Brandon Shillingford, Contributing Writer
Almost 10 years after the critical and financial success of “Toy Story 3,” Woody, Buzz Lightyear and Jessie return in “Toy Story 4,” a rich, nuanced and heartfelt story that pays tribute to characters who have been a part of our lives for almost 25 years.
While many thought the series reached its natural and fitting finale with the third film, Pixar felt Woody’s story wasn’t quite finished. A few years after its release, it announced a sequel to “Toy Story 3” was in development.
Fast forward a few more years, and that sequel is finally here. The continuation — and hopeful conclusion — of the toys’ journey follows Woody as he and his friends join their new kid, Bonnie, on a road trip.
Joining the gang is Bonnie’s new favorite toy, Forky, a plastic spork going through an existential crisis. While on their adventure, they run into Bo Peep, who makes Woody wonder if there is more to life than belonging to a child.
The biggest problem with Pixar’s sequels is, with the exception of the “Toy Story” films, I always leave the theater asking myself why they needed to be made. Recent Pixar outings like “Monsters University” and “Incredibles 2” have fallen into this trap, leaving us no reason to believe “Toy Story 4” would be different.
I have never been happier to be so wrong.
“Toy Story 4” isn’t just the best sequel Pixar has ever made, it’s also the best “Toy Story” film and one of the best animated movies I’ve ever seen.
This film succeeds because of its writers — Andrew Stanton of “Finding Nemo” and “WALL-E” and Stephany Folsom of “Thor: Ragnarok” — and its director, Josh Cooley. They understand each character, and despite a big time jump at the beginning of the film, the viewer still gets a sense of the characters’ histories.
Cooley and the writers wisely reduced the number of new characters introduced, giving each equal time to shine. New additions to the cast — from Keanu Reeves’ Duke Caboom and Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele’s Ducky and Bunny, to Christina Henricks’ Gabby Gabby — all range from being absurdly funny, to deeply complex and compelling.
But no character encapsulates the essence of these qualities quite like Tony Hale’s Forky. I really can’t say enough about this unique utensil. Besides being the anxiety icon we all need in 2019, Forky operates as a vessel for the characters in this franchise to explore themselves. Forky’s fears draw a fascinating parallel to Pixar and a desire to make follow-ups to their most beloved properties.
After Bonnie makes him out of a pipe cleaner, googly eyes, some gum and a popsicle stick, Forky questions his existence often. Besides being an issue for him and Woody to contemplate, it poses an interesting question to Pixar and the nature of all their sequels.
Why are they being made? Who are they for? And what is the point of them? It’s scary how it asks these questions about consciousness and free will. The idea of a toy challenging its purpose once its kids have grown up, and what its duties and obligations to them are is a really daring and bold idea to share in a movie primarily for children.
Along with being a wonderful metaphor for Pixar as a whole, Forky is one of the funniest characters Pixar has ever created. Tony Hale is brilliant — I don’t think I’ve laughed as hard in any Pixar movie as I did hearing him shakily saying the word “trash” repeatedly.
You can credit this film’s great sense of humor to the writers as much as you can to the performers. It’s pretty incredible how they are able to balance exceptional character beats with jokes and craft a story that is much more tonally consistent than the previous film.
While I’m a fan of “Toy Story 3,” it struggles finding an equal balance in tone, beginning with a lighthearted and fun first two acts, then becoming a heart-wrenching drama in its final 30 minutes. The fourth installment carries this melancholic glee throughout that crescendos into a bittersweet finale that serves as a heartwarming and fitting conclusion to this series we all know and love.
We didn’t need “Toy Story 4,” and we definitely don’t need a fifth. The cynical part of me wanted to dislike this movie because it shows Disney trying to cash in on one of its most beloved and successful properties. But the creatives behind this film know and love their characters. After seeing this film, it’s clear they wouldn’t have made it if they didn’t think there was a story to tell … and wow, what a story.
“Toy Story 4” is a revelation, a heartfelt love letter, and an existential, tear-inducing nightmare we all deserve. And from Pixar, I would expect nothing less.
Now, please, please let it end.