Few animated series make it as far as the Toy Story legacy while remaining sweet, smart, and genuinely heartfelt. It’d be easy to scoff at yet another sequel and to believe that Pixar is milking it, desperate to find something for these characters to do to keep the money train chugging. But Toy Story 4, like previous Toy Story sequels, finds something so clever and emotional I have no reservations about calling it one of the best entries in the saga.
There’s still some unfinished business for Andy’s toy collective from the last film, having been turned over to the new little girl Bonnie. We learn in a flashback what truly happened to Bo Peep (Annie Potts), who belonged to Andy’s little sister, Molly; Woody (Tom Hanks) hasn’t forgotten her and still hasn’t come to terms with it. This doesn’t come about broadly but more through how Woody reacts to Bonnie’s development and choice in toys. Woody is worried his time may be up and isn’t content to sit back and let things go on without him. There’s a sense of unfulfillment, and he feels he must contribute to Bonnie’s life, even if it’s behind the scenes.
This is where Forky (Tony Hale), Bonnie’s kindergarten craft creation, enters the picture. Assembled from a spork, googly eyes, glue, pipe cleaners, and Popsicle sticks, Forky is terrified of the world and doesn’t understand his purpose when it comes to Bonnie, having a crisis in believing he’s more trash than toy. Woody takes the fearful guy under his wing and opens up to him as a father figure. But this isn’t just a story about learning to care for a “kid,” in the film’s own interesting way of toy generations. Woody has a lot else to deal with, as his longing takes a turbulent course when Bonnie and her toys go on a road trip.
One admirable aspect of all the Toy Story films has been the wealth of brilliant worlds they assemble from the cultural relevance of toys. Sometimes it’s the little things, as when we meet the older, more toddler-friendly toys from Bonnie’s closet who are full of nostalgia. Sometimes it’s more atmospheric, as with an antique store filled with plenty of musty areas behind shelves that echo the dark alleyways of a city. Other times the characters create the world, as when we catch up with Bo Peep in a somewhat Mad Max–style role as a nomadic toy who can make it on her own as an adventurer, sans kid.
All of this may just make Toy Story 4 par for the course, including the comic additions of an eccentric plush duo (Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele) and a conflicted stunt-bike toy (Keanu Reeves). But what makes the movie stand firmly at the top is how it tackles a more all-encompassing tale dealing with multiple moral questions at once. Woody’s guiding principle of never leaving a toy behind becomes both a deeply flawed trait and one that ends up bringing about the better nature in other toys, an aspect of his character that may just rekindle a romance and lead Woody to make an emotional call about the next stage of his life.
I’m sure it’ll be noted that Woody’s arc takes up the most screen time, which reduces the other characters to a handful of jokes, such as Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) never fully grasping the logic of inner voice. But it makes sense to laser-focus on such a character, who always seems troubled and threatened even when everything seems fine. That being said, there are plenty of sequences dedicated to toy high jinks, the most notable being the gang continuing to buy themselves time by savaging an RV.
Toy Story 4, in line with other top-tier Pixar productions, covers a lot of bold ground. The many themes of letting go, stepping aside, and self-sacrifice are so brilliantly woven into this toy adventure that it’s no surprise Tom Hanks mentioned in an interview that he choked up while recording his audio. You can hear it in the film as well when Woody finds himself on the verge of tears (to the extent toys can cry). There’s such a perfect balance of the absurd and the allegorical that this entry will be another strong entertainer for kids, sure, but also a very touching farewell for the accompanying parents. It may seem strange to those who aren’t attached to this franchise for someone to be this moved by an animated film about talking toys, but those toys are so charming and relatable that I haven’t outgrown them yet.