The Toy Story franchise could have very easily ended nine years ago with the third entry. Woody (Tom Hanks) and Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) could have very well gone off in to the sunset and the world would have been okay. Pixar had other designs for Woody, Buzz, and the characters who filled Andy’s life with joy. Toy Story 4, which continues in that tradition, graces cinema screens worldwide this Friday.
Many might see another adventure as a cash grab, a ploy to pull on the heartstrings of those who have been with the films since Randy Newman’s “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” played to audiences’ delight. That theme still resonates through Toy Story 4. Andy has gone off to college and to greater things. Bonnie, the recipient of his toy collection at the end of Toy Story 3, has taken on the responsibility of caring for the toys.
Bonnie, a preschooler, is preoccupied with her dolls and cowgirls rather than cowboys and astronauts, but is no less aware of the fact that the hand-me-downs from Andy are a part of her life when her introduction to kindergarten is thrust upon her. She is initially resistant, but her parents know what Woody and Buzz reluctantly acknowledge; that this is a part of the growing process and is ultimately necessary.
What surprised me about the Toy Story 4 story is that it expands on this theme throughout the film. The screenplay by Stephany Folsom and Andrew Stanton, story by John Lasseter, Rashida Jones, Will McCormack, Josh Cooley, Valerie LaPointe, Martin Hynes, Folsom, and Stanton, treats this theme with kid gloves especially as we go along with Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw) to her first day.
We see the growing pains with trying to integrate, socially, with other kids. We don’t make it easy on one another, which is why we take comfort in our toys.
In a moment of inspiration, Bonnie creates Forky (Tony Hale), who becomes her special friend. The herd is perfectly willing to integrate Forky, but Forky doesn’t understand what it’s like to be loved. It takes a great adventure like a late summer family vacation to make the point stick, which leads us to a whole host of new characters and some familiar friends.
Nothing about Toy Story 4 is somber. The story weaves our existing characters into this story’s thread in a very exciting way, so as not to be an continuation of the original trilogy, but as an extension of it. This is Woody’s story and some very adult themes come about as a result. It isn’t overbearing in that regard. We’re happy to see Bo Peep (Annie Potts) make a return in this film, who I found to be the most evolved of the characters, giving Woody a new outlook on what being a toy is really all about.
Forky’s existential crisis is also treated with a light touch, enough so that kids of all ages (yes, even this one) could grasp the concept. In an interesting contrast, where Bonnie was left to fend for herself in the classroom, Woody helped Forky adjust into their world; it was a nice touch that gave Forky more development.
Of all the characters for this new film, the grandest was Duke Caboom, voiced by Keanu Reeves. There was cinematic joy in seeing yet another forgotten toy come back to life in a meaningful way. That’s no easy feat for a story where the main human character was missing.
Then again, the heart of Toy Story has always been Woody.
Toy Story 4 is poetic in this regard. It is not a direct sequel to Andy’s adventures with Woody and Buzz, but the incredible storytellers at Pixar managed to cook up something new and brilliant with beautiful animation at its heart.
Toy Story 4 is in theaters this Friday and is rated PG by the MPAA. All photos courtesy of Disney-Pixar.