Toy Story 4 was a nostalgic epilogue that left audiences wanting more. Making a fourth addition to a solid trilogy is always a risky move, especially with a franchise as beloved as Toy Story. The general premise is that toys have hidden lives when children are not playing with them, but dream of making the children that take care of them happy. For retro cowboy doll Woody, this means being loyal to their child owners and each other. It has always been a series with a lot of heart, teaching children how to cope with abandonment, adoption and loss. With each film, the family of toys grew in number, with the human protagonist growing up with the audience. The previous installment ended on a hopefully note, showing an adult give his beloved toys to a new child who loved them just as much. It was a story that seemed complete.
Following the theatrical release of Toy Story 3, Pixar released five short films exploring the life of the toys with their new owner Bonnie. They were fun little shorts that aired on Disney channel and added fun characters to the series, such as the lively Combat Carl. It affirmed to the audience their favorite characters were happy in their new home and would continue to fulfill their true purpose long after the series had ended.
Then Toy Story 4 was released.
As I mentioned before, adding sequels to a franchise is always a risk, let us not forget the flop that was Cars 2. So my expectations were beyond low and I can’t say I was terribly disappointed. Granted, I am among many who grew up watching the VHS copies of the first two movies, so it’s difficult to claim my opinions are purely objective. I enjoyed the nod to previous shorts; like the Battlesaurs lunch box and the many iterations of Combat Carl. But a movie has to be more than a series of references to previous works; it has to stand on its own as a story. In the case of Toy Story 4, it simply forgot what audiences loved about the first three movies.
We open to find that Woody, a toy not without his faults, is falling out of favor with his new owner Bonnie. During play time he’s left in the closet with literal baby toys, helplessly watching from the sidelines. Fans who have followed the series, have had 2.5 hrs of content and a movie showing how much Bonnie loves playing with Woody and the other toys. It also hasn’t been the first time the series has used Woody’s fear of losing his spot as a favorite toy to instigate the plot. Other than being a stale idea, the way it’s executed alienates the audience from Bonnie and the other toys who don’t sympathize with Woody’s anxiety.
We’re also introduced to the idea that a toy can literally be made of garbage, which while it made a fun gag, was not a strong enough premise to sustain the plot. Bonnie’s creation, Forky, is a frankenstienesque creature that longs to return to the garbage. All of his character development (learning to talk, accepting his new role, etc) all happens off screen. It’s like they took two different characters and made them share a body.
They also rewrite the character of Bo Peep, a porcelain lamp figurine that belonged to their previous owner’s sister. Now this character has always been Woody’s counterpart, but because of how easily she could break, she was a delicate voice of reason. A guardian type character, Bo Peep watched over the other toys and helped delegate in times of crisis. So rewriting her as a lone wolf action hero doesn’t make sense. Woody’s reunion with her is underwhelming, as she literally shrugs off everything that was what her character once was including her dress (she wears pants now). Changing a feminine character into a wreckless tom-boy doesn’t make her a better female protagonist. All it does is swap out a perfectly good character with a cookie cutter “strong female” recipe that I’m tired of seeing.
To top it all off, the movie has the weakest antagonist of the theatrical releases. In their efforts to make a sympathetic villain, they effectively water down any tension in the film. There’s more of a sense of urgency and suspense when an RV is driving on screen than when the main antagonist is staring down the protagonist. Without a strong villain, the careless acts of the human children seem more despicable. It’s hard to cheer for Woody to go home when the antagonist calls from him out by name more than his owner Bonnie.
Don’t get me wrong, the animation in Toy Story 4 is beautiful and the voice talent is superb. Had I watched this as a standalone film, I’d say it’s a decent kids’ movie. But up against the might of the previous installments, it was weak. Far from a soulless cash grab, the movie had a lot of heart in it and good ideas. The execution was that of a cat napping in the sun on a late afternoon. It does not by any means, ruin the series or need to be boycotted.
Leaving the theater, one audience member sum it up best.
“…But did I like the whole movie?”