Toy Story 4 (2019)
Dir: Josh Cooley
It turns out that the only thing that can really be held against this film is the fallible preconception that sequels can’t ever come close to living up to the quality of past successes.
Bonnie’s new handmade toy Forky (Tony Hale) has an existential crisis that leads him into danger, pursued by Woody (Tom Hanks) who will go to great lengths to protect him, fortuitously crossing paths with an old friend along the way.
I’ll admit it, I was one of those many people who didn’t think this was a good idea. The Toy Story franchise has been the jewel in Pixar’s well-adorned crown for quarter of a century now, widely considered one of the few ‘perfect’ trilogies with each film being both critical and box office successes. All three were Oscar-nominated in some way, with ‘Toy Story 3’ winning ‘Best Animated Feature’ as well as being only the third animated film to ever be nominated in the Best Picture category. Following that level of success was never going to be an easy task, sequels often have diminishing returns in quality, yet somehow Pixar’s developmental process seems to help them largely avoid that trend.
Elementary to any film should be making sure that there’s a good story to tell, and thankfully Pixar generally follows the rule of not making a follow-up unless that’s in place. Having a fully developed, worthwhile and compelling story with cohesive character development is key to making sure this fourth film doesn’t let down the franchise. Reassuringly the characters stay true to what’s already been built, none feel like they’ve been hugely changed just to facilitate some new story arc, except Bo Peep who goes from originally being a minor character to lead heroine, though that’s nicely explained by her intervening absence and so is the deliberate exception that proves the rule.
The central new character, Forky (should really be Sporky but it’s fine, he was named by a 5-year-old who might not know that’s more accurately what he is, plus his name sounds most like the number ‘4’) starts off being a little annoying but is well-voiced by Tony Hale (always wonderful in the early seasons of ‘Arrested Development’). Mercifully this annoyance wears off a lot so he’s far more endearing by the end. His character is key to the film’s narrative, though it’s more the way in which he echoes themes from the first film, leading Woody to care for him, that ties this new character’s story arc so neatly into the long-established heart of the Toy Story franchise. It’s not the first time Woody has had to convince a new addition to their cohort that they’re really a toy, or extol the value of being there for a child. Yet in this instance, Woody has grown so much from the first film, his care is purely altruistic and his role more fatherly, something that’s not going to be lost on those who have grown up with these characters and are now parents.
There are a handful of other new characters and they’re enjoyable additions to the already vibrant ensemble, largely thanks to the brilliant voice casting. You can’t help but enjoy the well-honed pairing of Key and Peele as Ducky and Bunny, two fairground stuffed toys whose brash way of dealing with things is so unlike the other toys but brings fresh energy to the group and is often hilarious. Duke Kaboom, a motorcycle daredevil (not Evil Knievel according to Disney, though a judge will apparently have to decide) is another standout new character, voiced perfectly by Keanu Reeves.
I don’t know if the franchise will continue, this seems like it would be a great place to stop, but to be fair, I’ve said that before. I suppose I just have to put some trust in the writers who thankfully seem to only pursue another Toy Story film if they honestly do have a worthwhile story to tell. If that continues to be their process, I should be able to change my expectations to think more optimistically about another film with these characters. This made over a billion dollars, with most studios that would initiate an immediate greenlight and rush on a sequel, however, Pixar seems to be a little different, they’re refocusing on their original stories for a while, this year with two, and know that if they get those right they can score box office successes of a similar level to their sequels.
It’s very possible though that the cinematic release landscape may be quite different by the time any further sequel comes around, with Disney already testing alternative release options with the next Pixar movie ‘Soul’ going straight to streaming (at no additional cost to subscribers) in December. I don’t think that’s necessarily the future for all Pixar films, under normal circumstances they’re often the most reliable box office successes for Disney, with ‘The Good Dinosaur’ and ‘Onward’ being the only significant blips in that record, the latter under extenuating circumstances. So who knows what the future holds for Woody and the other toys, some more shorts are on the way for Disney+ but I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of another feature film down the line. No matter what form future stories take, this isn’t the last we’ll see of them, nor the last time my pessimism will be allayed.
‘Toy Story 4’ was nominated for two Academy Awards, Best Original Song and Animated Feature, becoming the second film of the franchise to win the latter. It’s available to buy/rent in all the normal ways or to stream on Disney+, there’s also a short about what happened to Bo Peep in the intervening years that there too. While it doesn’t hit the same highs as the second (my favourite) nor the emotional heft of the third, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a more consistently enjoyable series of movies.