My feelings about Disney and Pixar going back to the toy chest for a fourth time around were not dissimilar to Jesse’s. I recall the first time I read that Toy Story 4 was in production. I, too, was filled with disbelief. I, too, believed Toy Story 3 concluded the trilogy with perfection and grace. I, too, didn’t want to cry at another movie about animated inanimate objects.
Eventually I came around. I started to rally behind the idea because I realized that, while any sequel is really just a cash grab, I trust the team behind Toy Story. They earned the trust with the exquisite Toy Story 3. However when I tried sharing this opinion with my many friends that were NOT behind the sequel, I continually got shot down. People really didn’t want this movie to exist.
Which means, I couldn’t help but go into Toy Story 4 with the need of it justifying it’s existence. I needed the film to prove everyone wrong. I needed the film to come through for me like Woody came through for Andy time and time again. Like a kid I needed my toys. And like any good toy, they pulled through and made me feel like a kid again.
I believe the filmmakers were fully aware of this pressure. And from the first moment it was clear the animators were showing off, almost saying, “look at this beauty we have created, you really doubted our abilities?”. The opening scene is picturesque, the animation is stunning and left me and my wife gasping at it’s beauty. It made the other Toy Story’s animation look like child’s play, a marvel of how far animation has come since the original Toy Story changed the game in 1995.
And as strong as the animation was, the scene also set up the intention behind the movie. We find out what happened to Bo Peep and her three sheep. We find out how close Woody was to changing his life when he was forced to make the most difficult decision of his life. (Well the most difficult decision of his life at that point. The dude has been through a lot.). He had to decide to either ditch his kid Andy or let his girl go into the world alone, probably never to be seen from again. A bizarro world Sophie’s choice that retroactively lays the groundwork for how Woody views the world.
In this moment I realized why this movie existed, why the team behind Toy Story needed to get this story out into the world. The trilogy perfectly wrapped up the Andy story, and most of the toy’s, who are just happy being toys, story. But Woody’s story? Our protagonist who has real control issues and crippling anxiety? We weren’t done with that and we wouldn’t have realized it without this film.
What follows is a movie that not only justifies it’s existence but showcases the final chapter of one of the most well written characters in any franchise. The writer’s prove their love and understanding of their main character so thoroughly that you forget we are watching a talking toy.
The best part is how they accomplish the task. Instead of heavy self-reflection and monologues or easy to grasp lessons, they showcase Woody at his maximum Woody-ness. He isn’t handling being a forgotten toy well, he feels like he NEEDS to help Bonnie with her first day at kindergarten, and he has to do anything to keep her happy. He has to completely control the situation even turning down help from his best sidekick in Buzz Lightyear. Woody is too much in his own head, focusing on distracting himself with unnecessary “purpose” and adventure. He is doing what we all do when we don’t want to face our flaws or our own mortality.
And just when you think Woody is never going to learn to let go, he runs into an old friend. And this is where the beauty of the film starts becoming clear. Bo Peep comes back into Woody’s life and makes him take a back seat to a funny, smart, badass, modernized Bo Peep.
Bo’s transformation from a porcelain, soft-spoken, girl in a dress into a lost toy who drives a skunk mobile and gets high off of independence is refreshing and needed to modernize the franchise. Prior to this film, the strongest female character was Jessie who we don’t hear from much at all anymore. Now we have Bo who forces Woody to address his flaws, learn from them, and then embraces him because of them.
Bo’s retribution further justifies the film’s existence. She almost felt like an apology from the filmmakers for focusing so heavily on a male’s point of view in the original trilogy, and thus overlooking/marginalizing other point of views, and also a peek into the future as the industry is working towards incorporating different voices more and more. An apology that most of the world wouldn’t think the filmmakers needed to make but because of this film, helps us realize it was.
That is the true beauty of this film. A movie, an animated comedy, embraces and emphasizes it’s protagonist’s flaws as well as the film franchise’s flaws and then uses them to take a step in the right direction. And we might’ve never realized we needed this movie until they gave it to us.
Is it a perfect film? Not at all. It doesn’t compare to the third one. It’s over bloated with high paced (but fun) action sequences that overly rely on the “man falls into a hole” trope (AKA “we have to get into the antique store…we need to get out of the antique store…we have to get back into the antique store!”). Having a few more scenes of breathing room for the older characters to interact with each other could have gone a long way.
In the end I left feeling like I usually do after a Toy Story film. I left emotional, I left satisfied (this time for Woody and Bo), I left feeling the movie is justified because if we are going to live in a world full of sequels and money grabs, I’m grateful the team behind Toy Story is so passionate and intentional with their part. And while it’s neither perfect nor the best of the series and it’s easy to get lost and nit pick at the imperfections if we step back for a moment and view what Toy Story has accomplished, for it’s fans and for it’s genre, and how much pressure we put on each installment, we will see this fourth movie fits perfectly in one of the greatest movie franchises of all time.