Toy Story 4
seen @ Cinemart Fiveplex, Forest Hills, Queens NY
The first three Toy Story films rank up there with the greatest live-action trilogies in history. The fourth is a kind of post-script, one I never would’ve thought was necessary until I actually saw it. TS4 reminded me that these films were, and always had been, Woody’s story. His relationship with Andy has always lain at the heart of everything: not a parent, not quite a guardian, but something more than a friend (Randy Newman’s theme song notwithstanding), and for the first three films Woody’s purpose was to be there for Andy, no matter what. Now, though, Andy has grown up and moved on, and Woody is young Bonnie’s toy now — but his relationship with her is not the same.
Toy Story was Woody’s story. But his story has come to an end.*
Before we get further into TS4, we need to give a shout-out to the wonderful voice actors of the TS series. Other animated Hollywood films play up their all-star voice casts, especially in the trailers, but not Pixar. Sure, they’ve attracted some well-known names who have all done superlative jobs —Tim Allen, Annie Potts, Don Rickles, Wallace Shawn, Joan Cusack, Ned Beatty, Keanu Reeves, Bonnie Hunt, among many others — but their celebrity has never meant as much to the promotion of the films as the story itself.
Woody may be one of Tom Hanks’ very best roles. Woody may not have superpowers or wear a cape, but he’s a hero in the best sense of the word: he’s a leader, a protector, one who fights for those he loves, and Hanks’ distinctive voice sells the character in part because of Hanks’ own screen persona. He’s been called the modern-day Jimmy Stewart, and the sense of decency and sincerity that he brings to the characters in his live-action films carries over here as well. His voice, combined with the computer-generated wizardry of the Pixar animators, makes for a character you can’t help but believe in, one with self-awareness and agency and personality.
In TS4, however, he loses his purpose. Bonnie creates a “toy” for herself: Forky, a bizarre golem made out of trash which becomes her favorite, but he doesn’t recognize himself as a toy like Woody and the others. Woody is disconsolate at not being Bonnie’s favorite, but because he is such an unselfish and caring individual, he takes it upon himself to protect Forky and acclimate him to this life — until they get separated from Bonnie on a family road trip. While getting Forky back to Bonnie, Woody encounters an old friend: Bo Peep, a toy from the first two films who was feared lost years ago. Turns out she likes being a “free-range” toy, one without a human owner, and this attitude has a profound impact on Woody, who’s at loose ends without Andy and with a new owner who doesn’t appreciate him.
The TS characters suffer deep emotional crises, and if you think about it hard enough, they can be pretty depressing, but Pixar is so skilled at making it all entertaining and funny. There’s a new villain, a kewpie doll who craves Woody’s voice box, and new characters, but they all tie into the emotional arc Woody’s on throughout the whole story: his sense of abandonment by the humans he was created to serve and his urge to fill a niche now that he’s no longer top dog.
Woody makes a huge decision at the end of TS4, a gutsy one on the part of Pixar, but one that speaks to how much they value story over all else — and that’s why they’re the gold standard in American animation today. I didn’t see it coming, but given everything that came before, it makes sense. Kudos, therefore, to writers Andrew Stanton & Stephany Folsom and director Josh Cooley, as well as the writers and directors of all the movies in the franchise, in particular John Lasseter, who got the whole thing started (even if he’s currently in the Hollywood doghouse). There has never been a series of films like this before, animated or live-action. Would that more movie studios cared as much about storytelling as Pixar.
* — Then again, I think everyone thought TS3 was the end, too. TS could continue without Woody, but if it were me, I might change, or at least alter, the title to reflect the new direction. “Toy Stories,” perhaps?
Toy Story 3
TS3 should’ve been nominated for Best Picture