Toy Story 4 ★★★

It's a dark and stormy night, and famous toy-hero Woody is engaged in some high-stakes action. With all the intensity of a good spy movie, he and Slinky Dog belay out into the tempest to rescue poor RC Car, who is in danger of being swept away in a rush of hyper-realistic water. But just when success seems assured: a twist! Woody is locked out of the house by his incredibly unobservant human overlords, and must watch in horror as his occasional love interest Bo Peep is sent away. Luckily, he manages one final tryst before she's taken away for good, allowing a brief homily about all good things coming to an end, etc. Then, high-stakes action and somber emotional interlude over, the camera sweeps up through the thunderheads to reveal a blue sky and puffy Andy's Room clouds, and we hear "You've Got a Friend In Me." It's the perfect opening to this strange, disjointed film, which clings to the trappings of a series that it doesn't really have much in common with at this point.

There's a lot to recommend here. The new characters are likable and funny, and the story's structure is very organic rather than being a series of distinct setpieces. Much of the action is centered around a classic "heist" formula, as our heroes must infiltrate a hostile antique store presided over by a host of villains and enemies. The whole thing is deftly orchestrated and every twist and turn in that subplot is a joy to watch. The script has a lot of very funny moments, a lot more than I recall Toy Story 3 having. And the emotional conclusion, though overwrought to the point of being silly, does pull together thematic threads established as far back as the original film.

At the same time, though, the ongoing game of one-upmanship that has afflicted this series has probably crossed its event horizon in this instalment. This film is determined to be BIG, and to do so requires that the toys engage in far more outlandish hijinks than ever before, to the point that it really begins to beggar belief that the humans haven't yet noticed that toys are alive. It requires a lot more scenes full of Deep Emotional Discussions, a lot more empathetic characters, a lot more significant decisions. Nothing is necessarily wrong with these things. It's just that they come at the expense of the things that made Toy Story what it was.

Toy Story was, at its heart, a very uncomplicated concept. Its central theme was jealousy, and how jealousy can bring out ugly behavior in an otherwise good person. It had two central characters, Buzz and Woody, and the whole point of the story was the development of their relationship and how their antagonism eventually dissolves into mutual understanding and friendship. The beauty of "You've Got a Friend In Me" is that at the beginning of the film it refers to Woody and Andy, and at the end of the film it refers to Woody and Buzz. It's not just "The Toy Story Song," it is the perfect encapsulation of what the original was about.

But screw that. Buzz barely even appears in this story except as occasional comic relief, and Woody's relationship with Bo Peep, which has never been particularly deep up to this point, is suddenly the most important thing in his life. Other than Woody and Bo, virtually none of the characters from the previous films get more than cameo appearances here. Given that this series has always made great use of its quirky ensemble cast, it's pretty sad to see them reduced to complete disposability here.

Even worse, Woody in this film is written the same as he was in 3, that is, as an extremely bossy know-it-all who's incredibly unpleasant to watch. The first two films were all about Woody needing to learn humility, yet somehow he has managed to circle back and become more conceited than ever. There are multiple scenes in this film in which Woody talks over the voices of characters who know better than he does, multiple scenes in which he acts as if satisfying his own whims is more important than the safety of others. While he does have a few moments of introspection here, the rest of the time he's an insufferable, egotistical boor who steals screen time from other, more-deserving, characters.

Toy Story 4 isn't a bad film. It's an enjoyable story from beginning to end, one with a nice mix of pathos and humor. The visuals have been honed to a degree that's downright astonishing, and it's hard to even imagine how they could be improved further. The characters are mostly good and well-written, even if some of them are unfairly neglected. It's just that this is also trying to be a Toy Story film, yet it's so many degrees separated from the original that there's not much resemblance between them anymore. I'm glad that with these Toy Story sequels Pixar has always tried to do something new and original, but I do hope they will let this be the last one.