I think we’ve reached a point in this summer’s blockbuster season where it seems like everything that was supposed to go right has completely backfired in some fashion. Whether it’s good movies disappointing financially (Godzilla: King of the Monsters, Booksmart), remakes failing to hold audiences critically (Aladdin (2019), Shaft (2019)), or franchise tentpoles dropping dead on arrival (Dark Phoenix, Men In Black: International, etc.), it’s undeniable that in this post-Endgame power vacuum, nobody’s really been able to pick things back up. This is especially tough for families out there, for whom the only option short of dragging their kids into Ma is the critically reviled next entry in the Secret Life of Pets franchise. Surely, at some point this summer, someone’s got to pick up the ball again…right?
Enter Toy Story 4 (released June 2019 and directed by Pixar veteran Josh Cooley), which was originally slated to be released in 2017, directed by Disney-Pixar CCO (and original Toy Story director) John Lasseter, and written by Rashida Jones and Will McCormack.
That did not go as planned.
At first, the film was pushed back with Incredibles 2 taking up its original release date in 2018. Then, in November of 2017, news broke to the public that Jones and McCormack had left the project a year prior as a result of the company stifling the voices of “women and people of color,” per an IndieWire report. This ultimately led to a bombshell report by The Hollywood Reporter, detailing how Lasseter, the self-described “Peter Pan,” had a propensity for “grabbing, kissing, making comments about physical attributes,” and more. Long story short, Lasseter got the boot from Disney and Pixar at the end of 2018, leaving Toy Story 4 in the hands of Cooley less than a year before the movie was slated to run.
So, after being delayed for over a year and possibly catalyzing this massive (and well-justified) shake-up, Toy Story 4 stands to have the longest development cycle in Pixar history. Given the situation at hand, one can only ask; does it live up to its predecessors?
Strange Things are happening
Taking place shortly after the events of Toy Story 3 (meaning that after nearly a decade’s wait between movies, this is technically a 2010 period piece), Toy Story 4 catches us back up with Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), and the rest of the former residents of Andy’s room, now living out their days under the ownership of a little girl named Bonnie (Madeline McGraw) in peace and harmony…or so it seems. Strange things have been happening once again for our pull string sheriff, having being usurped as the “favorite toy” and left in the closet collecting dust bunnies alongside other forlorn playthings with punny names (CHAIRol Burnett, anyone?). Things get stranger after our hero unintentionally helps Bonnie frankenstein a newly-sentient suicidal trash goblin named Forky (Tony Hale). However, after a family road trip goes awry, leaving Forky in the hands of a macabre doll (Christina Hendricks) and Woody in the hands of a mysterious (action) figure from his past, his loyalty to not only his kid, but also his friends is put to the ultimate test.
Given the level of controversy surrounding this film (and the apparent sense of finality and closure that came along with Toy Story 3’s ending), it’s not hard to imagine the amount of skepticism that general audiences (myself included) had towards this film’s very existence to begin with. However, it’s with great relief that I can confirm that the movie honestly lives up to the legacy of the three films before it, surprisingly harkening back most to the original Toy Story. It’s arguably the most back-to-basics of the series (not to mention being the first Toy Story film with a new Randy Newman song since the original), and it works both for and against the film at times.
Functionally, this is the culmination of Woody’s character arc over the course of the series, and Toy Story 4 isn’t afraid to set aside franchise mainstay characters like Mr. Potato Head (reprised by comedian Don Rickles from beyond the grave) to focus on setting up new characters like the aforementioned Forky and third-act showstopper Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves), all the while giving Woody the spotlight once again. However, as a result, it leads to most of the returning cast spending a lot of time divorced from the core story. Even further, some of the new additions to the cast like Ducky and Bunny (Jordan Peele and Keegan Michael Key) feel expendable in the overall scheme of the film, save for acting as comedic relief and potential merchandising down the line. That’s not to say that that it’s necessarily bad (Key and Peele get some of the biggest genuine laughs of the movie), but it’s one of the few reminders of the chaotic history behind this movie.
You’ve Got a Friend in hyperrealism
On that note, I feel it’s important to note that the animation here is absolutely breathtaking. Of course, that’s par for the course with Pixar features, but it’s with Toy Story 4 that the studio’s lean towards hyper-realism when it comes to lighting, effect work, etc., is finally put to good use. In a lot of ways, the details added to not only the main cast but the environments around them are painstakingly-crafted and deeply immersive. The use of pseudo-macro-cinematography here feels reminiscent of the Ant-Man movies and The LEGO Ninjago Movie, but given how the Toy Story movies tend to ground themselves in a sense of heightened reality as opposed to pure science fiction or wholesale fantasy, it leads to certain shots of the movie looking almost completely real.
Honestly, one could likely watch this film without any audio and get as much enjoyment from just seeing how the characters move throughout the theoretical space. The animation is that good.
I Will Go Sailing No More..?
It goes without saying that Toy Story 4 is a worthy conclusion to the overall franchise, even if it does leave some wiggle room for potential spin-offs down the line (of course). The storytelling is tight, economic, and genuinely built for all ages. The animation finally gives a fresh take on Pixar’s now-standard use of pseudo-hyperrealism, and the vocal performances are utterly breathtaking.
Regardless of an absolutely messy development and the well-warranted removal of the franchise’s overall head, it’s a testament to the strength of this film and the Toy Story series as a whole that, no matter the circumstances behind its production, the final product has such an ability to resonate with people on an intimately personal level, whether it be their first exposure to the series or not. After Hell and high water, Pixar’s finally gotten its groove back…and let’s hope it stays that way.
Featured Image: Disney India
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