‘Toy Story 4’: Does It Measure Up to the Prior ‘Toy Story’ Movies?

There has never been a more successful series of animated films than Pixar’s Toy Story movies. Not only have all of them been critically acclaimed box-office hits, but they have been pioneering in a number of ways.

The original 1995 film was a milestone in animation, becoming the first fully computer-animated feature film ever produced. Toy Story 2 proved that Pixar could succeed with sequels, even though the project began as a direct-to-video venture. Toy Story 3 brought the story of Andy, Woody and Buzz full circle and got a Best Picture nomination.

And that seemed like it would be that. Now along comes the fourth, and it’s better than many expected.  To rank the movies would be to split hairs, so we’ll go back over them one by one, from 1995 to 2019, infinity and beyond.

Toy Story
Toy Story characters | Mitchel Wu / Barcroft Images / Barcroft Media via Getty Images

‘Toy Story’

To look at the original movie is to look at something of an artifact. By now, Pixar produces test animation that is more intricate and detailed than the final animation rendered in this movie. Consider that when this movie came out, the original Star Wars was only 18 years old. Now Toy Story itself is 24 years old. When “Hakuna Matata” plays like a quick in-joke during the climax, The Lion King was only a year old. 

It’s the most important of the Toy Story movies, although it’s not the best (more on that below). It’s a little startling to remember that Woody was actually kind of a self-important jerk at first — and he was originally written to be even harsher than that. 

Does any of this mean Pixar should change a frame? Not a bit. The movie still holds up beautifully, even if the humans have that “uncanny valley” look. No matter. The heart of the movie still lies in how Woody and Buzz go from rivals to true friends, and in how the toys are so devoted to Andy. We had a friend in this movie immediately, and we always will.

‘Toy Story 2’

The odds seemed stacked against this movie from the start. This was when Disney was producing a glut of direct-to-video sequels that too often played like cheap Saturday morning cartoon knock-offs. This sequel was originally going to be one of these. Adding to the problem was the fact that technicians accidentally erased most of the movie at one point, only rescuing it when an employee had a backup at home. 

Thank goodness they did, because this turned out to be the rare movie that bettered its original. It expanded on the world, introduced new characters just as endearing as the old ones and plumbed new emotional riches. Anyone who doesn’t at least tear up at the devastating “When She Loved Me” sequence should audition for the role of Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz. This earns our pick of Pixar’s best sequel and the best movie of this series.

‘Toy Story 3’

In some ways, the movie that wraps up Andy’s time with the toys turned out to be almost too powerful. Just as Disney had done for years with the heart-rending deaths in Bambi and The Lion King, this third movie traumatized children and some adults with scenes of the toys in the trash – particularly when the fiery doom of an incinerator looms ahead. We knew in our heads that our friends wouldn’t meet their end this way, but our hearts were racing a mile a minute.

That’s why the final farewell, with Andy bequeathing his beloved toys to Bonnie, works so wonderfully well. We have to descend to the deepest valley to truly appreciate being on the highest mountain. Along the way, we get a funny satire of prison escape movies and the wild sight of Mr. Potato Head as a different kind of food. There’s nowhere to go but down from here, right?

‘Toy Story 4’

Maybe only a teensy bit down. The biggest problem with this sequel is that it never figures out to do with the old characters outside of Woody and Bo Peep. The movie couldn’t resort to resetting Buzz yet again, so they have him rely on his pre-recorded sayings to help him make decisions. This doesn’t make sense. Buzz may not be the wisest toy in the box, but he’s a natural leader who did quite well on the road in Toy Story 2

However, the return of Bo Peep is most welcome after the character was conspicuously missing from Toy Story 3. The animation on her, in particular, is gorgeous, with the character now serving as kind of an empowered action hero who likes being a lost toy. The romance between her and Woody still carries strong emotional weight, and that figures into a finale almost as poignant as the one in the third movie. 

Will there be a Toy Story 5? Probably not, as Pixar has no sequels of any kind planned for the foreseeable future. But if they can make it as good as these four, more power to them.