Since Disney announced Toy Story 4 in 2014, the responses have ranged from excitement to nervousness to rejection. 2010’s Toy Story 3 wrapped up the trilogy perfectly and was then viewed as the end of the iconic series. So, how can the story of Woody and the gang continue? With the release of Toy Story 4 last month, our questions are finally answered.
Do we need a Toy Story 4? Not necessarily. With that said, it's an overall good movie, meant for both the adults who grew up with the toys and a new generation of children. Although the movie struggles to find fresh narrative beats that the previous three films hadn’t done, it explores new areas—and does so in a way that's relatable for the entire audience.
The film opens with familiar territory. A flashback sees the toys coming together to rescue a toy car stuck in a ditch during a rainstorm. The simple sequence brings the audience back into the world of Toy Story and reminds us of why we feel for these toys—their sincerity, helplessness, and sense of community in a world so much bigger than them.
However, from there, the film feels almost too familiar. As Bonnie—the toys’ home after Toy Story 3—heads into kindergarten, Woody’s anxiety at becoming old and obsolete feels, well, old. He had gone through similar internal conflicts before, like in every other Toy Story movie. The refusal of Bonnie’s new creation—Forky, made out of trash—to accept that he is a toy also feels like a slightly different take on Buzz Lightyear’s arc from Toy Story 1.
Thankfully, after a funny montage of Woody trying to keep Forky from the trash he so desires—relatable to many of us with nihilistic humor on campus—Toy Story 4 smartly delves into some new inventions. Forky’s identity struggle, the focus of all the initial marketing responses, turns out to end with the movie’s first half. Through Woody’s genuine belief in his own purpose as a toy, Forky became convinced that he can be one too. It’s a testament to Tom Hanks’s voice–acting that, no matter how much we hear Woody talk about his love for being a toy, we always believe him.
Here, the film also adds some amazing new characters. The long–lost Bo Peep returns as a badass, driving around in a beaten-up toy raccoon with her loyal sheep and a tiny sidekick. She has a taped-up arm—unlimited by a porcelain body—and gets rightfully angry when Woody ignores her instructions and causes all their plans to go awry. Bo Peep is capable and independent, but not too hardened or cynical. For all the little girls and boys out there, she’s the perfect heroine to look up to.
Other highlights include the plush toys Ducky and Bunny, voiced by Keegan–Michael Key and Jordan Peele, who are hilariously off–key. Duke Caboom—a stuntman toy abandoned because he didn’t live up to advertisements—also brings a much–needed, playful update to the trope of abandoned–toy sob stories in the series.
The movie’s smartest invention, though, is its villain, the doll Gabby Gabby, with huge, dead eyes and a group of voiceless ventriloquist dummies for minions. In the film’s central conflict, Gabby kidnaps Forky in order to get Woody’s voice box—hers being defective. Although Woody works with Bo and the others to get him back, they fail, and Gabby convinces a dejected Woody to give up his voice box. In a speech that is both menacing and sincere—like all great villains do—she explains that all she wants is a chance at the same thing that Woody has: a child to love and a child who loves her. But because she’s the villain, we don’t quite trust her.
But the film does something great here—and fitting for what’s ultimately a children’s movie. Finally in perfect condition, Gabby is rejected by the girl she’s loved from afar—one who not only plays the teatime that she was made for but also looks exactly like her. She’s her perfect kid, but not really. And instead of becoming bitter or angry, Gabby becomes just as dejected as Woody. With Gabby’s perfect facade and careful hope all broken, she’s no longer the creepy villain, but someone as scared as everyone else.
In past Toy Story films, the threats have been a mix of children and toys. The former range from cruel to oblivious, and the latter are made bitter by neglect or abandonment. But in Toy Story 4, Gabby’s rejection is framed simply as what is—one of the many times when reality doesn’t match up with the perfect picture we’ve painted in our minds. And that’s the true danger that Toy Story 4 warns us against, adults and children alike. Sometimes, there are no true villains in real life, no one to antagonize or fight against. And as much as you can strive for something—even through questionable actions—it may never happen.
Toy Story 4 gives Gabby a happy ending, as she goes on to help a girl lost at the carnival—fulfilling the purpose Woody so passionately advocates for. Woody, in turn, comes to his own reckoning with this purpose: to stay with Bonnie, who seems to no longer need him but remains the familiar option; or to go with Bo, leave behind his old friends, and live as a “lost” but free toy—a prospect he once thought pitiful.
The final push came from Buzz, his long–time friend. “She’ll be okay without you,” he tells Woody. “Bonnie will be okay without you.” The implication there, of course, is that Woody will be okay without her, too. Another animation feat from Pixar, then, is that you can visibly feel Woody exhale—all the pressures lifted—and let go.
Nothing was ever going to top the memorable, emotional smorgasbord that is Toy Story 3. But while it might have been the perfect narrative ending, life can seldom be so perfect. Critics say Toy Story 3 signifies the arrival of adulthood, but we don’t stop growing just because we are adults. Toy Story 4 prepares the kids (and us) for that. It prepares us for letting go, whether it’s parents letting go of their children, or the kids moving to a new city and starting a new life. In some ways, Woody reflects both of these journeys. He learns to live for himself instead of someone else, and he leaves his friend—no matter how much he loves them, and how many stories they share—in order to grow.
In many ways, Toy Story 4 is about letting go. It shows us how to let go of the failures that hold us back, like Duke Caboom hilariously did in the finale. With both the protagonist and the “villain” moving on from what they expected of their lives, Toy Story 4 also tells us that we can let go of that perfect image in our heads and still have a great life. Finally, it tells us that letting go of your friends—which is not the same as letting go of your friendships—is not abandonment, it’s growing up.