There’s something wrong with Disney. If you’ve seen the new Aladdin, or the trailer for the new Lion King, you might have sensed that something in those movies was off, but maybe you accepted it as a necessary consequence of their favored “rinse-and-repeat” strategy of remaking old animated classics. As the fourth offering in one of the most beloved animated franchises of all time, it’s difficult to write off the inherent wrongness of Toy Story 4 as inconsequential. Watching Toy Story 4 is a little like looking into a warped mirror. You see the basic elements of something you’re supposed to recognize, but the essence of that thing is unrecognizable, like a being without a soul. Toy Story 4 is the culmination of everything that the modern Disney movie has become: beautifully crafted, sentimental, and at the same time, completely heartless.
Toy Story 4 is so successfully deceptive because it includes all of the iconic elements of a Toy Story movie. There’s whimsy and nostalgia, adventure and villainy. The characters struggle with themes of self-acceptance, a need for love, and a search for a purpose. The animation is as good as in any Pixar film, but at this point, that’s something we can take for granted. It’s depressing that as Pixar’s animation quality has infinitely increased, its ability to write an original and nuanced story has almost disappeared.
The movie follows annoyingly familiar beats. After Andy gives Woody and the gang to his young neighbor Bonnie in the third movie, the fourth film picks up during Bonnie’s first days of kindergarten. Bonnie doesn’t cherish Woody as Andy once did, so Woody throws his weight behind supporting Bonnie’s newest favorite toy, a plastic fork with googly eyes. During a road trip in the family RV, Forky and Andy get lost and end up in an antiques shop, where they meet up with Bo Peep, who has been living an adventurous life as kind of toy “free-agent” and the nefarious Gabby Gabby, who has an obsessive interest in Woody’s voice-box. After seeing the glamor and freedom in Bo’s nomadic life, Woody must choose whether to stay with Bonnie and risk her outgrowing him, or choose a life of his own making.
While this plot seems different from the other films, it’s really very similar. Once again Woody must grapple with a child outgrowing him and search for a purpose beyond his desire to make his kid happy. With Toy Story 3, Disney already wrote the perfect film exploring these themes, so TS4 feels incredibly redundant. The “crisis” of leaving Bonnie is far less consequential than Andy growing too old for Woody. We watched two movies of Woody and Andy growing up together, but Woody has spent less than half a movie with Bonnie, so why should viewers care if he leaves her? Additionally, the emotional oomph behind the third movie was the symbolic gesture of Andy transferring his childhood memories to Bonnie, so it’s almost insulting for Disney to create an entire movie undoing the significance of that gesture.
Equally insulting is Disney’s lazy attempt to craft a compelling villain. Remember Sid, the psychotic teenager who terrorized the toys with his surgeries? The iconic Prospector Pete, whose gaslighting was reminiscent of an emotional abuser? Or Lotso, the cuddly bear with his own toy KGB? These were villains. They were complex, they were threatening, and they drove the plot in fascinating and unpredictable ways. TS4 attempts to create a new villain in Gabby Gabby, but fails in every way. Gabby’s main goal is to gain Woody’s voice box so that she can replace her broken one and get a child to love her. While this is tragic, it also undercuts her villainy. Gabby just isn’t threatening enough to justify an entire movie centered around thwarting her. From her ventriloquist dummy henchman (we get it, they’re creepy!), to her clichéd wish to be loved by the perfect child, Gabby is a mishmash of every villain we’ve seen before in the Toy Story universe. It’s like a robot watched all of the Toy Story films, input their characteristics into an algorithm, and wrote a character based on the results.
Gabby Gabby’s faults encapsulate all that is wrong with Toy Story 4. It just doesn’t feel right. The first three films established a collective soul that is missing from this movie. It’s not enough to put all of the beloved characters in one place, write a few jokes, insert generic sentiments of longing and nostalgia, and lay it over a Randy Newman track. You need to write real emotions. We need to know that this movie was created from the ideas of genuine creatives, not cobbled together by Disney zombies to add yet another Disney release to the over-saturated field of new movies.
The problem is that if you don’t pay too much attention to this film, it seems like everything is just fine. That’s why it has a 98% Fresh score on Rotten Tomatoes, and why reviewers are lauding the film as “heartwarming” and claiming it possesses a “strong emotional fabric.” Toy Story 2 and Toy Story 3 were deserving of these accolades, Toy Story 4 is not. Disney is hoping that the general public will be too enamored with the superficial similarities between the three films to notice the glaring hole where TS4‘s heart should be.
I’m honestly depressed that this is the new standard of Disney movies. Not since Moana came out 2 years ago have I seen a Disney/Pixar film that I thought really captured the beauty and magic of what a good animated film can be. Maybe we were spoiled on stories like Wall-E and Up and The Incredibles and Ratatouille. Maybe there are only so many great films that one studio can produce before their genius starts to fade. Or maybe Disney has created an atmosphere where originality is punished, risk-taking is avoided, and money is the only thing that talks. With every new remake and sequel, Disney is taking away more and more of what makes filmmaking an art. Films are entertainment, but they are also supposed to mean something. Toy Story 4 doesn’t mean anything. It’s a flash in the pan, a trick of the eye. We won’t remember it two years from now. We might not even remember it tomorrow. But that’s kind of the point. To Disney, all that matters now is creating a spectacle to keep us in our seats, until they create the next one.