When Pixar officially announced, back in 2014, that they were developing “Toy Story 4”, just four years after “TS3”, the general reaction was not enthusiastic. “Toy Story 3” was the perfect ending to this beloved series (which was then followed by a few sweet holiday specials).
“TS4” is Pixar’s biggest risk to date. And the studio has taken a lot of chances in an effort to not only top the previous films, but possibly end this franchise — forever.
“Shrek” also concluded after four installments, with a finale that centered on the value and worth of the title character. “Toy Story 4” goes down a similar path with Woody, though not in an “It’s a Wonderful Life” style. This is the cowboy’s story, not an ensemble piece featuring all the “Toy Story” favorites from the previous three films.
The movie opens with a flashback scene that actually takes place in between “TS2” and “TS3” (which may be confusing at first). This is done so we can finally learn what happened to Bo Peep between those two previous films (you may remember she was not in “Toy Story 3”). A stunning toy transition montage, from Andy to younger sister Molly, provides a preview of the amazing CGI sequences to come.
“TS4” then guides us into “present day” — about a year after “TS3”. Bonnie, who now has all the toys, is entering Kindergarten. Alone and sad on Orientation Day she creates Forky out of trash items. He instantly becomes her new favorite toy. Bonnie and her family then set-out on an end-of-summer road trip. She brings her utensil friend (voiced by “Veep”’s Tony Hale) and the rest of her older toys with her.
However, Woody isn’t feeling as appreciated or needed as he once was. There’s true grit in Tom Hanks’ voice performance this time around. This Woody is much more human than ever before. He decides to mentor Forky (who thinks he’s simply trash). The unlikely duo go on a road trip, and quickly get caught-up in a harrowing adventure involving a carnival and nearby antique toy store. But this is also a psychological journey for Woody, and we’re with him every step of the way.
Bo Peep (Annie Potts) makes a triumphant return, nearly 20 years after “TS2”. There are also several new characters who get plenty of screen time. Each speaks to a different generation of moviegoers. There’s 50s doll Gabby Gabby (voiced by Christina Hendricks), 90s Canadian stuntman action figure Duke Caboom (embodied by Keanu Reeves, the movie star of the moment) and stuffed animal duo Ducky & Bunny (the great Key & Peele). They, along with Forky, are packed with substance and sincerity.
This is, by far, the deepest and most mature chapter of the “Toy Story” franchise. There are plenty of funny moments, chases and rescue-style action scenes (maybe a tad too many). And a couple of great running jokes with big payoffs. But at its core, this an emotionally-charged saga of self-discovery. And it’s also a romantic love story, an area this series really hasn’t tackled before. Director Josh Cooley and the writers unveil new sides of characters we thought we knew pretty well.
Woody’s struggles with longing, loneliness and loyalty is at times heartbreaking. “Toy Story 4” was not made for kids. Youngsters who have watched the previous three installments will NOT get about 90% of what this film has to say about life, relationships and finding your purpose. And if you thought the end of “3” was difficult to watch, to prepared for several heart-wrenching scenes at the end of “4”.
In fact, some may find the final 15 minutes (before the credits) a bit shocking. The phrase “painfully satisfying” rarely applies to animated movies, but that’s exactly the result.
If you’re concerned Pixar is just using “Toy Story 4” as a cash grab, don’t worry. This is a quality, worthwhile and meaningful film with the heart, humor and humanity we’ve come to expect… and beyond.