Disney has sadly been building up a bit of a reputation lately for churning out film after film that the general public seems to agree are some of the least necessary sequels and remakes in an industry that’s long been rife with them. And after Toy Story 3 seemed to end Pixar’s flagship franchise perfectly, the announcement of a fourth film was immediately met with uncertainty. Many spent the next 4.5 years continuing to insist that it wasn’t needed and could potentially spoil the initial trilogy’s legacy. I myself wrote a pretty skeptical take on the film back in November when the first teaser trailer was released, but as the film’s release began rapidly approaching and I revisited the first three films and the shorts that followed, I got more excited. Even if it wouldn’t match up to the quality of its predecessors, at least it would be fun to see the fan favorite characters again, and even see some of them expanded upon.
But in looking at the points I made in November, I’m finding that the film failed to prove me wrong on a few important ones. Soon after the initial announcement, Pixar elaborated a bit on the premise of the film, saying that while it would pick up where the previous film left off, they were also approaching it as a standalone story. I said back then that that would be no small feat, and at least in terms of my immediate response to the final product, they couldn’t entirely pull it off.
I won’t dismiss the obvious hard work and genuine care put in by the film’s writers and animators as Pixar chasing a quick buck, though that was probably Bob Iger’s motivation in all of this. But the legacy of the Toy Story films up to this point has been that they got progressively better technically, narratively, and thematically, and culminated in a beautiful and clear ending. In making another feature-length sequel, Disney was arguably putting that reputation at stake in pursuit of box office clout. It’s hard to gauge how this one is going to be regarded a few years down the line, since we spent years thinking of Toy Story 3 as a definitive ending to the series, shorts and TV specials notwithstanding. I was still in middle school in 2010, and I wasn’t particularly attached to the series at the time, nor do I remember people wondering if a third entry was really needed (though I’ve heard some say that was their impression at the time). So I’ve pretty much spent a good portion of my life thinking of the series as something Pixar had already put behind us, even after I heard that production had started on this one.
That said, acknowledging that I may very well feel differently after some time, my current impression is this: Toy Story 4 is funny, emotional, and an enjoyable watch, but in some regards it still doesn’t quite feel like it fits in with its series, and for the behemoth that that series has become, that’s a bigger problem than it might be for other sequels.
Unfortunately, the film has some majorly noticeable flaws that hinder it somewhat both as a sequel and as a standalone film. None of them ruin the experience or take away from its emotional poignancy, but as a result, the series is left feeling kind of incomplete. The supporting characters from the first three films were used heavily in marketing, but they have little to do in the film itself. They don’t even seem to have much dialogue, especially once the main plot gets going. Jessie gets a slightly bigger role than they do, but even she is rather disappointingly sidelined and kept out of any major action. I see what they were trying to do in placing her where they did, but its third-act payoff (which ties into the trademark bittersweet Pixar ending, hence why I’m being a bit vague) doesn’t feel very earned since we saw so little of her. Much of the side characters’ resolutions feel like the film was relying on the previous movies to provide the emotional weight, and there’s not enough of a through-line in 4 on its own to feel like they’ve been properly sent off.
The new characters aren’t quite interesting enough to make up for the older characters’ absence, but they can be a lot of fun. Forky is endearing, Gabby Gabby has an enjoyably creepy demeanor as an antagonist but becomes gradually more sympathetic, and Ducky and Bunny as well as Keanu Reeves’ Duke Caboom have some of the most hilarious moments in the film. You might even count Bo Peep as a new character — although she had a small role in the first two films, this is the first time we’ve seen her fully fleshed out. That was a bit of a mixed bag for me since her personality felt completely different making it harder to care about her as much as the more firmly established returning characters, but her relationship with Woody is made more interesting by her shift in perspective after years of leaning into life without an owner. She’s gone from a largely inconsequential love interest to an active and engaging character in her own right. I have to wonder if it was a loose end that truly needed tying up, but I also have to respect Pixar for finally giving the series’ first female character (not counting Andy’s mom or baby sister) the treatment she deserved from the beginning.
Without giving too much away, the ending definitely has a strong sense of finality to it, probably more so than the end of 3. But the entire premise exists to fix what was, in the grand scheme of things, a minor flaw in the Toy Story series. It was unfair that Bo was given what should have been an important role in Woody’s life in the first two films only to be written out of the third entirely. But Toy Story 3 did a better job of wrapping up the journey of the characters we’d already been made to care about and delivered a better narrative catharsis. Sure, you could argue the endings to 1 and 2 weren’t necessarily begging for a continuation, but 3 was so poignant in its completion of the story that audiences had been following for nearly fifteen years that it just felt right for the series as a whole to end there. The very existence of 4 says that Pixar couldn’t simply let the franchise be one that had some flaws, but was narratively and thematically satisfying. Attempts to redo or retcon things like this have hindered most of the live-action Disney remakes, and while Toy Story 4 thankfully does a much better job of it than they did, this fixation with going back and remedying an older film’s shortcomings, not with a film that exists separately and improves on that aspect but with a sequel to a story with a supposedly clear ending, sets a questionable precedent for Pixar.
Pixar doesn’t have any more sequels lined up for the foreseeable future, which is a good sign, but next to the Cars sequels, Toy Story 4 is possibly the least warranted follow-up they’ve released. Yes, it’s funny and tightly written, and yes, it did in fact make me cry, but some of the principles behind it are frustrating, and the attempted improvements on its predecessors don’t quite justify a feature-length continuation of the third film.
It’s worth watching if you’re a Bo fan, you mainly want to see Woody and Buzz again, or you just want a movie with some good jokes and heartwarming moments. But you could just as easily pretend Toy Story 3 really was the end and not that much would be lost.
A senior at Hollins University whose penchant for Disney led into a love for all things film. Amateur film critic/essayist and aspiring screenwriter/director. View all posts by Mary McKeon
Originally published at http://miseensense.wordpress.com on June 24, 2019.