The third Toy Story film took me by surprise. Expectations were high after the first two, although I thought number two dipped a little from the original, and back then Pixar Studios hadn’t really put a foot wrong (this was before Cars 2 and The Good Dinosaur). In fact they’d just had that incredible three film run of Ratatouille, Wall-E and Up. I trusted it was going to be good then but quite how good was not something I had anticipated. Toy Story 3 is a brilliant, brilliant movie. First off there is the great characterisation that was already a staple of the series and all of the studio’s work. On top of this though there are some superb action heist sequences that use the nature and design of the toys in some incredibly witty and creative ways and then there is that heartbreaking ending where Andy and his toys part company. On the face of it Toy Story 3 was a cartoon about toys that come to life but just below the surface it is a homage to decades of cinema across a range of genres and a beautiful meditation on growing up and moving on. All in all then a pretty hard act to follow.
The output of Pixar has been a bit more hit and miss over the last few years. On top of the disappointments of Cars 2 and The Good Dinosaur they’ve also dropped the yellow, red and blue bouncy ball on Monsters University, Cars 3 and Finding Dory. Of course they’ve produced the wonderful Inside Out and Coco as well but the guarantee of unarguable quality is not there anymore and the trend is toward weaker sequels.
Toy Story 4 could really have gone either way then and if it hadn’t worked then it ran the risk of tarnishing the memory of Woody and Buzz’s previous adventures.
As it turns out, it’s not a problem. Toy Story 4 is a really good movie. It isn’t as strong as its direct predecessor but it probably equals the first two, definitely the second, and does something fresh with the established premise.
The early part of the story centres around Forky, four year old Bonnie’s new favourite toy made by her out of a spork and some pipe cleaners. We have seen these playthings suffering an existential crisis before but this character is wrestling not with the fact that he is a toy but with the fact that he isn’t even that. How these toys are alive is never explained in these films, of course it isn’t, but Forky raises the suggestion that it isn’t anything to do with the manufacturing giving them sentience, it is love of a child. This is a nice idea. Clearly we have seen toys who have never been owned before and they are still talking and walking around but they’ve always been a little disturbed, possibly from never being properly, only peripherally, given life.
The notion of the rejected toy going a little psycho is played with again in this movie but with old fashioned doll Gabby Gabby they have done something different to Stinky Pete and Lots-o-Huggin Bear from numbers 2 and 3 respectively. All of these characters have interesting back stories but they’ve still been fairly one dimensional. There is more to Gabby Gabby and her narrative arc and the life changing effects it has on one of our regular heroes offer some proper surprises.
There are other aspects that feel familiar from other Pixar films too. Parts of Toy Story 4 bring to mind the animals driving the truck in Finding Dory and the toys in the Pizza Van from this series and you’ll be reminded of the mini Buzz from the short film Small Fry. Every single time though they do something new with the premise.
The biggest reinvention is definitely with the female players. In the same way that Incredibles 2 carried on an existing story but from a more feminist stand point by putting Elastigirl front and centre, so too does this film. It’s isn’t Jessie that gets prompted though (although she does literally get promoted) or even Barbie, it is Bo Peep. Bo was initially marginalised and they totally dropped her from Toy Story 3 but having not known what to do with her before they totally know what to do with her here. She is reinvented as an action star and is a real porcelain powerhouse.
All of this may push Buzz aside a little and generally the ensemble cast are not as well managed as before but Woody remains key to everything and his story takes turns almost as emotional as in this movie’s astounding predecessor. Toy Story 4 is a remarkably tightly plotted, exciting, deep, funny and occasionally tear jerking film. It is easily worthy to sit alongside the other films in the series and like the best of Pixar, it sits way above the majority of family movies hitting cinemas at the moment.