When Toy Story 4 was announced, I reacted like most others: I was surprised, confused, and skeptical. Toy Story 3 was a beautiful ending to the franchise; what could a fourth film possibly do to top it? In the age of prequels, remakes, sequels, and cinematic universes, I wasn’t exactly eager to assume the best of Pixar’s motives in making the film. Yet, I still didn’t write it off completely. Just because a follow-up is “unnecessary” doesn’t mean it’s dead on arrival. Most times you’ll get a Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, yes, but sometimes you get Better Call Saul. And really, even if it were just adequate, it wouldn’t be the end of the world. As long as it didn’t ruin the previous Toy Story movies, a nice afternoon at the theater wouldn’t be too bad.
I was very surprised coming out of Toy Story 4. It definitely wasn’t a safe, inconsequential follow up. The ending of the movie leaves the series’ main character in a fundamentally different place than he was at the end of the prior film, and considering the beauty of Toy Story 3’s ending, such a move could’ve proven disastrous. For some, it was. I’m sure there are many who would like to pretend that Toy Story 4 never happened at all. But for me, the ending of Toy Story 4, and the film in general is nothing short of brilliance.
In order to explain why, I need to look back at the rest of the series. The Toy Story franchise is a children’s series about colorful sentient toys who get into fun hijinks. Woody and his rival-turned-best-pal Buzz Lightyear go on high flying, humorous adventures in fun, easy to watch, 90 minute installments. That being said, it’s no secret at this point that the series also manages to regularly draw tears from adults. The ending of Toy Story 3, is in fact, memetic in how emotional people find it to be.
That’s because Pixar movies, at their best, are masterclasses in how to make kids movies. They’re fantastic at providing experiences that are actually fun for the whole family. You don’t grow out of Pixar movies, they just grow up alongside you. Finding Nemo, for instance, is a fundamentally different movie when watched as a kid versus when watched as an adult with kids of their own. Or so I’ve been told.
And if Pixar are the masters of this, then the Toy Story series is their masterpiece. A Toy Story film only comes out once in a blue moon. Four years passed between the first and second films, over a decade between the second and third, and nearly another decade between the third and fourth. Perhaps because of this fact, the Toy Story series is one that concerns itself in large part with the question of time. The good and bad aspects of time. The warmth of nostalgia and long lasting friendships versus the bleak and scary prospect of impending irrelevancy and the loss of childhood.
These ideas are embodied in the character of Woody. Each of the four Toy Story films are kind of the same movie, or at the very least, Woody comes to grips with the same idea in each of the four movies. It’s just different facets of that idea. In the first film, he grows resentful of new arrival, Buzz Lightyear, believing that he is set to usurp his place as leader of the toys and Andy’s favorite. In Toy Story 2, Woody gets damaged and must come to grips with the fact that Andy will eventually stop playing with him some day. Toy Story 3 is about that very day, as Andy is heading for college, and Woody fears he’ll be separated from the other toys, who’ll spend the rest of their existence gathering dust in the attic. Finally, Toy Story 4 is about Woody realizing that Bonnie is very different from Andy and questioning his purpose with a kid that doesn’t need him the same way Andy did.
What I enjoy about each of the Toy Story sequels is the way that they steadily widen the microscope, exploring more and more of the Toy Condition. The quaint premise of “What if toys were sentient” is treated fairly seriously, and each film explores some new aspect of what that actually means: what it means to be a toy with a bad owner, what happens when a child loses a toy, how does a toy find happiness when it can no longer be with its child, etcetera.
Toy Story 4 is the broadest exploration of the topic yet. In a lot of ways it sort of asks the question of “What does it even mean to be a Toy?” It explores this question in a way with Forky, Bonnie’s hastily constructed “toy” that not-inaccurately, believes itself to really be “trash.” Yet, it is alive, same as all the other toys we’ve met so far. The film doesn’t quite go as far as say Blade Runner in exploring the question of what it means to be alive, but it does lightly touch on it with a mix of genuine earnesty and humor.
The true exploration of the topic comes with Bo Peep and her relationship to Woody. Bo Peep, who was rather unceremoniously written off at the beginning of Toy Story 3, is revealed in this film to have been donated and then forgotten about after her owner came of age. Previous films have shown lost and abandoned toys to be bitter and traumatized at best, and outright villainous at worst. Bo Peep, however, seems quite content, along with her band of fellow “lost” toys, and the events of the film make Woody and the audience – or at least myself – question the relationship between toys and humans.
Previous films have portrayed toys’ entire existence as revolving around humans. Either they’re with humans, put on display for humans, or lost and forgotten by humans, a state of being which is tantamount to the absolute worst possible situation for a toy. Indeed, Toy Story 3 parallels it with death by burning inferno. Put in the context of the real world, this makes sense, sure. Toys are made by and for humans. Yet, as portrayed by the films, toys seem to experience a level of sentience that is more or less akin to that of humans. Woody has a full range of emotions and personality and even interests that have nothing to do with Andy. Take his relationship with Bo Peep. Unless there’s some cosmic ordinance saying otherwise, there’s no reason he couldn’t spend the rest of his existence with another toy that makes him happy. Toy Story 4 actually acknowledges that and goes on to suggest that a Toy can just…live a life. Quite like a parent whose children have grown up and left the house, a toy needn’t attach itself to the next nearest child, but can retire and enjoy life on its own terms.
To some, the ending of Toy Story 4 – Woody breaking off with the rest of the toys to be with Bo Peep and her gang, travelling the world without a human – can be seen as something of a violation of the previous films. Toys belong with humans first and foremost, and Woody and the rest of Andy’s toys specifically belong together. But I would argue that this isn’t a violation, just a continuation of what Toy Story films have been doing since the second: examining the evolving situation of the toys with the context of time and change. The same way as I wouldn’t say it’s a betrayal for Toy Story 2 and 3 to suggest that Andy’s relationship with his toys, his defining trait in the first movie, would change as he grew older, I don’t think it’s a betrayal to say that Woody’s understanding of his purpose would change in new circumstances. At the end of Toy Story 3 it seemed life under Bonnie would be just like it was with Andy, but time revealed she had her own nuances that made her different from Andy. Woody wasn’t necessary to her life. As such, he could get away with living his own.