Raleigh, N.C. — As painful as it may be, sometimes you have to acknowledge that pieces of pop culture you held precious as a kid are just another cog in a moneymaking machine. Despite its great characters and enthralling stories, the Toy Story franchise is one of those cogs, and Pixar is one of those machines.
Nine years ago, the film series crescendoed with Toy Story 3. It was the perfect combination of fun and heart. More than that, the filmmakers found the perfect way to bid farewell to these beloved characters and this story.
So why is a fourth Toy Story movie hitting theaters this week? Because Toy Story merchandise still sells, and nine years later, there is a whole new generation of kids that need to be motivated to buy a piece of plastic shaped like Buzz Lightyear.
There is no lack of fun or laugh out loud moments in Toy Story 4, but compared to the previous trilogy, this one feels a bit hollow.
It isn’t bad by any means, but what we have to compare it to is so much better. If the first three movies were on par with some of the tentpoles in animation history, Toy Story 4 is on par with the made for TV Toy Story movies that have shown up on ABC and the Disney Channel in the last decade.
In Toy Story 4, Woody has gone from favorite toy to afterthought. He sits in Bonnie’s closet while she plays with virtually every other toy she owns.
He has to sneak into her backpack on the first day of kindergarten just to spend some time with his kid. While at school, Bonnie takes a plastic spork, a pipe cleaner and some googly-eyes and makes Forky, another new friend that has surpassed Woody in the toy pecking order.
Most of Toy Story 4 centers on Woody trying to teach Forky that he isn’t trash, but instead a toy with the great responsibility of comforting Bonnie as she makes her way through kindergarten. Along the way we meet Gabby Gabby, a broken pull string toy from the 1950s, and rediscover Bo Peep, a long forgotten toy that used to belong to Andy’s sister and the love of Woody’s life. I won’t spoil anymore than that.
There is plenty in this movie to make any Disney fan smile, including Woody mimicking the pose of the classic Mickey Mouse telephone and a reference to the long-forgotten Disneyland attraction America Sings! There’s also a new very-on-brand song from Randy Newman.
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What works against Toy Story 4 is all of the evidence of just how poorly the first film has aged. That is not to say there there is some non-PC problem with the original Toy Story. It suffers from the same problem in 2019 that any former technical marvel does. When it gets old, it gets really old.
There is a moment in the first five minutes of Toy Story 4 that makes it clear just how far computer animation has come in the 24 years since the first movie was released. Woody’s fingers move with no hiccup or clunkiness.
Everything is just so much more fluid now.
Another area where Toy Story 4 makes it clear the series has taken one swing too many at the box office piñata is with Buzz Lightyear. That is a one joke character, and it isn’t a joke that can sustain itself over four movies. So what is the solution to that problem? Just like with Homer Simpson and Peter Griffin, when you run out of ideas for an iconic animated character, it is time to make him stupider.
All of the growth we have seen from the space ranger over the first three films is thrown out the window in order to make jokes about a talking toy’s voice box being his inner voice.
Toy Story 4 is one of my least favorite Pixar movies, and that is really a testament to how good this series has been through three movies. Toy Story 4 isn’t bad. It is simply completely unnecessary.
What made the Toy Story franchise, and Pixar in general, so special special was the focus on storytelling and originality.
There is no original twist left when a franchise gets to film number four. These characters got their happy ending nine years ago. Pixar and animation fans in general would have been better served with a new set of characters to invest in rather than fine-but-nothing-special fourth dip into the Toy Story pool.