There comes a time when a movie franchise is so dialed in that it can seemingly do no wrong. The Toy Story series is one of those franchises. Not only has Pixar struck and stuck with a winning formula, but moviegoers have lived with these characters for close to 25 years in one incarnation or another. We’ve laughed with them, cried with them, and grown with them. We know them. These toys might as well be our friends. As such, does it really matter what hijinks they get themselves into next? Probably not, so long as they behave the way we know them to. As such, Toy Story 4 is like hanging out with old friends, and it’s a blast.
In Toy Story 4, Bonnie (voiced by Madeleine McGraw), the new owner of the toys is old enough to attend kindergarten, but she’s worried about the new experience. Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks) stows away in Bonnie’s backpack to ensure that her first day is a good one. To cope with being without her toys for a day, Bonnie creates a new toy out of scraps that Woody digs out from the trash, like some pipe cleaners, googly eyes, and a spork. From that, Bonnie creates Forky (voiced by Tony Hale), which becomes her new favorite toy. And when he goes missing, it’s up to Woody to bring him back, and this adventure reunites Woody with old friends and pits him against new threats.
Having caught a bit of the original Toy Story recently, the visual fidelity in the computer graphics have certainly come a very long way. In the opening moments of the film, the toys attempt a daring rescue during a torrential rainstorm. The artwork looked amazingly real, from the way the water bounced off and accumulated on the character models to how the light refracted and reflected realistically off surfaces. It was only when the cartoony humans entered the frame that the verisimilitude was dispelled. Toy Story 4 has raised the bar once again, and we shouldn’t take technology like this for granted.
Beyond the visuals, however, is a plot that’s rife with hilarious comedic gags. A set of “Combat Carls” (voiced by Carl Weathers) enjoy high-fiving, but always leave one hanging. Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key join the cast as plushies, and they bring their signature high-energy creativity to the movie. And Forky has trouble accepting his new existence as a toy instead of trash which makes him constantly seek out waste bins. It all works, and the theater I was in was so raucous with laughter that I sometimes missed the next bit of dialog.
If there’s one criticism to level, then it would be that the story does feel a little random. That is to say that while the characters all have goals – and audiences want those characters to succeed – there doesn’t seem to be any dire consequences if the characters fail in their mission. But does the plot even matter for this franchise? I think that anyone who is a fan of the series will watch these characters no matter what. With that said, there doesn’t appear to be any real stakes in Toy Story 4, but, knowing that, the movie doesn’t suffer at all.
Ultimately, it’s the themes that make Toy Story 4 work. Friendship. Loyalty. Sacrifice. These aren’t groundbreaking revelations into the human condition, but they are the messages that families will take with them long after the movie ends.