It’s also the funniest film in the franchise, with an emphasis on physical comedy facilitated by new characters like Keanu Reeves’ motorcycle stuntman Duke Caboom and Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele’s snarky stuffed toys Ducky and Bunny. But the most hilarious moments of Toy Story 4 come courtesy of Tony Hale’s Forky, a neurotic spork who has somehow gained sentience after being created by Bonnie in kindergarten. Watching the timid utensil grapple with the confusing realities of his unlikely existence is a delight, but there’s also something unexpectedly poignant about a character who’s convinced of his own disposability, striking a very different note than the villainous Lotso did in Toy Story 3.
Yes, there’s also a fairly good chance Toy Story 4 will make you cry – if Tim Allen couldn’t get through it, what hope do the rest of us have? While the last movie saw our heroes coming to terms with their own mortality, Toy Story 4 strives for something just as weighty – self-actualization. After years of existing just for the enjoyment of their owners, we start to see what happens when our heroes begin pondering their true purpose, and venturing beyond the roles they’ve been given. Whether it hits you as hard as Toy Story 3 did probably depends on where you are in life, and the emphasis on humor may not work for everyone (a lot of it probably depends on your appreciation for the comedic stylings of Key and Peele) – but at our press screening, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
If the first three films explored the growing pains of growing up and growing apart, Toy Story 4 tries to see things from a more adult point of view. Woody has always been a paternal figure for the other toys (and arguably to Andy too, considering his absent father), and here, he’s a quintessential empty nester – Andy has gone off to college, but his faithful toy is struggling to move on, despite the new status quo at Bonnie’s. The lonesome cowboy is still fixated on making sure his new kid feels happy and supported, but Forky’s arrival sparks a journey that’s both geographical and psychological, for Woody and Buzz.
With Woody, that comes courtesy of his lost love, Bo Peep, who unexpectedly crosses his path while he’s on the hunt for Forky. Bo has been on her own for a while and seems to have thrived, but her independence forces Woody to confront his fear about becoming a lost toy, which has been a driving force for him since the first movie. Buzz, meanwhile, has become complacent in his new routine, and when Woody goes missing again, he’s forced to step up and take charge – but finds himself doubting his own instincts. It’s a bit of a regression for him after the way he leapt into action to rescue Woody in Toy Story 2, but it’s also a welcome change of pace to see the confident space ranger wrestling with his own insecurities about being a leader, which is personified by a hilarious running gag that we won’t spoil here.
If Toy Story 4 has one shortcoming – especially if this truly is the final chapter – it’s that the plot spends far more time with the new characters than the rest of the original gang. Toy Story 3 did such a great job of involving Jessie, Slinky Dog, Rex, Hamm, and the Potato Heads in the action, you can’t help but miss them here, even if the new additions are every bit as charming as the old guard. Obviously the creative team was trying to avoid hitting the same beats as the last movie, which is understandable, but it makes for a very different tone, one that focuses less on the family dynamic and more on Woody and Buzz’s bond.
Still, it works precisely because the previous movies have laid such a strong foundation for this makeshift family, meaning that we can feel the love and loyalty that’s driving our heroes to find their way back to each other. And by introducing toys who have lived outside the safety of a kid’s room, we get to see new aspects of Woody and Buzz, which is admittedly thrilling after spending 25 years with these characters. There’s a subtle weariness in Tom Hanks’s performance that speaks to everything Woody has been through over the decades, a sign that this old gunslinger has seen – and lost – too much. That gravitas helps anchor the story, especially when it’s set opposite Forky’s googly-eyed naivete.
The Toy Story movies have always been at the forefront of animation, so it’s no surprise that the fourth installment looks spectacular, but Pixar is so good at what it does that it’s easy to take those technical achievements for granted. From the texture of the dust motes in the antique store to the precise patina of Bo’s porcelain, Toy Story 4 is a visual wonderland that’s crammed with subtle nuances and loving callbacks to previous Pixar films, which will no doubt reward repeat viewing.
Despite being the second-longest entry in the franchise at 100 minutes, under the confident direction of Josh Cooley (making his feature directorial debut here), Toy Story 4 is a zippy and well-paced ride that never drags or stumbles, even when it’s throwing us narrative curveballs. It may not have the same level of secrecy surrounding it that Avengers: Endgame did, but this is still a movie that you should try to see before it gets spoiled for you, especially if you’ve come to love these characters as much as Andy did.