Great endings don’t bring a story to its completion. They merely conclude the part of the story to which we’re privy. All the Toy Story movies have endings like that, each implying that Andy’s (and then Bonnie’s) toys will forge new relationships and embark on new adventures when nobody’s looking. The trade-off to this lack of finality is that it set up the circumstances in which Disney and Pixar were free to keep playing with Woody and Buzz long after the poignant coda of Toy Story 3, rolling out theatrical shorts and TV specials throughout the height of the studios’ zeal for sequels and re-releases. These offshoots draw on Toy Story’s emotional heft, but the best of them use the character traits and robust world-building established in the first three movies as springboards into rapid-fire visual puns or a thought exercise that asks “What if Toy Story 2 were a horror movie set in a roadside motel?”
Perhaps it’s a byproduct of its place in the franchise timeline, but Toy Story 4 feels more of a piece with “Toy Story Of Terror” and “Small Fry” than it does with the three preceding features. The antique shop at the center of the film is primed for the genre exercises of the holiday specials, and Buzz’s entire arc, launched by Woody’s offhand advice to follow his “inner voice,” feels like it would’ve been better suited for a Toy Story Toon. There are so many little ideas duking it out within Toy Story 4 that it’s a minor miracle director Josh Cooley manages to make them work together in a weird sort of harmony. Cooley was one of five people sharing screenwriting credit for Inside Out (not atypical for team-spirit-powered Pixar), but his feature-length directorial debut has nine names listed under “original story by” alone, and hey howdy hey can you ever feel it. In just 100 minutes, Toy Story 4 bounces from the creation and identity crisis of Bonnie’s DIY plaything Forky (Tony Hale) to the triumphant return of Bo Peep (Annie Potts) to multiple daring rescue operations that ultimately result in the redemptions of faulty vintage toys Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves) and Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks).
But do you notice whose names are missing from that list? The core Toy Story ensemble, largely sidelined while Woody overcompensates for another status quo that’s rapidly slipping through his fingers. He starts the present day of Toy Story 4 being left behind, but increasingly he’s the one who isolates himself from the friends he led in Andy’s room and those he gained in Bonnie’s, to the point that when he meets back up with Bo—who’s refashioned herself as a Furiosa-like nomadic warrior queen, right down to the removable arm—she presumes he’s been lost. It’s hard to fight the feeling that the rip-roaring set pieces made possible because Woody follows Forky out of an open RV window are actually the result of a cold screenwriting logic necessary to a) reconcile the surplus of material within Toy Story 4, and b) deliver Woody to the conclusion that his purpose as Bonnie’s toy is fulfilled and it’s time to find out what’s beyond infinity.
So if the farewell sequence in this Toy Story isn’t as affecting as the one from the previous Toy Story—despite the valiant efforts of carnival lighting wistfully glinting off the eyes of characters we’ve known longer than many of our own friends and relatives—it’s not just the sense of déjà vu. It’s Toy Story 4 at odds with itself again, the old gang’s affection for Woody suddenly rushing forth at the end of a movie that works so hard to keep them all separated. In order to be anything close to coherent, this charmingly odd left turn from a nearly quarter-century-old franchise—where stuffed animals voiced by comic royalty daydream about wreaking havoc on humans—must short-circuit its emotional wiring. Toy Story 3 concludes with a Bellagio fountain of tears, inspired by a film rich with meaning and consequence and connection. Toy Story 4 is a going-away party for a co-worker who already had both feet out the door.
There’s also the nagging suspicion that another reunion is always just around the corner. While producer Mark Nielsen declared “It’s all original films after this one right now” prior to Toy Story 4’s release, the talent has gone on the record saying “never say never” about a fifth Toy Story. Meanwhile, the film’s credits are a reminder that the franchise now has two parallel storytelling tracks at its disposal, which have already supplied Disney+ with a Bo Peep flashback and a series of shorts where Forky ponders such topics as time, love, and cheese. The groundwork for Forky Asks A Question is laid in the homebound half of the Toy Story 4 credits, where Bonnie’s latest creation stares deep into the spork’s googly eyes and asks, “How am I alive?” It’s an incredible joke, and the broaching of perhaps the one existential hot button still available to Pixar’s flagship. The time before and after Toy Story 4 proves that the animation house is never going to stop making Toy Story content. But maybe the one thing staving off the production of another sequel is the fact that the only satisfying version of Toy Story 5 is the one that makes like Star Trek V and sends the toys on a quest to find, and maybe destroy, the almighty. Now that’d be a definitive ending.