Updated: Sep 15, 2019
Let’s make one thing crystal clear right off the bat: Toy Story 3 provided the perfect conclusion to Pixar’s flagship franchise, neatly resolving essentially all of the trilogy’s overarching conflicts and themes; Woody seeing Andy off to college, at least, felt like a fairly definitive (and heartfelt) farewell. So this latest installment is not, strictly speaking, entirely “necessary.” That does not, however, mean that it’s some kind of soulless cash grab; on the contrary, Toy Story 4 is a beautiful post-script—an epilogue that manages to elevate its predecessors, putting a pretty bow on an already sublime package.
The first thing you’ll likely notice about Toy Story 4 is that it looks absolutely gorgeous. The movie opens with Woody and the gang attempting to rescue RC during a torrential downpour, and the animators obviously pushed themselves to the limit in an effort to demonstrate just how far CGI has advanced in the past decade, rendering raindrops, grass, mud, leaves, wood, concrete, asphalt, and even the reflections of streetlights in puddles in near-photorealistic detail. Don’t worry, though: the toys and humans are stylized enough to avoid the dreaded Uncanny Valley—with the notable exception of the villain’s ventriloquist dummy henchmen, which very deliberately plunge straight into it.
Of course, the stunning visuals would seem shallow without the support of a strong story, and Toy Story 4 features one of the series’ most compelling narratives to date. In the years since the previous chapter, Woody has found himself increasingly neglected by his new owner, Bonnie; nevertheless, he remains unwaveringly committed to ensuring her happiness. He’s elated when the imaginative little girl latches onto a crude arts-and-crafts project cobbled together from a spork and googly eyes; after all, helping the greenhorn acclimate to the rhythms of the playroom is an opportunity to be useful, rather than collecting dust in the closet.
Unfortunately, the newly-christened Forky still considers himself to be mere trash, and constantly tries to throw himself away. After a tragicomical chain of mishaps leaves the odd couple stranded during a family road trip, Woody struggles to convince his companion to return to the RV, arguing that there’s no greater joy in life than the love of a child. Along the way, he encounters an old friend—Bo Peep, who revels in the freedom of being a “lost toy"—and a dangerous new foe—Gabby Gabby, a defective antique doll so obsessed with finding a permanent home that she’s willing to cannibalize parts from other toys in order to make herself more appealing.
Did you catch that? Every character in the film—hero and antagonist alike—is desperately searching for a purpose, from the makeshift toy that believes he’s destined for the landfill to the forgotten rag dolls that simply crave a bit of affection (appropriately, this could describe either Woody or Gabby Gabby). It’s a thoroughly captivating (and extremely funny) journey that twists and turns in some genuinely surprising directions. I wept at the end of Toy Story 4—tears of joy that, after almost twenty-five years, Pixar is still capable of producing such a magical cinematic experience.