In 1995, Pixar made history with “Toy Story,” the first fully computer generated animated film. It hit theaters with a bang, and our hearts with a big thud. A ground-breaking film in so many ways, it introduced us to the crazy gang of lovable toys, led by frenemies turned best buds, Woody the cowboy and Buzz the space ranger.
Now, almost a quarter century later (oh how time flies!) the gang is out for one more adventure. The gang is back together behind the scenes as well. Tom Hanks and Woody Allen both reprise their roles as Woody and Buzz, as do Joan Cusac and Annie Potts, who lend their voices to Jesse the Cowgirl and Little Bo Peep.
But, as strange as it might seem, the idea of another “Toy Story” met with more apprehension and resistance than enthusiasm. We watched their child, Andy grow up, and tagged along with all the changes that growing up brought with it. By the end of the third instalment nine years ago, Andy had gone off to college, and in one of the most emotionally satisfying sequences ever in an animated film, bequeathed his beloved playthings to a little girl named Bonnie.
With a new child to take care of, the friends had a renewed sense of purpose. They helped raise a fine young man in Andy, and were poised, in their new home, to do something similar with Bonnie. What more could we ask of Buzz and Woody? What else could they do that wouldn’t just be re-treading the same types of adventures and misadventures that we all saw during their time with Andy? Many of us had said our good-byes, and, teary-eyed but contented that our friends were in a good place at the end of the movie, wished them all the best, and in a very real sense, moved on. We just knew it was a really good time to end the show, and we were happy.
And yet here we are, nine years later with a fourth instalment.
Is it good? In a word, yes. In three words, It’s Very Good.
Leave it to the master puppeteers at Pixar whose skills are such that they can manipulate their digital marionettes just as easily as they can pull at heartstrings. Few minutes into the film and the near decade since the last get-together fades away.
The “Toy Story” movies steadily get more and more grown-up, delivering on the laughs and tender moments but also on the more introspective scenes that pose questions about existence and meaning. “Toy Story 4” keeps this trend going, but manages to strike a workable balance between kid-friendly fun and adult-targeted themes and gags.
Forky, the new toy on the block, created in kindergarten by Bonnie herself and voiced by Tom Hale, goes through an existential crisis much like Buzz did in the first movie. But like everything else in “Toy Story 4,” it’s cranked way up, and Woody has his hands full keeping him from leaping headfirst into the great beyond.
The brilliance of all this is the double whammy. We, the audience can relate by being able to see some of ourselves in the toys. That’s why they’re so fun to watch. We can see ourselves, or see someone we know or love in them. However, at the same time also, see how we were shaped by our own toys in real life, and, in a very poignant sense, how much we owe them for that.
The script went through numerous drafts and reportedly, at one point, lost three-quarters of the story and had to be rebuilt practically from scratch. This is why if you stay for the credits, (which for a Pixar film is usually a lot of fun) you’ll see an awful lot of credited story writers.
You wouldn’t notice, though, watching the film. At no point did it feel disjointed or forced at all, and the aside from a disappointingly simple-minded depiction of Buzz, the characters were all spot-on. The visuals this time are amazing. Yes, Pixar has always been the first one to push the envelope of animation in many ways but their work here is a tour de force. One gets the impression the filmmakers had no fear this time around, in applying all they’ve learned in the 20-plus years since their very initial offering.
There is a definite feeling of an ending, and closure with this film. In a strange, ironic way, the whole journey is about Woody growing up. He’s a far cry from the self-centered, cowboy we met way back when. And it is a journey we cannot help but be thankful to have been privy to.
The original audience of the film has grown as well alongside Woody and everyone else. And maybe it’s time to say goodbye again. Maybe there won’t be a part 5, who knows? No one has confirmed one way or another. And yet so long as there will be kids and their toys, whole generations of children can enjoy going on the journey with Woody and Buzz.
Those of us who grew up despite our best efforts can share these adventures with our own kids, and we can only ask that we care for them as much as collectable, hand-painted cowboy, and a legendary space ranger have.