'Toy Story 4' is a surprisingly moving epilogue for an already perfect ending

Tom Hanks and Tony Hale in  Toy Story 4  | Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Tom Hanks and Tony Hale in Toy Story 4 | Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

If there’s any film that didn’t need a sequel, it’s Toy Story 3.

As Andy drove off to college and Woody choked out a heart-wrenching “so long, partner”, it was hard to imagine a more perfect, genuine ending than that bittersweet moment of farewell. With a single moment, a movie made for children provided a goodbye for not only a franchise but an entire era of cinematic history. Those of us who had grown up with Woody, Buzz, and the gang felt the passage of time hit us all at once, cutting deep with the knowledge we all have to grow up and move on from the comforts of our youth. But at least we could take solace in the passing of the torch, the hope that nothing’s ever really gone.

Toy Story 3 hasn’t aged well; its problems have become more glaring as the years have gone by, some deeply irresponsible and uncharacteristically mean-spirited jokes standing at the forefront of those missteps. But that ending, that soul-crushingly satisfying ending, remains unparalleled. So you can imagine the disbelief and heavy groans brought about by the announcement of yet another sequel. Questions of why Pixar would want to essentially undermine the third film’s message of acceptance and moving on could only be answered with the all-too-obvious answer of financial gain. As it turns out, there was a different reason entirely:

Forky.

A craft inadvertently given life by the toys’ new child Bonnie, Forky (voiced by Tony Hale) is the beating, existentially despondent heart of Toy Story 4. A googly-eyed, pipe-cleaner-armed spork with a fondness for trash, Forky enters the world disdainful of the fact that he was ever even born. Woody (Tom Hanks), in an emotional rut due to Bonnie continually ignoring him, takes it upon himself to look after this anxious little spork. The only problem is that Forky desires death above all things, leading Woody away from his toy family when he decides to jump out the window of the RV Bonnie’s family has rented for a pre-kindergarten getaway.

Tim Allen, Keegan Michael-Key, Jordan Peele, Tom Hanks, Ally Maki, and Annie Potts in  Toy Story 4  | Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Tim Allen, Keegan Michael-Key, Jordan Peele, Tom Hanks, Ally Maki, and Annie Potts in Toy Story 4 | Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Here is where this surprisingly intelligent sequel reveals its heady heart, following Woody and Forky into an adventure that forces the franchise’s loyal cowboy to question his own meaning in the universe. Don’t be fooled, this is still the zany caper you’ve grown accustomed to seeing in this playful world of living toys. The trademark plans of action and daring rescues that made this series so exciting are never in short supply. Underneath the antics, however, this is a film that boils down to two beings grappling with the infinity of their own immortality, debating what it means to live free or do merely what is expected of them.

Woody has always been the star of Toy Story, the impatient but always committed hero whose deep sense of consciousness sets him apart from his counterparts. The script even acknowledges this intellectual separation with a solid gag, one that features Buzz pressing his own buttons for advice after Woody tells him that he’s always following his inner voice. It’s this voice in his head that’s always drove him to do what’s best for the children and fellow toys he’s sworn to protect. But after nearly two decades of unquestioned dedication to his duty, the birth of Forky and the reappearance of his old flame Bo Peep (Annie Potts) forces Woody to question whether or not it’s time to hang up the proverbial hat. Still missing Andy and now faced with the implications of sentience, Woody gets his ride-off-into-the-sunset moment with a story that sees him make tough decisions about what’s he going to do with the rest of his seemingly endless life. It’s all sold beautifully by Hanks, whose already prolific voice performance shoots into the stratosphere with this entry.

Rest assured that this isn’t just some long-winded morality play. This is the best Pixar movie in years, a frequently charming, hilarious, and downright gorgeous pinnacle of big-budget animation. This is the rare kind of sequel where everything new works spectacularly. Forky is the star, but he’s got some excellent playmates to help realize his purpose. Whether it’s a terrifying gang of puppets led by a forlorn doll (Christina Hendricks), a egotistical but charming stuntman (Keanu Reeves), or a pair of stuffed prize doofuses (Keegan Michael-Key and Jordan Peele), all the new characters bring fascinating layers to the already stacked toyverse.

Tom Hanks, Annie Potts, and Keanu Reeves in  Toy Story 4  | Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Tom Hanks, Annie Potts, and Keanu Reeves in Toy Story 4 | Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

What’s really striking is the animation, which represents the most beautiful CGI work done this decade. Josh Cooley, a longtime Pixar writer and animator making his directorial debut here, has a real eye for making this animated world look lushly cinematic. Whether it’s Woody and Bo Peep standing in the rain lit only by a nearby porch light or the toys rushing under the neon glow of an amusement park, Cooley shoots his toys most sensitively than most live-action directors film their actors. The way he uses light and contrast to bring depth to his world delivers on the promises of last year’s similarly breathtaking Incredibles 2 , and it’s safe to say this film blows that sequel out of the water in every conceivable way.

That’s not to say the film is flawless, despite very nearly coming close to that classification. Since this is essentially the Woody & Forky show, diehard Toyheads will probably be disappointed that much of the main cast is given very little to do outside of making a few scant jokes. The ending also feels like a bit of re-hash of the previous film’s messaging, tying up the brilliant themes of Woody and Forky’s existential angst but relying on some old story beats to do so.

Mileage is going to vary when it comes to whether or not Toy Story 4 needed to be made. The fact that it’s more of an epilogue than a fully-fleshed out sequel complicates that questioning, but the old Pixar genius on display here at least makes the exercise worth the trouble. In a summer blockbuster season full of lifeless duds, this is one teeming with so much of it that it has to face the meaning of life itself. You can thank a precious utensil for that immensely touching gift.

Ryan Ninesling