‘Toy Story 4’ is a fitting and emotional ride with old friends

What if toys had a mind of their own?

24 years ago, Pixar dug into this concept with Toy Story, a film that opened up a world of possibilities for filmmakers and audiences to explore the realm of a kid’s imagination. What the film, and its two sequels, did for this guy was take him back to those days in his bedroom creating stories and timeless memories.

Here’s the thing about the latest sequel, Toy Story 4: I was taken right back to my bedroom on Tholozan Avenue, away from the troubles of a mad, cynical world. For two hours, I was hanging with Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz (Tim Allen), Bo Peep (Annie Potts), and company in another wild adventure. The theater may have been dark, but my mind was bright and wide open.

Unlike recent sequels like Men in Black: International and The Secret Life of Pets, this sequel doesn’t feel tacked on. When Woody and the gang welcome a new toy (Forky) into Bonnie’s toy room, a series of unfortunate events sets the crew on another entertaining journey, this time setting foot in a small town. Antique shops, carnival, and various road troubles lead to more good times, at least for the audience. There’s also the most terrifying dolls ever seen in an animated film, so get ready for that. I never thought I’d get a callback for The Shining in a Disney Pixar film, but that happened here.

Josh Cooley makes his directorial debut, and doesn’t let the quality of the previous three films drop, keeping the action moving and never forgetting about the heartstring-pulling moments. Screenwriters Andrew Stanton and Stephany Folsom offer up the usual story structure that has held strong over the past two decades. With an easy-to-love setup and such talented voice actors, you don’t need to invent the wheel in the fourth effort.

Toy Story 4 returns the focus to Hanks’ Woody, right where it needs to be. This story is all about the toys evolving and trying to find their place in the world, and for this ageless cowboy, he has to find the middle of the road between serving endless human owners or taking a chance on his own future. When Bo Peep offers him the opportunity to be “a lost toy,” Woody has to make a choice.

If you thought the ending of Toy Story 3 made you tear up, get ready to cry at the end of Toy Story 4, and it’s not manipulative at all. Believe me, the filmmaker and writers could have poured extra cinema syrup onto the plate here, but they always go for restrained emotion. That in turn has always created the most heartfelt scenes and endings to these films.

From the moment Randy Newman’s “You got a friend in me” starts playing in the beginning to the time it starts rolling in the end, I was smiling, laughing, and engaged. Is there enough gas for a fifth film? Sure. With these voices, and the cast is so good here, you could create more stories. After all, toys can live forever under the right care.

Unlike most other sequels that have come out this year, Toy Story 4 was made for a reason. There was still something left there to explore. The creators didn’t place the cart before the horse in production, hoping to gather enough parts to make a sensible script and setup. Toy Story 4 proves there is plenty left in the tank.

When I think of Pixar’s big impact on cinema, Toy Story comes to mind. The authentic and rather endless appeal of a toy’s story and adventures crystallized what animated films can do and should aspire to be. 24 years later, that formula still works like a charm.

Many wondered why Toy Story 4 was happening, since the last one came out 9 years ago. Let me answer that question. It happened because these films are very well done and don’t waste our time.

Expect to see this on the short list for Best Animated Feature at the end of the year.

 

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