I could write a long-winded introduction explaining the backstory of Toy Story both narratively and culturally but there’s no need. If you’re alive, the franchise has become ubiquitous, especially if you’re American. In fact it and Pixar’s success is so bankable, the fourth installment is simultaneously both the sequel everyone and no one asked for. This is 2019, and the third movie was released in 2010…and the second was released in 1999…and the original was released in 1995. Has there ever been a consistently-released franchise with such large gaps between entries in its series?
(Someone fact check me on that question without including a movie titled Star Wars.)
The changing of the times with each sequel is obvious, if not just from the animation. Due to ever-improving technology, Toy Story 4 moves closer to realism and the uncanny valley. At times the results are distracting. Most notably, a shiny effect is added to the character’s faces. The intent is unclear, but the result is an unneeded glossiness that threatens the depth of the ideas the story brings forth. Likewise, sometimes these toys seem too real. It’s almost as if you’re no longer watching a story about toys but a world of little people that you’re just not aware of.
This issue with the animation is also manifests in the story as the universe’s dynamics strain under what can best be called “franchise creep.” To continue to propel a franchise forward, its core premise must be pushed in new and unexpected (and often unneeded) directions. What generally happens alongside this premise pushing is details about the universe are stretched to the point of incredibility or irrelevance. Thus, the franchise slowly creeps away from what it was at its core.
This creep is most common in horror, a genre known for turning out as many sequels as possible. By the time Saw reached its fourth entry, it was no longer about the psychological complexity of villain Jigsaw’s traps. It was about putting people in extremely grotesque situations while finding some way to pretend that Jigsaw himself is still alive. Toy Story suffers a similar problem in its fourth entry as the toys run around just outside of the humans’ line of sight rather than coming alive when they aren’t alive. No longer is this tale about toys’ relationship with their kid. It’s about an entire world of toys that exists within the human world without the knowledge of humans.
This storytelling approach is necessary because Woody, the story’s protagonist, has lost his way. While he was the favorite of his original owner Andy, new owner Bonnie often leaves him in the closet. He has such a hard time accepting his new position in the hierarchy that he sneaks into Bonnie’s bag on her first day of kindergarten to witness her creating Forky from trash. He then bears witness to Forky coming alive, and the weirdness only gets weirder from there.
What follows is an existential reflection on the role of toys either after their owner has grown up or they’ve been lost. The plot beats all make sense and are paced fine. The antagonist (a toy version of a female incel) and her henchmen are a bit creepier than Lotso and company but are appropriate considering the main conflict is internal. There’s nothing here technically to call out or bemoan. The movie is thoroughly enjoyable–it just lumbers under a heavy sense of being completely unnecessary.
At the movie’s end, another version of a franchise farewell plays (which makes sense considering producer Mark Nielsen said they approach every movie as if it is the first and last they will make). However, during the poignant delivery of Buzz Lightyear’s catchphrase, it’s hard to accept that this is really the end (especially as spin-off series is easy to conceptualize from the story’s conclusion). Toy Story 3’s ending seemed to already tick all the conclusion check boxes. This film’s goodbye, then, becomes lost; instead replaced in the memory by a closing credits scene.
In first grade, Bonnie again creates a toy from trash and brings her home. Mimicking a a scene from early in the film, the new female toy Knifey is introduced to the group. Understandably, she draws the most attention from Forky who she asks, “How am I alive?” He screams, “I don’t know.”
Surely that exchange will echo even more strongly upon the inevitable release of Toy Story 5.