Toy Story saga to win the Oscar for Best Animated Feature (probably only because the category didn’t exist when the first two came out, but it’s still a nice factoid). The three movies were a perfect trio, and Toy Story 3 was the perfect way to end one of the most successful and lauded franchises in movie history.
Even though Pixar movies have always seemed impervious to convention, when the company was bought by Disney, it was feared that the small studio would lose its independent spirit. While it must be said that Pixar has churned out more sequels than originals during its Disney ownership, the company has still kept its creative fires burning and has already announced two new full-length original features for 2020 and 2021.
But first, they had just one more sequel to make.
So, here it is. Toy Story 4. Let’s be honest, was this movie really necessary at all, in terms of character or story? Nope. But is it a suitable member of the illustrious Toy Story pantheon that is worthy of your hard-earned dollars and precious time? Absolutely.
Toy Story 4 is just one non-stop smile. Everything about it is familiar, in all the good ways. Woody, Buzz and the whole gang are back in a child’s bedroom and all seems right with the world. Watching them all in action, getting in and out of one mess after another, is a pure delight.
But what’s best about Toy Story 4 are all the new places, new adventures and new characters that our old friends find themselves interacting with. The new characters are bolder and stranger than ever before, but director Josh Cooley and the team of writers found ways to give us the unexpected (and even a little twisted), while not veering too far off the familiar (and beloved) path. While the familiar characters are here, the bulk of this story focuses on new characters, to its credit, because the new characters are deliciously strange, with personality quirks and traits that will make them live on as long as Woody and Buzz. Keanu Reeves almost steals the show as Canadian motorcycle daredevil Duke Caboom but Tony Hale, Keegan-Michael Key, Jordan Peele, and Ally Maki are all scene-stealers in their own right. But yes, Tom Hanks’s Woody is still the heart of the franchise and Hanks’s voice work deserves just as much praise as his twice-Oscared live work.
There are huge laughs, there is a little bit of a dark edge and tone, and, in the end, there is enough heartwarmth and joy to put everything right with the world—at least for two hours.
These Toy Story movies are meant to be taken personally. They are designed to make every adult probe the deepest recesses of their souls back to when they loved things without question and had a companion who would never judge them, never fail them and never leave them. This final (?) installment of the franchise explores the concepts of loyalty and self-awareness. It could even be considered a treatise on how we establish our sense of meaning in the world. These are not light matters. And yet, these seemingly light movies, ones that make us smile and reminisce back to the toys we loved, have a distinct and cunning way of cutting to our deepest core and exposing our most vulnerable emotions. Love, friendship, self-awareness, fear of abandonment, loyalty—these are all core principles in these movies and they have deeper messages and meanings than we might never admit to, even to ourselves.
Toy Story 4 is wonderful. The detail and mind-blowing levels of creativity that fill up the screen will make me want to watch this one over and over again. But it’s the sincerity that makes it so memorable and helps it to earn its rightful place in the Toy Story and Pixar canon. And that’s quite a good place to be.