This review originally appeared on CLTure.org.
In 2010, Disney and Pixar teamed up once again to give one of their most beloved franchises the perfect sendoff in Toy Story 3. After nearly an 11-year hiatus from the series, we unexpectedly returned to Andy’s room for one final visit with our old pals Woody (Tom Hanks) and Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen). You couldn’t have asked for a better ending to the trilogy– wrapping the series with a profound and emotional conclusion.
Let’s get one thing straight: Toy Story 4 is undeniably a major cash grab. Hollywood may love great storytelling, but they love money even more. Toy Story 4 is about as unnecessary as a film can be, but it’s filled with heart, compelling characters and witty humor.
When we last left our favorite toys, they’d escaped the clutches of Lotso at Sunnyside Daycare and had found a new owner in Bonnie. Now, Bonnie’s off to start kindergarten, and on her first day she comes home with a brand new toy, Forky (Tony Hale). But… he’s not quite a toy– he’s a jumble of trash glued together with the body of a spork.
Regardless, the utensil is Bonnie’s new favorite plaything, and the ever-noble Woody knows it’s his job to show Forky the ropes of how to be the best toy possible. Only Forky has other plans. Convinced he’s a worthless piece of garbage, Forky is determined to throw himself away and move on from Bonnie’s possession. When Bonnie and her family go on a road trip, Forky does just that, jumping out the window and leaving Woody and the rest of the toys desperate to find him and keep Bonnie happy. Woody embarks on a rescue mission to recover Forky, and along the way runs into both new and familiar faces.
The biggest fear heading into this unexpected installment was a simplistic storyline not worth exploring– something just enough to get by with selling toys and tickets. Instead, Toy Story 4 is powered by a tight narrative with smart dialogue and gripping action. The plot is something new and exciting, as the toys are the ones doing the rescuing this time around, not getting rescued.
All of the franchise’s major players are back, anchored by Tom Hanks’ Woody and Tim Allen’s Buzz Lightyear. After missing out on Toy Story 3, Annie Potts returns to voice Bo Peep, Woody’s long-lost love interest. However, this film’s greatest casting lies in its newcomers: Hale’s Forky, along with Ducky (Keegan-Michael Key), Bunny (Jordan Peele) and Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves). Each of the new additions are impeccably and hilariously voiced, in addition to being vital and likable characters. As a result, the Toy Story 4 strikes the series’ best comedic notes, whether it comes from Andrew Stanton and Stephany Folsom’s script, or just the natural charm of the cast.
Visually, it’s an absolute masterclass in animation. To look back and see how far things have come since Toy Story back in 1995, is remarkable. There were quite a few times during the 100 minutes when it was hard to remember this was an animated movie, particularly two scenes in which Woody and Bo Peep overlook an antique shop and a carnival. These films have always lent themselves to creating beautiful visuals, and they continue to advance with some truly breathtaking shots.
One of the most impressive differences setting this film apart from the rest of the series is its score– namely, the fact that it’s noticeable at all. Typically, with the exception of the iconic “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” theme, Toy Story films don’t have music that really stands out. But this time, Randy Newman has composed swooping dramatic pieces to accompany action along with more gentle tracks for the tender moments, turning the score into something that elevates the visuals.
If there’s a downside, it’s that so many of the characters we’ve come to love over the past three films are swept aside in exchange for the new toys Woody meets on his rescue mission. Buzz Lightyear in particular– as synonymous with the Toy Story franchise as Woody– garners a few laughs with a recurring joke, but is left out for most of the adventure.
While Disney and Pixar may have not gone straight for the heart this time, Toy Story 4 certainly still has some important adult-oriented messages disguised in the flashy animation and jokes.
It seems the Toy Story franchise has run its course, as this fourth (and final?) installment once again neatly wraps up the stories of its major characters. Its conclusion may not carry the same gravitas as the third film, but it’s equally poignant and brings the series to another natural stopping point.
If we’re lucky, this will be our last adventure with Woody, Buzz and the gang. It’s possible to pull off one unnecessary sequel, but keep going much further and these toys are bound to eventually overstay their welcome.
Star Rating: 4 out of 5
Zach Goins is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association based in Raleigh, N.C. Zach co-founded Inside The Film Room in 2018 and serves as Editor-in-Chief of the website and co-host of the podcast. Zach also serves as a film critic for CLTure.org.