'Toy Story 4'-Ever
To ponder what makes the Toy Story franchise so exquisitely, consistently good - so exponentially better with each new entry - is to simultaneously ponder why nothing else in this franchise-saturated cinemascape we live in can approach its brilliance. Much like the movies that prompt the whole line of thinking, it triggers a profoundly bittersweet sensation. Humanity is capable of miracles. just not often - not very often indeed.
There are now four of these things. One - the original Toy Story - was enough to forever change the way we see animation and film - to reinvent an artform that basically hadn’t changed since Walt Disney was more man than brand, cranking out eight-minute shorts that played before features. Put another way, in the world of animation, there is Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and there is Toy Story, and then there is everything else between and before and after.
Put even more simply, one Toy Story was more than enough. It’s probably all we deserve.
And yet here I am writing about Toy Story 4 with nothing to offer but awe - with a reverence that somehow grows and grows with each new installment.
Toy Story 4 is easily the most adult-oriented of the four chapters in the series. As with all the others, this is a caper/escape flick at its core. Woody and the gang are trying to get back to Bonnie, just as they have tried to get back to Andy three times before. But unlike the others, there is no clearcut villain. The plot meanders and freewheels more than any of the previous films. And, building upon Toy Story 3, this is the most explicit exploration of what a toy should do for himself when his own desires come in to conflict with those of his kid’s.
All of this is precipitated with inspired ingenuity. A Prometheus-style spork-turned-toy named Forky serves as a MacGuffin that brings Woody and Buzz Lightyear back in contact with the long lost Bo Peep. He also spurs encounters with a few memorable new toys - Gabby Gabby and Duke Caboom - each of whom carries their own significant baggage, their own deep longing for the kind of connection Woody once had with Andy.
Forky is incredibly funny. He also extracts a line of existential thinking around what makes a toy - a thread that is pulled out still further by an independent, confident Bo Peep. She is enjoying life as a “lost toy,” a notion that tantalizes Woody the more he hears about it.
Put much more succinctly, this is another Toy Story film - maybe the most Toy Story film of them all with its veneer of family fare and its probing philosophy. Each entry makes the cumulative achievement of this series more remarkable and more unlikely.
No movie with a 4 in its title should be any good, let alone so good that it manages to enrich the series in toto. But that is the story of this entire franchise. Unlike, say, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, each Toy Story has been wonderful in its own right and also managed to make the characters more beloved, the mythology more rich, the whole of the story arc more meaningful and more than the sum of its parts. Where Marvel delivers a reliable but rote product, Toy Story gets better as it tells and retells its stories.
It is a bit ironic, then, that there is now speculation that the early box office returns for Toy Story 4 may be a canary in a coal mine - a poor showing perhaps signaling overall franchise fatigue. The Toy Story franchise, after all, is the very best that there has ever been at this game, and it’s not even particularly close.