Toy Story 4 isn't bad. This is, already, a huge achievement, for there was every reason in the world for it to be bad: Pixar Animation Studios has a fairly unimpressive track record with sequels and is nowhere near the regular level of absolute brilliance they were when the last film in this series, Toy Story 3, came out in 2010. Not to mention that the same Toy Story 3 was one of the greatest trilogy-ending films on the books, creating a rounded shape with the original 1995 Toy Story that made it feel exactly like this series was always designed with its precise arc exploring the nature of morality and religious faith via the medium of living toys. The likelihood of any new film fucking up that impeccably-shaped franchise seemed astronomically high. And while Toy Story 4 is by no means a better conclusion (its attempts at landing another three-hankie finale fall weirdly flat, and are chopped off at the knees by the itchy desire to jump back into a bit of physical comedy before the robust depth of the moment can be fully processed), and it is extremely clear that this was a cash-grab motivated by "we need another sequel" more than by the belief that this specific story had a burning need to be told, it doesn't fuck things up. It's not a bad movie. It is, even, a good movie.

But it is very obviously a cash grab, and one whose efforts at widening the series' lore are distinctly lacking in inspiration compared to the grandeur of Toy Story 2 and Toy Story 3. The story picks up probably a year or so after the events of the last movie, with the cluster of toys formerly belonging to college boy Andy Davis having fully assimilated themselves into the collection of Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw). She's about to make a major life change herself, entering kindergarten, and while the leader of her toys, Dolly (Bonnie Hunt) has little fear that she'll do just fine with this, talking cowboy doll Woody (Tom Hanks), obviously at sixes and sevens without his old leadership role to fall back on and increasingly left out of Bonnie's playtime, is convinced that she needs some sort of moral support. Sneaking into her backpack on the first day, he inadvertently contributes to her creation of a gruesome little homunculus with a body made of a smudged plastic spork, a pipe cleaner for arms and hands, a broken popsicle stick for feet, a clay smile for its mouth, and googly eyes. With Bonnie declaring this being, Forky (Tony Hale), to be her new favorite toy, it is imbued with life, and Woody alone has the sense to see that Bonnie's present happiness relies on keeping Forky close and safe. This is complicated by Forky's own suicidal existential panic, knowing that he is a collection of trash and refusing to self-identify as a toy. This is complicated much, much more when the whole gang goes on a road trip, and Forky manages to jump out of an RV window, leading Woody to chase him down.

It might be a useful sign of how busily-plotted Toy Story 4 is if I at this point mention that all of the above is more the pretext for the film's story, rather than the story itself. The story involves Woody and Forky stumbling into an antique shop where he finds traces of his long-lost love, the china figurine Bo Peep (Annie Potts), as well as a psychotic broken doll named Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), while the rest of the toys try to keep Bonnie's family stalled at an RV park nearby until they're able to find and rescue Woody and Forky. The film's screenplay, which is ultimately credited to Andrew Stanton (who has been part of the writing of all four movies) & Stephany Folsom, was the result of a lot of false starts and creative differences, some of it playing out in semi-public fashion, and one can feel that in the final form, which is an awfully cluttered affair with a lot of half-developed ideas, considering that it's basically just replicating the macro structure of the clean, crisp Toy Story 2. I wouldn't say that anything here doesn't work, though the Woody/Bo Peep reunion is a great deal hackier than everything else, and the conjoined stuffed animals Ducky (Keegan-Michael Key) and Bunny (Jordan Peele), fairground prizes whose annoyance at humans has evolved a psychopathic edge, get less funny in pretty much every new scene that contains them.

I would absolutely say that it doesn't feel like it adds up to much more than a collection of "wouldn't it be neat if...?" conceits, especially the business of Forky - his moral panic, and his gradual acceptance of his role as a toy, would fit perfectly into the 22-minute framework of the television specials that were the last we've seen of these characters. As it stands, Toy Story 4 is a whole lot of neat stuff that doesn't really build up to much; this was, to be fair, the same problem that Toy Story 3 had (its reputation as an emotionally devastating masterpieces rests almost entirely on its last 20 minutes, following an hour of fun but fairly simple prison break pastiche), but that film had a much richer ending than Toy Story 4, which manages to make one of the most narratively consequential events in this franchise feel pro forma. Honestly, this film just wants to be a lark, introducing several new characters who are mostly just there to be comic notions (including Keanu Reeves having a grand time as a semi-functional stuntman toy), while the old characters are included primarily because they have to be, not because the writers came up with anything for them to do - Jessie the cowgirl (Joan Cusack) is an especially conspicuous afterthought, while spaceman action figure Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) has been reduced to a hapless imbecile that doesn't accord at all with his prior characterisation or arcs.

That all being said - and it adds up to "what a deeply uninspired and trivial excuse to haul this franchise out of mothballs and complete miss the point of its surprisingly deep and involved religious allegory, making Woody into a pathetic neurotic rather than a man of faith in crisis" - Toy Story 4 is a genuinely fun movie on its own terms. Consider it not as the epilogue to the Toy Story trilogy, and instead as the conclusion to the "wacky toy hijinks" trilogy of 2013's Toy Story of Terror! and 2014's Toy Story That Time Forgot (the aforementioned TV specials, and it looks much better, bringing no small amount of playful humor and strong vocal performances (except for Allen, who has started to get very gravelly in his old age) to the matter of various toy-scaled adventure setpieces, the best of them using the polyglot world of the antique store as a weird and fun new playground.

Plus, it's stupid gorgeous. Maybe, even, emphasis on the "stupid" - Toy Story 3 already throttled back on photorealism compared to what the studio was capable of in 2010, and 2013's Monsters University held on to its own photrealistic sequences until they were very specifically motivated by the narrative, I suspect in both cases to accommodate character designs that were designed to function well in the more cartoony worlds available to 1990s technology. Toy Story 4 dives headlong into photorealistic textures and lighting, starting with a flashback prologue that my brain steadily refused to accept as CGI. It's maybe not a great fit - not so jarring as the cartoon characters/photoreal world hybrid of The Good Dinosaur, but I would say more annoying, given that the Toy Story cast is pre-established, and seeing them caressed by such rich lighting is mildly uncanny (especially in the case of Bo Peep, who has been significantly redesigned from her old model). But the point being, on its own merits, Toy Story 4 is an astonishing achievement of lighting, particularly in crafting the warm foggy dusk in shades of sodium vapor lighting that mark the carnival outside the RV park where much of the action takes place. It's both in-your-face realism and a kind of soft, abstract nostalgia, rolled into one movie, and it self-evidently counts as one of the most impressive technical achievements in the history of computer animation. If there could only be one way in which this was a truly worthy successor to the Toy Story trilogy, that's definitely not the worst way.

Reviews in this series
Toy Story (Lasseter, 1995)
Toy Story 2 (Lasseter with Brannon and Unkrich, 1999)
Toy Story 3 (Unkrich, 2010)
Toy Story 4 (Cooley, 2019)