WARNING: The following article contains spoilers for Toy Story 4, in theaters now.
Pixar’s Toy Story series is one of Hollywood’s most fascinating and confusing franchises. The cartoon tetralogy has somehow lasted 24 years and covered themes as deep as coping with grief, aging and the toys’ fear of death.
After Toy Story 3’s heart-wrenching, perfect finale to the series, Toy Story 4 had a nearly impossible task -- continue a story after an obvious conclusion, all the while offering a convincing reason for its own existence outside of Disney wanting that sweet toy money. Though it is a mostly delightful ride, Toy Story 4 not only feels unnecessary, it commits the cardinal sin of any sequel: It ignores and undoes the choices made by characters in the previous films. By having Woody abandon his friends and his human without earning such a bold decision, it undercuts so much of what came before.
In the series’ newest entry, protagonist Woody and the gang have been with Bonnie, their new human, for about a year or so. They’re adjusting to their new life without Andy, the human they grew up with in the first three movies. Buzz, Jessie and all the rest mix well with Bonnie and her new toys, but Woody is frequently left in the closet, cast aside for other toys. After being Andy’s favorite toy for probably his entire life, Woody feels useless in this new circumstance.
In some ways, it mirrors the first Toy Story, where Woody comes to terms with not being Andy’s favorite as he starts to play with Buzz, his newest toy. Pixar starts off on a strong foot, showing that Woody learned and grew all those years ago, pursuing a new way he can help Bonnie instead of taking vengeance on the toys who supplant him. Were this the only way that Toy Story 4 reflected moments from previous movies in the series, it might still be unnecessary, but it would at least honor the past. Unfortunately, that’s not the case, and as the plot reaches its conclusion, it grows a bit messy.
But before it gets there, director Josh Cooley takes audiences on a blast of a journey, introducing you to Forky, who Bonnie created, and a revamped, reinvigorated Bo Peep. Bo Peep, who was only ever a will-they-won’t-they love interest for Woody in the first two movies, is nearly given a full reimagining -- new character design, new outfit and (thankfully) a new sense of agency within the story. On top of this, the introduction of Forky is one of Pixar’s finest creative decisions in years, allowing the writers to use this children’s movie to meditate on the meaning of life and what it means to have a purpose.
It’s all quite lofty, and Tom Hanks does a remarkable job showing Woody’s exasperation, as well as the way that Forky’s existence makes Woody question his own. Brilliantly, the story uses Forky to dive deeper into Woody’s psyche than ever before, forcing him to outwardly question what it is he wants in life, and this is where Toy Story 4 loses the plot. Though Forky and the return of Bo Peep are a welcome addition to the story, it’s how they affect Woody’s decisions that feels… off.
But before we get to that, we need to look back on the highly emotional conclusion of Toy Story 3. The climax features two inimitably powerful moments, both of which work together to make the film feel like a definitive conclusion. The first comes in a furnace at a landfill, as the gang stares death in the face and greets it as a family, holding hands and closing their eyes. Though it’s absolutely nuts that this comes in a G-rated kids movie, it works brilliantly. When you see the Aliens arrive, through your own tears, it feels like a genuine miracle lifting your spirits high, just in time for the second, even more powerful punch to the gut.
Andy, on his way off to college, stops at Bonnie’s house to leave his toys with a kid who will enjoy them. Before he goes, he decides to keep Woody, one of his oldest reminders of childhood. But Woody, fresh off the incident in the furnace, decides to stay with his family and go with Bonnie, placing himself in the box as well. It’s an important moment for both Andy and Woody, as they learn that growing up can mean saying goodbye, but Woody knows his purpose is as a toy, not a lonely memento for someone else. After 15 years of the series, it was incredibly moving to see both of these characters, who cannot even talk to each other, grow in the same moment. It’s not only one of the finest moments in the franchise, but one of the most beautiful scenes Pixar has ever crafted.
In Toy Story 4, the power of this moment is utterly and completely undone. Across the new film’s 100-minute runtime, Woody is desperately trying to help Bonnie. There’s a clear internal struggle about whether he’s so desperate to help because it’s the right thing to do or because it makes him feel needed, but his desire is genuine and a logical extension of his relationship with Andy.
Along the way, the selfless cowboy stops to help other toys, but it never makes it seem as though Woody finds as much satisfaction in this as he does from helping Bonnie. He even works together with the movie’s villain, Gabby Gabby, who stole Woody’s voice box to try to get adopted by a human. Just minutes before the film’s climax, he helps her meet a lonely, crying child, which cheers both of them up, but the story doesn’t pay off on that with any sort of powerful reaction from Woody.
A few moments later, Woody and his small group of toys links back up with the gang, and he decides not to go. Before he can even say anything, Buzz shows that he knows Woody’s desires, and encourages him that Bonnie will be okay, but it all feels very odd in light of his growth in Toy Story 3. It’s not that the story sends a bad message by saying it’s good for Woody to decide to forge his own path, but it is a very jarring, unnatural choice for the series’ main character to make.
In Toy Story 4’s after-credits stingers, the audience sees Woody in his new life, helping connect toys with humans like he helped Gabby Gabby earlier on in the story. A better script could have potentially built Woody’s character arc around that moment, but it just isn’t earned here.
Over the next few years, Pixar will return to mostly producing original films, which is a promising concept. For all its flaws as a sequel, Toy Story 4 is still a beautifully animated blast of a movie, just one that may leave a bad taste in the mouth of series devotees.