I love Pixar. And I mean, I love Pixar. I’ve seen every one of their movies, most of them more than once, and several of them more times than I care to admit. I even gave up my entire spring break in my senior year to travel to Emeryville just for a one hour tour of the lobby. Pixar was my Mecca.
And how could they not be? At their peak, Pixar was the pinnacle of American moviemaking. Grand, sweeping, epics with moving stories, dazzling visuals, and memorable characters. They captured our hearts with fish, and monsters, and superheroes, and rats, and waste-allocating-load-lifters-earth-class robots. But the characters we first fell in love with were a couple of toys.
If you were to ask the average filmgoer what the greatest trilogy of all time was, you’d get a lot of the same answers; Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, Indiana Jones (for a time). But if you were to ask me, there would be one answer: Toy Story. From beginning to end, the Toy Story trilogy has been absolute perfection. So I was worried beyond belief when they announced a fourth chapter to their flagship franchise.
It grieves me to say this but I did not like Toy Story 4 one bit.
Toy Story 4: A Sad End to an Iconic Name
While it’s been nine years since Toy Story 3 (geez, where does the time go?), hardly any time at all has passed for Woody and the Gang. Now living with Bonnie, Woody (Tom Hanks) finds himself suffering from a major anxiety crisis. Bonnie, his new owner, hasn’t played with him for quite some time. In fact, his position as sheriff has been usurped by Jessie (Joan Cusack) (Bonnie, being a little girl, is naturally more inclined to play with girls). Feeling neglected and forgotten, much like Wheezy in TS2, Woody breaks the rules of Toy-dom and sneaks aboard Bonnie’s backpack for the first day of school.
School isn’t easy for anyone and Bonnie, scared and alone, does what most kids do. With a spork, pipe-cleaners, popsicle sticks, and googly eyes (provided by the “loyal” sheriff) Bonnie makes herself a friend. Literally. Forky the Spork (Tony Hale) comes to life and instantly becomes Bonnie’s new favorite toy, and even gets the top spot as Bonnie’s #1 companion on a family road trip. But there’s a snag. Forky is made of trash and thus, thinks he is trash. And at every chance, tries to abandon Bonnie, at one point throwing himself out the window of the moving car, and only Woody, looking out for Bonnie, leaps out after him.
Soon, the toys find themselves at a carnival, while Woody and Forky travel miles to meet up at the RV rendezvous point. But Woody finds himself distracted by an antique shop that might house Bo Peep, his girlfriend who was given away years ago, played by Annie Potts. However, once inside the antique store, Woody and Forky become prisoners of the ominous Gabby Gabby, a toy with a broken voice box, and her menacing trio of ventriloquist dummies. Woody and Forky must escape or lose Bonnie forever. In the process, Woody meets up with old friends, makes some new ones, and learns a lesson about letting go of preconceived notions.
Haven’t I See You Here Before?
If my description of the story sounds convoluted, wandering, and familiar, that’s because it is. There are eight different “story by” credits on the film and it shows. When this film was first announced, we were told the story was about Woody and Buzz going to find Bo Peep. And maybe it was. But now it is also about a Canadian stunt man (more on him later), a doll with abandonment issues, and Forky. It is a lot, and none of it really gels together.
There is a sense in Toy Story 4 of been-there-done-that. Gabby Gabby is just a retread Stinky Pete. Forky’s journey (what little there is) is almost identical to Buzz’s journey in the first film twenty-five years ago. The antique shop is a carbon copy of Sunnyside Daycare. Bo Peep’s hideaway for toys is just like Lotso’s spa for broken toys. Even the photorealistic cat who guards the place is just another version of Spud.
But the way Toy Story 4 separates itself from the previous films is even worse. You will notice that I didn’t tell you what the other characters are up to. That is because they aren’t up to anything at all. The Toy Story franchise has been about Woody, Buzz, and the Gang. And the Gang. Woody wasn’t a sheriff of nothing. He was a sheriff of Andy’s room, and the toys Andy loved. The snarky Mr. Potato Head, the anxious Rex, the loyal Slink, the superior Hamm, and the little green Soldiers. With Toy Story 2 that roster grew to include Jessie the yodeling cowgirl, Bullseye the horse, Mrs. Potato Head, and three aliens from Pizza Planet. By the third film, the cast had exploded. We were now expected to know and love each one of those characters, as well as Barbie, and soon enough, Dolly, Trixie, Buttercup, Chuckles, Mr. Pricklepants, and more.
And the amazing thing is, we did love and care for these characters. We knew them all and we knew their traits. And what’s more amazing, the film managed to balance all of that perfectly. The third film became a prison escape movie and every character had something to do.
By that measure, Toy Story 4 is an insulting end to the saga these characters have gone through. Much was written about how the legendary Don Rickles passed away before he had even recorded a single line for the fourth installment. We needn’t have worried. He has three lines in the entire film. And he’s one of the lucky ones.
All of Mr. Potato Head’s dialogue was cobbled together using unused takes from previous films, but the same could be said for other characters like Mrs. Potato Head, Rex, and Hamm and I wouldn’t have known the difference. The story is not interested in them and clearly doesn’t want their journey to continue. They’re stuck in the car, end of the story. But at least they care about Woody and Buzz, right? …right?
The Problem with Buzz
Buzz Lightyear is an amazing character. If you really break it down, you couldn’t write a more compelling movie about what toys do when you aren’t looking than Toy Story, and you couldn’t write a better duo than Woody and Buzz. Seriously, German mathematicians have spent decades but the formula of Woody & Buzz just can’t be beaten.
Woody, representing the old guard, is a floppy cowboy doll. A relic. An old American tradition. The Past. Whereas Buzz is cool. He has buttons that do things. He has pop-out wings and karate chop action. He has a classic look. He has a kickass name. He’s a military man, loyal and dynamic. The Future.
But the secret to Buzz is that he works best when he returns to his original state or comes in contact with similar. For whatever reason, Buzz Lightyears never know that they are toys (yes, I know he freezes whenever Andy is around. Shut up.). That is the best running joke of Toy Story. Not only has Woody been replaced by a flashy, new toy, but he’s a total nutjob! And Buzz only becomes crazier when he learns the truth. But once he comes to grips with reality, Buzz becomes an unstoppable force of American can-do-isms, just like Woody, and they form an immediately iconic team.
But the question in the sequels is, what do you do with Buzz? He already knows he’s a toy. So that’s that. WRONG! In Toy Story 2, Buzz meets Buzz and gets to see firsthand what it was like living with him. What’s more, he is subdued and replaced by Buzz 2.0 and we get to see that Buzz intensity with the other toys again. “Slotted Pig” is still the funniest line ever written and I will fight you if you say otherwise. And in Toy Story 3, Buzz gets reset where he reverts to “Spanish mode,” a flagrant and hilariously animated character who is still in love with Jessie and can’t stand the “vaquero” who seems to draw her attention.
For Buzz to work, he must revert to or interact with a delusional Buzz. That is the law of the land. It has been that way since time immemorial, or at least since 1995.
And what does Buzz get to do in this film? Not a damn thing. Worse, they turn him into a moron. Suddenly, Buzz isn’t aware of the concept of conscience. The idea of a “voice in your head” is totally alien to him (no pun intended), and instead, he thinks Woody is referring to his button-activated voice box. At every fork in the road, Buzz presses his chest and his pre-recorded voice tells him what to do. This joke never works more than once and they rely on it half a dozen times. They even give him new recordings we’ve never heard in other films (a personal pet peeve of mine) and throw in a couple of 2001 references for the kids.
The whole thing reeks of ‘give him something to do’ which is a storytelling crime that Pixar should not be committing period, least of all in their final entry in their greatest cinematic legacy.
Meanwhile, the other toys are stuck in the van trying to stall the parents which conjures up memories of that season of Lost where they get stuck in a prison for a year. And we all loved that, right?
For the first time in the Toy Story series, I wondered why we were spending time with these characters or doing these things. This is where the multiple story-by credits crash into one another with alarming and disappointing consequences.
Forky’s birth, emerging from Bonnie’s backpack with appropriately amniotic imagery is compelling, and his confusion is funny at first, but almost immediately he becomes a static character, and his realization that he is Bonnie’s trash isn’t enough to keep him in the story. He gets captured by Gabby Gabby and that’s where his character growth ends. In what I will refer to as the ‘good old days’ since I am now old and bitter, Forky would have been the main character or he would have been cut entirely. Instead, we replace him with Bo Peep who comes with baggage of her own.
Toy Story 1 begins with Sheriff Woody taking down One-Eyed Bart and saving Bo’s Sheep. Toy Story 2 begins with a Buzz Lightyear video game to introduce Zurg as well as Rex’s obsession and the plot mechanic of Buzz’s belt accessories. Toy Story 3 begins with Andy’s imagination, reuniting all of our favorite characters and giving them a moment in the sun. Toy Story 4, on the other hand, begins with a rescue mission back in the Andy days. It repositions Bo Peep as a shepherd of action, though her narrative would have been better served with her beginning as a damsel. There is a touching moment under the old family van in the rain where she says goodbye to Woody that is as touching and poignant as we’ve come to expect from Pixar. Unfortunately, that is where the tenderness ends. Seriously, Woody spends almost all of his time with Bo following her around, astounded by her physical prowess (her porcelain frame, while beautifully rendered is never addressed in one of the film’s greater missed opportunities). Even when the movie does give them a moment, it comes at the most inappropriate time.
Bo represents a toy who has moved on from even the idea of ownership, and that is new for the series, and I give the writers credit for that, but the idea is never fully explored. If you have no owner, you rely only on yourself. She has tape on hand to repair her broken arm (though really it should be around her waste which would explain how she got those legs). Bo has a car. She knows how to get around. She swings around using her staff. She’s awesome. But that should have been the entire movie. Instead, it is part of half of it.
And then there is the rest of the cast. Bo has a Polly Pocket type police officer who adds nothing to the proceedings. I know she furthers the “voice in your head” metaphor the movie is determined to force in, but that’s not enough. You’d think that she and Buzz would have interesting chemistry seeing as they are both cadets who help rural archetypes, but nope.
And then there’s Ducky and Bunny, voiced by the comedic duo Key & Peele. They were heavily marketed, no doubt due to their immense popularity and Peele’s particular rise to Oscar-winning superstardom. They do nothing. They do less than Lotso’s goons in TS3. They aren’t particularly funny, and when they are amusing, it feels like Key and Peele riffing over a Toy Story movie.
And then there’s Duke Caboom, Canada’s greatest stuntman, voiced by Keanu Reeves. This was the character I was most excited for. He has a great look. He has a funny name. He is completely superfluous and thematically linked loosely at best. Duke represents a half-way point to Buzz Lightyear. He knows he’s a toy, but acts like the real stuntman. And he gets his own chapter.
Duke Caboom: Canada’s Greatest Symptom of a Larger Problem
At one point in the movie, Woody needs to get over a large chasm. It’s a real ‘the Floor is Lava’ situation. To touch the ground would mean death by kitty, though the movie also takes time to show that that isn’t the end of the world belittling the stakes (FOCUS, LUKAS!) and the only way across is to jump the distance. Fortunately, Bo knows just the guy; enter DUKE CABOOM, an Evel Knievel-type motorcycling stuntman with an intensely tragic backstory.
You see, Duke Caboom had a kid of his own, the French-Canadian boy, Réjean. Réjean was thrilled to get his Duke Caboom action figure, complete with pump-action motorcycle and ring of death. But when Réjean played with Duke, he found the toy thoroughly underwhelming. He never played with Duke again, and Duke spends the rest of his days coping with inadequacy and longing for the love of his boy.
The whole scene is played for laughs, from Duke’s overly dramatic way of saying “Réjean,” to his intentionally realistic memory of his first jump on Boxing Day. It is all meant to make you laugh. As is Forky, as is Ducky and Bunny, as is Buzz Lightyear’s inner voice gag, as is Bo’s mode of transportation, as are Bonnies’ parents. Here’s the problem: that’s not the Toy Story way.
The Toy Story trilogy is not content with being funny. The Toy Story trilogy meant more than that. It is funny that the toys react so strongly, but it is not funny to them! Woody sends the green army men on recon to figure out what Andy’s birthday present is. New toys mean old ones get shelved. The shelf leads to the curb. The curb leads to the trash. This is life or death for them, and the film presents it as such.
In Toy Story 2, Jessie gets an entire section of the movie just to herself and her kid, Emily. It is utterly heartbreaking and the opening chords still bring tears to my eyes. You leave the toy under the bed. You move on. The toy does not. It leaves lasting scars on Jessie’s psyche manifesting as panic of dark, and enclosed spaces. This isn’t a joke to her.
Lotso Huggin Bear turned a daycare into a prison to avoid the feeling of loss and abandonment he felt when Daisy’s parents replaced him.
This isn’t a joke to them. And it wasn’t a joke to Pixar. Until now.
Now it’s a gag with zero consequence. Now we spend our time showing old women in the bathtub with a glass of wine, relaxing before being attacked by toys. I’m not saying it isn’t funny, but it isn’t what the series used to be about.
Duke’s big jump should feel like a redemption. If he doesn’t make it, he’ll feel like a failure. If he makes it, he will be worthy of Réjean. The movie thinks it is getting to that point. It thinks you will care about Duke’s jump like you cared about Jessie. But like Duke Caboom himself, the story falls short.
SPOILERS FOR THE ENDING OF TOY STORY 4! SERIOUSLY, SPOILERS. DON’T LOOK IF YOU DON’T WANT THE ENDING SPOILED!
Do we understand each other?
Alright, here we go.
Woody leaves the gang behind.
That’s right. Woody abandons his friends of 15+ years, to live with Bo Peep and help other toys get owners. That last bit? The bit that shows up as the credits roll, showing Woody and Bo helping kids win carnival prizes? That’s a cute ending. Except it spits in the face of everything the franchise stood for until now.
This is where I feel the most alone. Everyone I speak to, every article I read, talks about how Woody finally has a purpose again. And that would be great. Except, and I must stress this, that is not what the character nor the franchise believed in.
Woody cares about his friends as much as the movie does, that is to say not at all. Woody doesn’t give a damn about them. He disappears for a day and then comes back and says “I just wanted to drop off Forky. I’m going to stay here with Bo Peep.” The gang’s response to meeting Bo Peep again (an astronomical coincidence) gets a greater reaction than losing their friend and leader of so many years and as many adventures.
Woody isn’t a leader to them. He isn’t the noble sheriff. Not anymore. He’s a burden. And they can’t wait to be rid of him.
That’s how we’re ending the Toy Story series?! That is how we’re saying goodbye? After all we’ve been through? Woody gives Buzz a handshake and bails?!
I couldn’t believe it. I sat in the theater stunned.
What happened to the toy who said “what matters isn’t being played with. What matters is being there for Andy?” What happened to the toy who went through hell and back to get to his kid? In Toy Story 2, Woody was all set to go to Japan and live out the rest of his days as a collector’s item, until Buzz reminded him, “Somewhere in that pad of stuffing is a toy who taught me that life’s only worth living if you’re being loved by a kid. And I traveled all this way to rescue that toy because I believed him.” That was enough to turn Woody around. He knew his time with Andy was limited. But he wouldn’t miss it for the world.
But put him in the closet a few times? “Screw, Bonnie! I gotta go where the action is!”
I was hurt and insulted that this was the way we were wrapping things up. It wasn’t just an unnecessary ending to a series that ended as perfectly as it possibly could, with hopeful clouds and a bright sky, its a rebuke and an insult to everything the franchise has always been about. And the final words, lifelessly calling back to the series’ most iconic line, was the cherry on top.
Woody’s Final Roundup
Honestly, I have delayed writing this review for a long, long time. I saw it over a week ago. I promised my editors I would have it written soon. But I love Toy Story and I love Pixar. And I don’t want to say bad things about them. I don’t want to feel this way. But every day I waited, the worse I felt.
The movie is gorgeous. It is absolutely staggering to look at the textures and the details of the world, but Finding Nemo could look like The Adventures of Andre and Wally B, that ending would still make me weep.
Nobody wanted to like Toy Story 4 more than me. It was the final farewell in a trilogy with a gleaming track record from a company I would have given my left arm to work for. It was my most anticipated movie of the year. More than Star Wars. More than Avengers: Endgame. More than the Game of Thrones finale. More than whatever Quintin Tarantino had cooking up.
Instead, what I got was a movie that pulled a tear-jerker of an ending and called it a day.
Toy Story has always been a series about what it is like to be a parent. “When She Loved Me” is about what you do when your child grows up and doesn’t need you anymore. And that is still present here. No toy has been a baby quite so much as Forky, not even Big Baby. But I’ve never seen a franchise abandon its heart so recklessly. And for what?
At the end of the day, Woody turns out to be completely and utterly selfish. Not insecure about his place at the top. Not anxious about what he’ll do once Andy grows up. But selfish at his core. It wasn’t about Andy. It was about Woody being at the top of the heap. And if he’s not the most important toy, he’ll ditch every one of you. He’ll drop you like a bad habit. Because apparently, what Woody really cares about, is being number one.
I anticipated Toy Story 4 more because Toy Story was worth more. It was and is worth caring about. Pixar was the king at making small things feel huge. It told us that a colony of ants could have a battle on the scale of Seven Samurai. That a rat could become the greatest cook in Paris. That a robot’s love could carry him through the galaxy and bring mankind back to earth. And it told us that a toy’s love and devotion to their owner could always bring them home, even when being next door felt like it was miles away.
Now when I watch Toy Story 1, I look at Hamm, and Rex, and Mr. Potato Head, and Slinky Dog and I think, “your days with Woody are numbered.”
I can’t believe this is how it ends. Disappointed doesn’t even cover it.
Main Image Credit:
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