Entertainment

Why 'Toy Story 4' Should Be the Last Movie in the Franchise

toy story 4
Walt Disney Pictures

This article contains spoilers for Toy Story 4. 

There's a moving finality to Toy Story 3, the 2010 Pixar movie that left audiences with tear-streaked faces as their childhoods came to an end. After Woody, Buzz, and the gang are saved from imminent death, they experience a poetic transition. With their owner Andy off to college, the toys get handed off to a new child, Bonnie. A cycle has been completed, and playtime has been passed on to a new generation. It's a perfect conclusion. So why make another movie?

Money, for one thing, but it turns out that Toy Story 4 isn't as cynical an enterprise as you might think, despite a controversial and fraught production cycle that seemed almost doomed. Director Josh Cooley's film -- with a story conceived of by eight credited writers -- operates as a coda of sorts to the first trilogy, with its own concerns about love and what it means to belong to someone. It also offers even further closure. In other words: There's absolutely no need for a Toy Story 5.

When we check back in on our old pals, they're happily serving Bonnie, and she adores them. Well, almost all of them. Woody (Tom Hanks), always Andy's favorite, is not as beloved by Bonnie, who prefers to make cowgirl Jessie (Joan Cusack) sheriff of her imaginary town. But that hasn't stopped Woody from his dogged devotion to making his kid happy. He's so dedicated that he stows away in her book bag even after she's told she's not allowed to bring a toy to her kindergarten orientation. Said intro to the world of schooling is traumatic for poor Bonnie, but Woody comes to her aid by supplying her various items that she uses to create Forky (Tony Hale), a makeshift plaything with haunted googly eyes who becomes her constant companion and her source of solace.

ducky and bunny
Ducky and Bunny, showing off. | Walt Disney Pictures

Of course, what's comfort for some is trauma for others. By turning a once disposed spork into a toy, Bonnie forced Forky to reckon with his own existence. His initial moments on Earth are full of terror, and he longs to return to the trash. I've already written an entire piece about Forky, but suffice it to say he's one of the oddest, most affecting animated characters to grace the screen in recent memory. More of an heir to Inside Out's Bing Bong than any existing character in the Toy Story universe, his strange persona guides the tone of the film, which is more melancholy than downright sob-inducing.

Ultimately, Forky jumps out the window of a moving vehicle in an effort to escape Bonnie's smothering affection during a road trip. Woody, assuming his self-appointed duties, goes after the wayward utensil to convince him that it's worth abandoning the promise of trash for Bonnie. But Toy Story 4 is as much about Forky's journey to a new sense of purpose as it is about Woody's, and his allegiances are tested when they come across an antiques store that seemingly is home to his one-time love Bo Peep (Annie Potts), a doll-slash-nightlight previously belonging to Andy's younger sister. But Bo, now refashioned into a crafty explorer, has abandoned the shop for life as "lost toy," leaving just the lamp behind. This allows her to provide happiness intermittently to children on her own terms, which she does while zooming around in a fake skunk with a sidekick Giggles McDimples (Ally Maki).

As in all the Toy Story movies, the ultimate goal for these semi-inanimate objects is to get back to their home base, in this case Bonnie's family's RV. While Bo's new ethos is an intriguing counter to Woody's, where the happiness of his kid is tantamount, the the real obstacle in the way is a toy named Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), a Chatty Cathy analog who lords over the antique shop with a creepy sweetness and an army of terrifying ventriloquist dummies. She takes Forky hostage in an effort to steal Woody's voice box, since hers is broken and she assumes that, if fixed, she'll finally win the love of the store-owner's granddaughter.

If this all sounds like heady, almost tragic, stuff about how to survive a meaningless existence, well, it is. But Toy Story 4 also mixes all that longing with some of the funniest moments ever to grace this series courtesy of Keanu Reeves as Duke Caboom, an abandoned Canadian action figure, and Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele as Ducky and Bunny, two carnival prizes sewn together. It's gag-a-minute filmmaking with zany, Looney Tunes energy, that covers a lot of plot at a brisk pace.

duke caboom
My man, Duke Caboom. | Walt Disney Pictures

It all leads up to a choice for Woody. Should he return with Forky to Bonnie? Or should he stay with Bo? Finally coming to terms with the fact that Bonnie wouldn't miss him if he's gone, he chooses the latter, leaving Buzz, Jessie, and the rest of his friends behind. The movie's various mid-credits sequences give us happy endings: Bo, Woody, Ducky, Bunny, et al helping youngsters win toys -- and toys win youngsters -- at a carnival; Bonnie's toys meeting her latest creation, Knifey, also in a state of panic. But by separating Woody from the core group, it puts a pin in this saga as we know it.

There's always been a cyclical quality to the Toy Story movies because, at their core, they're about the process of growing up. But the previous installments were about static beings -- the toys -- wrestling with the humans around them changing but solidifying their own bonds in the process. Toy Story 4 breaks the cycle by allowing Woody, for once, to make a decision that's less about adaptation than it is about his own individual identity. While it's possible to debate for hours the metaphysical implications of that, for now, it serves as a satisfying evolution of a hero whose steadfastness was his defining trait. 

I would never underestimate Disney's capabilities to keep a franchise alive, and given the undeniable moneymaking power of successful franchises it would be strange for the Mouse to leave cash on the table by foregoing a Toy Story 5. But it would make sense that this is the end of Toy Story as we know it. Unless, of course, Duke Caboom gets his own spinoff. That, I'd be into.

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.