REVIEW: Toy Story 4 is magical enough to justify its existence

The purpose behind any major motion picture is to make money. That’s it. Not to be cynical but it’s not about “art” or “emotions” or “having a message” or anything like that. You can find lots of movies that have something to say, filled with big emotional moments, and which can be considered art, but they were either self-financed as passion projects or the “art” just so happened to be wrapped in a package that was commercial enough to make money. If it’s not able to be packaged, then the art either is nixed or the whole project simply dies on the vine.

That’s not cynicism, that’s Hollywood.

Nevertheless, fair or not (and I guess it isn’t fair) I hold movies to a higher standard. It may be the case that a movie was released because its producers thought it would make them money, but I’m not going to be interested in seeing it unless it has something to offer. And especially when it comes to sequels, I need those movies to have a purpose for existing. It’s okay if that purpose is just “the continuing adventures of…” but there needs to be something that is offered, either to help the character(s) grow or to expand or conclude the overall story. If you can do that, I’ll put down my “there are too many sequels” pitchfork and cheer.

Raiders of the Lost Ark is a perfect movie, but its sequels were justified in that they challenged Indy in different and darker ways (Temple of Doom) or brought closure to the character (The Last Crusade). Star Wars’ sequels are justified because there was more to the story after A New Hope, The Phantom Menace, and The Force Awakens.

But what about Toy Story?

Had there never been a Toy Story 2 you wouldn’t have felt like you were missing something but the first one certainly left you feeling like more could be told. By the end of Toy Story 2, however, the series felt like it had said all it needed to say. There was closure to it. Then Toy Story 3 was announced and everyone sort of furrowed their brows and said: “let’s not risk spoiling what is already perfect.” Ninety minutes later everyone was weeping and saying “okay, you win Pixar. We were wrong. That was the closure and finale the series needed.” And then Toy Story 4 got announced and everyone furrowed their brows again.

You’d think we’d learn to trust Pixar.

I confess to being a bit apprehensive about this movie, just as I was about Toy Story 3.  I understood the financial argument: Toy Story is one of Disney’s most profitable franchises ever, due in large part to the toys they sell in stores year in and year out. There have only been three (now four) movies in the series, but kids have been buying Woody, Buzz, and the gang for almost twenty-five years running. There’s a lot of dollar signs and zeroes attached to Toy Story so I get why Disney would want to see the franchise continue.

As a movie-lover, however, I needed a film that deserved its place among the previous three. I needed a movie that wasn’t just good, or even great, but was a fitting piece of the overall story. Yes, I know these are kids movies about toys. It doesn’t matter. Movies are movies and the good ones earn a special and lofty place in the hearts of movie-lovers. With that lofty place means you either go out on a high note and don’t make any more (E.T.) or you roll the dice and hope the next one doesn’t sour your overall opinion on the series (eh hem).

Toy Story 3 was Pixar rolling the dice and scoring a Yahtzee. Inexplicably they rolled again; is Toy Story 4 a worthy successor? Is it good enough to stand alongside the previous three? Most importantly does it justify its existence or tell a story that feels like a natural follow-up to what came before?

Mostly yes.

Right off the bat, it has to be said that Toy Story 4 is not as good as the previous three. The story is a little too thin, the ensemble is a little too underutilized, and it moves just a little too slowly. That being said, it has some sharp dialogue, some great new characters, some absolutely stunning animation (there’s a house cat that you will swear is real), and—most importantly—it has story that feels like it belongs and works as a fitting follow-up to Toy Story 3, and provides genuine closure (once again) to the franchise.

Toy Story 4 is all about Woody, but when you think about it, the whole franchise is:

Toy Story 1 dealt with Woody’s insecurity as Andy’s favorite. Buzz was just there to service Woody’s story.

Toy Story 2 forced Woody to contemplate the possibility of not being needed anymore and to make a decision to be proactive or reactive. He chooses to be reactive and stay with Andy until the bitter end. With that his character arc from movie one is complete but as you can read, that arc ends on kind of a downer note. I mean, the second movie literally closes with Woody and Buzz basically saying “we’re with him till he’s through with us.” That’s kind of sad, no?

Toy Story 3 took the presumption of Toy Story 2 and made it a reality. Andy grew up and no longer needed his toys, specifically Woody. The movie seemed to end on a happy note as the gang was given away to a new kid. Thus the movie was about being replaced and learning to let go of one owner to be embraced by a new. In hindsight, that’s also kind of a sad ending, since Bonnie will eventually grow up, and so will the next kid, and the next. Are these toys doomed to a cycle of “acceptance, love, dismissal, acceptance, love, dismissal, etc” forever?

Thus Toy Story 4.

This movie is also about letting go but from a deeper, more personal perspective. Throughout this series, the one constant has been Woody’s determination to put his “kid” first. He’s been the workhorse, the go-getter, the selfless leader. But in finding Bo and realizing that he could be happy without a kid, coupled with Bonnie pulling an Andy and starting to grow out of her dependence on him, Woody makes the decision to let go…not just of his kid but of being a kid’s toy. He closes the loop and exits the circle. He takes the endings of all three movies and brings them to a fitting conclusion.

Along the way the movie offers some great moments, including a three-part gag featuring Key and Peele and a little old lady. Ironically, the scene that moved me the most had very little to do with Woody and was all about a sad little doll being united with a little lost girl.

Pixar knows how to pull the heartstrings better than any movie-makers today and though Toy Story 4 doesn’t reach the heights of perfection that the previous entries in the series achieved, it does succeed in providing closure to its characters and wrapping up every possible story arc that’s been present since 1995. So, for the third Toy Story movie in a row, I feel like the series has closure and can finally be done.

Which means Toy Story 5 will probably be great in five years or so.

Until then…

9/10 – Lower your expectations a bit, enjoy the characters, and go on the journey that Pixar has in store for you. If you do, you’ll find plenty to laugh and cry about in a movie that’s just worthy enough for the tremendous franchise it belongs to. You can’t ask for much more than that.

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