Runtime: 100 Minutes
Writer: Andrew Stanton & Stephany Folsom
Director: Josh Cooley
Voice Actors: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Annie Potts, Tony Hale, Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves
Special Guest Writer: Benjamin Wiebe
Since the dawn of stories, sequels have been a dominant form of art. And there are a plethora of challenges that come with creating new adventures for familiar characters. Pixar’s Toy Story franchise isn’t new to the concept of a sequel, and outlines some of the best sequels of all time. These films hold a 98% average on Rotten Tomatoes and have grossed more money with each subsequent entry. And for my money, “Toy Story 4” is the best of the bunch.
“Toy Story 4” isn’t just another entry in this beloved series. Rather, it strives to answer the deepest questions of existence, growing up, and how our stories grow up with us. I could write a thousand words about the quality of Josh Cooley’s directorial debut. I love Woody’s epilogue and what it has to say about finding purpose in life. I love how the characters have been given additional depth since the latest entry. A simple example of this is found in Bo Peep, who has been overhauled for the film. And her expanded character doesn’t feel out of place, because it builds onto the previously established elements and extrapolates characteristics from them we have yet to see.
Or we could look at the exceptional animation that has been created for the film. The opening sequence is full of complex lighting, rain, characters, flowing water, and shadows. And yet, it never looks fake for a single moment. The detail on display is unmatched. And that focus on keeping light realistic is held throughout the entire film. The “haunted” antique shop relies on simple source lighting, detailed reflections, and proper depth of field to unease the audience, as those are horror movie tropes that would be lost without that attention to detail.
“Toy Story 4 is a wonderful film, but as a sequel its a masterful display of how to move forward with franchise storytelling.”
But I think the most fascinating element of “Toy Story 4” is seen in its script, and how it handles de-escalation. With the promise of new journeys, comes the promise of larger stakes, A.K.A escalation. Toy Story had escalated the stakes from film to film. The first film ends with Woody and Buzz trying to use a remote control car and a rocket to catch a moving van. And by “Toy Story 3”, the finale involves a chase through a trash removal facility and a crane rescue from an incinerator. The stakes have been raised to be about more than just Woody and Buzz. It’s about the entire gang. So how does “Toy Story 4” follow up the most powerful ending in modern animation? By having Woody travel through a fairground with Bo Peep in order to get back into the rented RV to go home with Bonnie… which seems too simple to be true. By modern standards, that ending shouldn’t work… and yet it brings me to tears.
And that is the lesson of “Toy Story 4”. You don’t need your plots to get bigger as you make sequels. You just need to have more heart. The audience grows with Woody and Buzz and Slinky and Mr. Potato Head over time. Even if the external stakes are smaller, those emotional stakes are higher than ever before. And that makes this films ending hit harder than all of the other Pixar films combined. “Toy Story 4” is a wonderful film, but as a sequel its a masterful display of how to move forward with franchise storytelling.