The beloved Toy Story films, which put Pixar on the map as one of the greatest animation studios of all time, have always worked on multiple levels, like the rest of Pixar’s catalogue. On one plane, these films have been amusing, colourful, and almost wholesome for younger audiences. On the other, they’ve carried subtle commentary about the bittersweet nature of life that’s connected with adults. Such elements have made these fantastic films a joy to watch for the whole family.

But something interesting happened with Toy Story 3 (2010). Its narrative about embracing your future hit harder than before. And here we are, nine years later, with Toy Story 4. This is perhaps the best film in the franchise and easily one of the best films of the year. It exquisitely deals with some surprisingly complex themes for a family film.

Ideas such as morality, fate, and introspection aren’t new to Toy Story films. Neither are existential questions. But for Toy Story 4, these are more than just undercurrents that spice up the narrative. Director Josh Cooley, who, here, makes an incredible feature-length directorial debut, and the film’s many writers, clearly realise that the first Toy Story was released 24 years ago. Kids who grew up with the film then are now in their mid to late 30s. It’s clear that Toy Story 4 is written for them; an audience whose cherished characters now face challenges that reflect their own lives.

The film continues the story after Andy donated all his toys to little Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw). Woody (Tom Hanks), who misses Andy tremendously, now focuses on trying to keep Bonnie happy. Unfortunately for him, Bonnie isn’t interested in playing with him.

Toy Story 4 is clearly written for kids who grew up with the franchise and is easily one of the best films of the year

With Bonnie finding life difficult, Woody sneaks into her backpack and joins her at kindergarten orientation. This is much to the dismay of the other toys, such as Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), Rex (Wallace Shawn), Slinky Dog (Blake Clark), Mr. Potato Head (Don Rickles), Mrs. Potato Head (Estelle Harris), Jessie (Joan Cusack) and others, who fear that Woody will be lost.

However, Woody comes back with Bonnie. And, as it turns out, Bonnie had a good first day at school, where she made a new toy Forky (Tony Hale). While Forky has an existential crisis, convinced that it is garbage, Bonnie finds comfort and security in her creation at a difficult time.

Soon, everyone goes on a road trip, where they meet other toys. This includes the return of Bo Peep (Annie Potts), and new characters such as Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves) and Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks). All three are nicely characterised. Bo Peep is a driven, resourceful and inspirational character for female audiences. She also has good chemistry with Woody. Duke Caboom is an amusing daredevil toy that struggles with confidence. And then there’s the antagonist, Gabby Gabby, perhaps the best and deepest character in the film. She is almost introduced as a horror character, in a nod to some classic scary films. Yet, we begin to sympathise with her because of the excellent narrative.

The second act of the film is bittersweet, while the third has a few gut-wrenching moments, especially if you’re emotionally invested in the series. Many of the difficult challenges Woody faces are a commentary on parenthood. His inability to find a new purpose in his old age, beyond taking care of others, to the detriment of those around him, is one of the film’s most powerful themes.

While Pixar’s work is always without parallel, the visuals are exceptional here, often photorealistic. But we don’t watch the Toy Story films for aesthetics. We watch them for the character development, the relationships, and the subtle ways they can play with our heartstrings.

Rated G

Published in Dawn, ICON, June 30th, 2019