by Kayla McCulloch on Jun 27, 2019

Toy Story (1995) is hugely important — not only was it the first feature-length computer-animated film, but it was also the first feature from Pixar Animation Studios. The family-friendly film was commissioned by Walt Disney Pictures after the success of several Pixar animated shorts, most notably “Tin Toy” (1988), which follows a tiny metal toy trying to escape from a crudely animated infant. With Toy Story’s groundbreaking style and an all-star voice cast that included the likes of Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Laurie Metcalf, Don Rickles, and Wallace Shawn, it’s not surprising that the movie earned almost $374 million worldwide.

Even less surprising is the fact that this first film’s success spawned toys, games, theme-park attractions, spin-off series, and two equally successful sequels in 1999 and 2010. The latter, Toy Story 3, is a seriously heavy and emotionally draining conclusion to the 15-year-long story of Andy and his trusty companions Sheriff Woody (Hanks) and Buzz Lightyear (Allen). Despite the fact that the third chapter earned nearly triple the first film’s worldwide box office, Pixar thereafter let the Toy Story trilogy lie —  and rightfully so, given that everything was wrapped up so perfectly by the time the credits rolled. Nine years later, the studio has decided that what the world needs now is a fourth Toy Story film.

Fittingly, Toy Story 4 opens with a title card that reads “nine years ago.” In the middle of a mission to save RC from a rush of rainwater, a car pulls up and carries Bo Peep (Annie Potts) and her sheep away in a cardboard box — Andy’s little sister, Molly, has no use for her anymore, so her mom has sold the toy to a new owner. After a bittersweet exchange between Woody and Bo, the two go their separate ways. Flashing forward, the toys are back where Andy left them at the end of Toy Story 3: in Bonnie’s room, where a new normal has set in. Mirroring the treatment he received in the first film, Woody feels he has been left behind by his owner, who now favors other toys to him.

As Bonnie prepares to head to kindergarten orientation, Woody notices she is distraught without the comfort of a toy in her hand. He takes it on himself to hop into her backpack and join her for the day, secretly providing a helping hand and eventually tossing her a spork, a pipe cleaner, a popsicle stick, two googly eyes, and a couple of Wikki Stix: exactly what Bonnie needs to create her new best friend, Forky (Tony Hale). When she gets picked up, her parents tell her their family is headed on a road trip for the last week of summer. From here, the standard-fare Toy Story adventure kicks in, shifting from leisurely to high-stakes with very little warning.

This breakneck change of pace could be explained by the film’s tumultuous journey to the big screen — something that hangs over the entire viewing experience. Back in 2010, Lee Unkrich — Toy Story and Toy Story 2 editor and Toy Story 3 director — insisted that Woody and Buzz wouldn’t be back anytime soon. Four years later, Toy Story 4 was announced to investors with Pixar Studio head John Lasseter returning to direct a script written by Rashida Jones and Will McCormack. Describing it as a “romantic comedy,” those close to the project stated that the film wouldn’t be a continuation of the three previous films but an entirely separate story. Then, over the course of four months in late 2017, the film lost its director to sexual-misconduct allegations and its writers to “philosophical differences.” Director Josh Cooley and writers Stephany Folsom and Andrew Stanton were brought on, and production continued as if nothing had happened. The final product feels like several different movies blended smoothly together, with the plot cycling between a rescue mission, a soul search, and a road trip without ever feeling like the Frankenstein film that it could have been.

No matter which of Toy Story 4’s many minds came up with Forky, his character is certainly the most compelling of the new batch. In the first Toy Story, Woody and Buzz are the most popular toys on the market. At their inception, their popularity as products was limited only to the world that existed on screen. With the release of Toy Story 4 nearly a quarter-century later, the group of toys is as instantly recognizable in our world as they are in the film’s. That’s why Woody’s reaction to Forky is so telling — the sheriff can’t help but spiral into anxiety at the thought of Forky being one in a million rather than one of millions, like the manufactured toys.

The most confounding part about that notion is that Forky toys are currently for sale in the real world, available either pre-packaged and pre-assembled or in a “creativity set,” complete with instructions on how to assemble Forky just like in the movie. For the characters in Toy Story 4, the originality of Forky is a threat. The opposite is true of the writers’ room for the film: For this beloved brand to remain relevant, it’s going to have to implement a safe amount of originality if they want to feel fresh. It’s as if Forky is a call to be creative, but only to a certain extent — practically the antithesis to The LEGO Movie (2014), which (despite also being a toy commercial) asked audiences to go against the instruction manuals of their LEGO sets and build what they want. Forky is all but forgotten for a large portion of the film’s middle stretch, dumped in exchange for a storyline that encourages viewers to follow their hearts, so it’s understandable that this call to be creative gets muddled in the reflected light of a much safer, more generic message.

Ultimately, none of this matters to Toy Story 4’s primary audience: children. The film provides the recognizable characters, the impressive animation, and the family-friendly humor that the Pixar name has become synonymous with over the course of the 20 animated features they’ve released since Toy Story. Families are sure to have a good time as they encounter faces both new and old, with Duke Kaboom (Keanu Reeves) and Gabby Gabby (Christine Hendricks) playing key roles and Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele bringing some caustic comedy into the mix with their characters Ducky and Bunny. Bonnie is an amicable and involved character — arguably more so than Andy, who mostly stayed out of the picture during the adventures that took place in the first three films — and her presence never feels unwanted. It’s worth mentioning that some may miss the company of Buzz, Jessie, and the rest of Andy’s toys: Despite what the film’s advertising campaign would lead audiences to believe, this movie is less about Forky (or any of the other toys) and more about Woody resolving his four-film-long arc, pushing many main characters from past films into supporting roles.

That said, viewers tired of sequels are not likely to find anything in Toy Story 4 that will make them change their minds — it’s far better than the fourth entries from other animated franchises like Shrek Forever After (2010) or Ice Age: Collision Course (2016), but there’s nothing here that hasn’t been touched on in other Toy Story films. Woody’s treatment mirrors the way Andy tossed him aside in exchange for Buzz in Toy Story. The same goes for the horror and existentialism that set in among the toys once they meet Forky — a similar theme is explored in the first film when Woody and Buzz come face-to-face with Sid’s horrendous creations. Even Gabby Gabby and her antique store feel a little too close to Lotso and the daycare prison featured in Toy Story 3.

Behind the scenes, current Pixar Animation Studio head Pete Docter has pledged to invest solely in original projects for the foreseeable future. This goal is especially promising after the nine-year-long string of sequels that started with Toy Story 3. At the studio’s inception, original ideas flowed freely, with only one sequel appearing in Pixar’s first 15 years. Since then, a breath of fresh air from Pixar seemed hard to come by — seven of the studio’s past 11 films have been follow-ups of some kind. As with the original Toy Story, Toy Story 4 serves as a starting line for an exciting slate of never-before-seen ideas. With no more sequels on the horizon, here’s hoping Pixar’s next chapter is as promising as its first.

Rating: B