“We had such a good story idea that we just had to make it.” Thus was the explanation from Pixar when they announced Toy Story 4, and it served as a preemptive strike against the expected responses of literally everyone, who felt Toy Story 3 was a marvellous way to conclude the storyline of Woody, Buzz et al. I’d like to believe that was the reason, and not marketing considerations (or a dearth of ideas for new Pixar franchises), but Toy Story 4 is not, in fact, an irresistible story. It’s a good story, but when it comes to Toy Story, “good” may not really be good enough. Especially when the way the series might have wrapped up was sublime.
The Toy Story characters themselves are evergreen, and we haven’t yet tired of them. It’s the themes that are starting to feel stale. Woody was grappling with ideas of his own obsolescence from the very opening of the first movie, when Buzz Lightyear landed on Andy’s bed in his cardboard rocket. Is it such a surprise that 24 years later (or about 12 in Toy Story years), he’s still worried he no longer has a function to fill in the lives of his kids?
“Kids” plural because at the end of Toy Story 3, Andy handed over all our favourite neurotic playthings to a little girl named Bonnie when he went off to university. While that certainly set the stage for a whole series of possible new adventures, no one thought they’d actually do it, until a team of writers featuring actress Rashida Jones brought them the concept for Toy Story 4. So there’s a real sense of familiarity as the latest entry begins with Woody and friends, blended now with Bonnie’s pre-existing toys, worrying their little plastic heads off about Bonnie’s every mood or whim.
Bonnie is just starting prep, which sets in motion the creation of some welcome new characters. The first of these is a literal creation, as Bonnie distracts herself during orientation by adding googly eyes to a spork, wrapping around a pipe cleaner for arms, and attaching two wooden popsicle sticks for feet. Dubbing this creature “Forky” and bringing it home with her, she also imbues it with the same kind of secret soul the proper toys enjoy. Except, like Buzz before him, Forky doesn’t understand what it means to be a toy, thinking of himself as more akin to rubbish – and always trying to find the nearest bin. To Bonnie, though, he’s her new favourite plaything.
It would take a real grump not to find this stuff at least somewhat charming, but that’s not the bar Pixar has set for itself. In its idealised form, Pixar is not only innovating visually, but giving us stories that push beyond our expectations. The shining example of that is probably Inside Out, which miraculously jammed together a bunch of high concepts about the inner workings of the mind and made them both accessible for kids and tear-jerking for adults.
Then again, the bar for Pixar sequels is lower than for its original content. Pixar sequels are generally the same creatures of habit as other sequels, trying to give the audience more of what it loved the first time, and never wanting to upset the apple cart with ideas that might not work. Even as Pixar’s best franchise, Toy Story is not immune.
Instead of showing us the real growth these toys might have experienced over their three previous adventures, we essentially get the same versions of them we’ve gotten in every other film. Buzz, for example, might seem to be a source of real wisdom at this point in his personal arc, but instead he gets confused about what Woody means when he talks about listening to his inner voice. He interprets that as the voice that actually emanates from him when you push his buttons – you know, “To infinity and beyond!” – and uses the random sequence of these phrases as his Magic 8 ball telling him what to do. (And in a complaint befitting The Simpsons’ Comic Book Guy, both Woody and Buzz emit phrases we’ve never heard in past movies when their pullstrings were pulled or buttons pushed. Worst Attempt at Realism Ever.)
The good thing is that this stuff is funny. Tom Hanks, Tim Allen and the others whose voices have led us through this odyssey can still bring the laughs, and the scenarios they involve themselves in are still clever enough. Tony Hale’s Forky prompts giggles every time he appears on screen, every time the pupil of one of his googly eyes succumbs to a gravitational shift. And in another Pixar trademark, there are emotional beats near the end that could squeeze tears out of someone if that person were feeling particularly sentimental that day.
All in all, though, one wonders if it was worth messing with the perfection of the three movies that came before just to give us a fourth movie that’s pretty good. Toy Story 4 is better than pretty good, probably, but it just doesn’t have that extra something that distinguishes Pixar’s best. Without giving away the ending, at least now they figure to stop making Toy Story movies. Of course, that’s what we said last time. They’ve already gone beyond infinity once, and could easily do so again.