Strange as it may be, one of the most complex and richly designed character arcs in mainstream American cinema of the last 30 years resides in the form of a computer-animated pull-string cowboy doll from the 1950s. As animated by the men and women of Pixar Animation Studios, and voiced by Tom Hanks, Sheriff Woody is a surprisingly deep and mature character, and his arc seemed to end with a near-literal passing of the torch at the end of 2010’s Toy Story 3.
The notion of a follow-up entry might seem like tempting fate for Pixar, which has leaned more on sequels in the 2010s than before. Thus, Woody’s journey of self-actualization and acceptance in Toy Story 4 is both gratifying and shocking, the latter precisely because it’s gratifying at all. The improbability of the Toy Story franchise, which inexplicably has not soured with age, comes to a sweet, emotionally apt conclusion now with a fine capper on a generally perfect series.
After the events of Toy Story 3, Andy’s old toys have eased into an updated routine with their new owner, the little girl Bonnie. For just about every toy, status quo 2.0. is plenty enjoyable. For every toy except Woody, who’s frustrated with the reality that Bonnie, as sweet as she is, isn’t Andy, meaning the pull-string doll is no longer ruler of the roost. To help her ease into kindergarten, Woody unknowingly gives Bonnie the tools to build a toy from tossed-out crafts: an inexplicably sentient spork with arms she names Forky (voiced by Tony Hale). As Woody attempts to teach Forky the way of the toy — the spork, in a very funny running gag early on, keeps trying to throw itself out — the duo and the rest of Bonnie’s toys join her and her family on a road trip. Once on the road, Woody runs into an old friend: Bo Peep, lost after the events of Toy Story 2.
One of the strengths of the earlier Toy Story entries is that they featured a strong ensemble cast, and while the ensemble (both old and new characters) is present, Toy Story 4 is squarely about the character who started it all. Woody is trying to figure out his place in the new world where he’s just as liable to be tossed in a closet as he is to be part of Bonnie’s latest playtime fantasy. Hanks, as usual, goes above and beyond in realizing the existential crisis of being a toy, an object whose owners will always be flighty and distracted even if they love you for a moment or two. What’s most pleasantly surprising about Toy Story 4, directed by Josh Cooley and co-written by Andrew Stanton and Stephany Folsom (the story is credited to a handful of other writers), is that it finds new things to say about Woody even after the seemingly conclusive Toy Story 3.
Toy Story 4 also reverses one of the sadder moments of its predecessor, clarifying not just what happened to Bo Peep when she was given away by Andy’s family, but how she’s thrived in the years since. Annie Potts, returning to the role after 20 years, dives into the reimagined and much more active Bo Peep. Mercifully, this revitalization doesn’t smack of the same lazy characterization of Strong Female Characters in recent Disney fare like Dumbo and The Nutcracker and the Four Realms. Though it’s true that the earlier Toy Story films don’t give much of anything for Bo to do, that trend is erased within the first few minutes. Her strength is never commented upon — she just is strong, arguably stronger both mentally and physically than her old boy toy. What’s more, once Woody reunites with Bo near a roadside antique store, she makes the life of a toy without a human owner seem awfully appealing.
There are, of course, obstacles that can only be overcome with action-packed setpieces, as is always the case in a Toy Story film. But Cooley makes those setpieces unexpectedly fun by adding weird, off-kilter ingredients. The antique store is where we meet a series of ventriloquist dummies serving an old-fashioned doll (Christina Hendricks) with a missing voice box, and a nearby carnival is where we meet a plush duck and bunny (voiced by Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, together again and still hilarious), with imaginative ways of getting out of jams. And that’s not to mention the Canadian stuntman toy with harsh memories of his own human owner; he’s voiced by Keanu Reeves, because 2019 is the year of Keanu.
If there are slight downsides to Toy Story 4, it’s that the rest of the toys from Bonnie’s room have become so comfortable with their new place that they don’t factor in quite as heavily to the story. (That goes for stalwarts like Jessie, Rex, and Slinky Dog. Mr. Potato Head, voiced by the late Don Rickles, does technically appear here, but only has a handful of lines, culled from unused dialogue tracks from prior films.) But that simply reflects that the focus for the final film is less appropriately placed on these lovable supporting players, or even Buzz Lightyear (though the spaceman, voiced again by Tim Allen, is the subject of a fun gag with roots in one of Disney’s oldest animated films).
The spotlight for Toy Story 4 is on Sheriff Woody, as it should be. This latest entry, and presumably the last (even though the film is sure to make roughly all the money, and Disney may want more), ponders nothing less profound than the very nature and purpose of any toy. The colorful adventure in which Woody plays a central role leads him to an answer to that deep question that feels like the most appropriate and pleasing way to close out a story that’s spanned decades. Toy Story 4 provides Woody with a bittersweet but satisfying sendoff into the great beyond, fitting for one of the great modern film characters.
/Film Rating: 8 out of 10
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