Toy Story 3: The Epilogue.
Pixar is great at many things. One of the few things they’re not as good at is making sequels. The Cars franchise, for instance, was the animation studios’ first attempt at making a trilogy, and it was so lackluster that it exhausted all of the joy prevalent from the first movie. Monsters University was a fun and spiffy little prequel to Monsters Inc., but it evidently lacked the heartstrings that the first one was so good at pulling. Do we even need to get into how Pixar made us wait 14 years for a sequel to The Incredibles?
Time and time again, Pixar has demonstrated that it can do sequels, but often not as well as their originals. The only real exception to this has been the Toy Story franchise. Ever since Woody (Tom Hanks) and Buzz Lightyear’s (Tim Allen) first adventure together 24 years ago, their characters have matured and grown, not unlike Andy himself did between the three movies. Toy Story introduced Woody, Buzz, and their need to feel affection as toys. Toy Story 2 continued their adventures as the fear of abandonment grew as quickly as Andy did. Then Toy Story 3 capped off the trilogy beautifully, showing that while all things end, there are also new beginnings that come with those endings. That’s all part of growing up.
In Toy Story 4, the toys are back yet again as they’re trying to help their new owner, Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw) through kindergarten. Unfortunately, there’s not much they can do since toys are not allowed at Bonnie’s school. But in a moment of sudden inspiration, Bonnie makes herself a toy during arts and crafts using popsicle sticks, pipe cleaners, and a spork and names it “Forky” (Tony Hale). When it surprisingly comes to life, Forky is horrified at his appearance and tries to throw himself away in the garbage, since he is made out of literal trash. Now determined to help Bonnie get through kindergarten, the toys band together to protect Forky from everything for Bonnie’s sake – including the trash can.
Watching the first few frames of this movie, I was reminded of the child-like joy that Toy Story always brought me when I experienced this franchise for the first time as a kid; how it’s raggedy-dolled characters always flopped about in a clumsy fashion and how their small world became big as they explored new places and met new toys. There’s a good reason why Toy Story is widely considered to be Pixar’s flagship franchise: it’s because it demonstrates what the Academy Award-winning studio can accomplish.
Toy Story 4 is no exception to Pixar’s creativity and imagination. For instance, when Bo Peep (Annie Potts) is re-introduced after her absence from Toy Story 3, she’s given a new look and feel that’s different from her docile, delicate appearance in Toy Story 2. She’s no longer a helpless shepherd waiting to be rescued by Woody the cowboy. She’s much more fearless and versatile now, using her cane as a weapon to fend off hostile toys and using a mobile car disguised as a skunk to make her way around. Watching her in this bolder, more daring fashion reminded me of how original Pixar can be, putting a different spin on older characters and ideas to make them feel fresh and new.
The voice talent in their characters is equally exceptional, with Hanks and Allen reprising their roles and feeling as familiar and welcoming as they’ve always been. Yet there is an assortment of newer characters to also appreciate here, and all of them have the voice talent to back them up. There’s a Canadian stuntman action figure named Duke Caboom played by Keanu Reeves, and he possesses the impeccable skill of being the best crasher out of the motorcycle circuit. There’s a hilariously fluffy duo in Ducky (Keegan Michael-Key) and Bunny (Jordan Peele), two stuffed animals way too sarcastic for their own good who have an unhealthy obsession for cartoon violence and mischievous shenanigans. Perhaps the funniest is Forky himself, who is going through an existential crisis questioning whether he’s a toy or trash. I practically died laughing in my seat as I watched his several attempts at throwing himself away along with Randy Newman’s aptly-named tune “I Can’t Let You Throw Yourself Away.”
So the animation, the voice acting, and the perfectly-timed comedy is all on-par with the rest of the films from the Toy Story franchise. Where it falters is in the relevance. And to be fair, that isn’t necessarily Toy Story 4’s fault. If anything that’s the fault of Toy Story 3, since it ended on a note so powerful and profound that anything after that would feel like a redundancy.
Still, that begs the question: why did Toy Story 4 have to get made? I couldn’t give you a good reason why. The only reason I can think of is that Toy Story 3 made over a billion dollars and a sequel was bound to make more money. But that’s a profit-driven rationale, and Pixar isn’t usually known for making something that isn’t story-driven first and market-driven second. And don’t be mistaken: there’s definitely a message, and a purpose, here behind Toy Story 4.
The problem is it isn’t a necessary one. Toy Story 3 capped the trilogy off perfectly and beautifully with a message saying that while all journeys end, that doesn’t mean they’re the only ones and there are new adventures to experience out there. Toy Story 4 ends on a note similar to Toy Story 3, and since the two endings are so similar, neither of them feels like the definitive conclusion of the franchise. Even if this is the quote-unquote “last” Toy Story movie, who’s to say Pixar won’t change their mind later on? Toy Story 3 was supposed to be the last movie, and Pixar backtracked from that after it was the highest-grossing movie of 2010. Who’s to say Toy Story 4 won’t get the same treatment? Or for that matter, Toy Story 5?
On the surface level, Toy Story 4 is a fun, energetic, and joyful little sequel that brings you back to the classic days of being in the playroom with the toys. Through that simplicity, Toy Story 4 is a rewarding experience, even if it isn’t as fulfilling as one. But it also reminds me of a depressing truth about cinematic franchises: throw enough money at it, and studios will be incentivized enough to make a sequel, even if the story doesn’t at all call for one.
I’m glad I got to see the toys one last time. I just hope it really is the last time.