Woody makes his triumphant return in Toy Story 4, meeting a colorful array of new characters while also reuniting with Bo Peep. This is Woody’s journey to find purpose under a new owner, one who is likely to leave him in the closet and wouldn’t notice if he ended up missing. Other classic characters also appear, but they feel like clear afterthoughts. Buzz is reduced to a bit role while the others are stuck waiting in an RV while Woody rescues Forky.
Toy Story 4, despite all its positive qualities, struggles to get past this feeling of being a side story. There’s a sense of finality to a certain extent, but it rarely seems all-encompassing. Toy Story 3 reached a high point by treating these characters as an ensemble; following that up with a sequel so focused on just one of those characters feels wrong, even if his journey is a strong one.
Luckily, everything else about this movie is on point, with two of the new characters being among the series’ best. Forky is an instant classic, taking the underlying existentialism of the series and ramping it up to a crescendo. He asks a question most of us didn’t think to ask; what makes something a toy? His gleeful declarations of being trash is certain to resonate with a certain class of self-deprecating millennials, and his mere existence as a suddenly conscious being carries a certain level of horror – in muted Pixar form, of course.
Where Forky seems to serve a more meta-purpose, Gabby Gabby acts as one of Pixar’s most complex antagonists. A defective doll abandoned in an antique shop, she is driven to repair herself when she realizes Woody shares the same style of voice box. Where previous Toy Story villains are rather straightforward in their sinister nature, Gabby instead acts out of lonely desperation. Part of what makes her work so well is the fact her philosophy largely lines up with Woody’s; like him, she simply wants to make a child happy. Her antagonism is defined by a need instead of power.
Purpose is the driving force of this movie, which might be why I keep thinking about those characters sidelined to the RV. They are allowed to happily continue with a new owner, never having to question their purpose and therefore not being required to take much action. By so easily being granted purpose in their lives, they are stripped of purpose on a narrative level. They exist as set dressing, a reminder that Woody has a sense of belonging somewhere. It’s fine to toss aside characters like Mr. Potato Head and Rex, but it feels wrong that Jessie is put on the same level.
Ultimately, Toy Story 4 carries a lot of the same strengths as the previous films, just with a different set of characters. The series has served as a barometer on the evolution of animation, and this is certainly a visually impressive film. The screenplay is perhaps the funniest in the series, though it also lacks the emotional weight that granted those earlier films a more lasting impact.
This is a satisfying journey, but where the first three films felt like complete stories on their own, Toy Story 4 can’t shake the feeling of being a mere diversion until its final act. Woody’s journey here is one of the stronger character arcs Pixar has come up with, but the film as a whole seems to be missing convincing stakes. It’s notably lighter than the other pieces.
Toy Story 4 is the weakest film in its franchise, but being weaker than a collection of near-masterpieces still gives it enough room to be a great film.
4 Stars Out of 5