Trilogies seldom have perfect endings. Whether it’s Star Wars, The Godfather, or Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight series, a third outing typically falls short of its second and leaves us unfulfilled. Toy Story 3 was a rare achievement, shining on its own while also bolstering the saga as a whole.
Let’s recap: After the toys narrowly escape incineration, owner Andy (John Morris) gives Buzz (Tim Allen) and the gang to new kid Bonnie (Emily Hahn). Then, in one of film history’s more bittersweet animated gut-punches, Bonnie notices ol’ Sheriff Woody (Tom Hanks) at the bottom of the toy box. Andy, all grown up but planning to take his favorite cowboy to college with him, decides to hand over Woody, too. As Andy drives away, Woody says, “So long, partner,” the music swells, and the camera flies into the clouds, matching the opening bedroom shot from the original Toy Story.
That. Is. A. Flawless. Ending.
So why screw with that? Why retie a perfect bow? Is there actually more story to tell, or does Disney just love merchandising dollars? Thankfully, Toy Story 4 has enough substance to serve as more than a cash grab.
We catch up with the toys a couple years after the end of the last installment. Bonnie (now voiced by Madeleine McGraw) prepares for kindergarten while Woody wrestles with the fact that she rarely plays with him anymore. When Bonnie struggles at school orientation, Woody—having snuck into her backpack—throws a spork and some other garbage on the table during arts and crafts, which Bonnie makes into her new favorite toy, Forky (Tony Hale). Cursed with new life, Forky tries to return to the garbage can again and again, which forces Woody to constantly look after him. When a family road trip and Forky’s suicidal tendencies separate him from the group, Woody embarks on an odyssey of evil dolls, lost toys, and self-discovery.
The beats aren’t going to be too revolutionary four entries into any franchise, but while Toy Story 4 definitely replays some of the old hits, it also finds new material. This has really always been Woody’s story, and the picture does a wonderful job of fleshing out the character even further. His interactions with both an old friend and a new enemy lurking inside an antique store offer surprising depth (and darkness), while additions to what was already a knockout cast give Toy Story 4 the humor to match its heart. Tony Hale brings some of his Buster Bluth anxiety to Forky’s existential crisis; Keanu Reeves expertly tackles machismo and doubt as Canuck stuntman Duke Caboom; and old pals Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele team up as Ducky and Bunny to deliver, of course, the movie’s biggest laughs.
Honestly, Toy Story 4 shouldn’t be as good as it is—but that’s Pixar for you. And yet, part of me still wishes they’d stopped at three. There’s no question that this is a good movie, and both longtime fans and newcomers will enjoy it. However, as the new coda to a larger work, Toy Story 4 does feel like a step backward.
Toy Story 4
Director: Josh Cooley
Starring: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Annie Potts
Theater: Area theaters, now showing