Is anyone else fucking exhausted with nostalgia? I mean, I’m in my early twenties, and I feel like I’m far too young for about 50% of all pop culture to be an attempt to tap into the joy of looking backwards. Yes, I know the world’s a shitstorm, but does that mean we need eight new Star Wars films and dire X-Files reboots? Does it?
I think that Toy Story is one of the franchises that holds the most nostalgia for my generation, and so, in grim sequence, it makes sense that it would be next on the docket for a sequel-guillotining. Now, it goes without it saying that the first three Toy Story films are perhaps some of the most enduringly sublime pieces of cinema ever made – beautifully written, wrenchingly heartfelt, innovatively animated – but more than that, they traced a lifetime for people like me. We watched those first two as kids, and then the third came as we left for adulthood, as did series protagonist Andy. The end of the third movie felt like a completely perfect ending, and I would have been happy never to see these characters in new stories again. Most of the people in my position that I knew felt very much the same way.
So Toy Story 4 had a hard job: how do you draw in new audiences, audiences who might not even have been alive when the last movie came out, as well as drawing back the older crowd for that addictive nostalgia hit in an era when almost everything we get is some form of nostalgia or another? And the answer is: by not doing either well.
The story revolves around our protagonist Woody (in what still might be Tom Hanks’ best performance), as he tries to introduce a newly-built toy (Forky, as voiced by Tony Hale) into the realities of existence as a sentient, child-centric being. And I actually think there were two very interesting stories competing with each other here – Woody’s search for purpose feels like a relevant exploration for older audiences, while Forky is a cool new twist for the franchise that feels like an attempt to appeal to newcomers. But, as the stories clamber on top of each other, neither really feels like it gets time to breathe, and instead we’re stuck with a half-baked almost-good film that still has to take time to give us the greatest-hits of older, beloved characters who really don’t have much to do with this storyline.
Of course, Toy Story 4 still has so many of the things that make these films so enduring – the glorious animation, the superb voice performances, the sheer inventiveness of watching these characters interact with a world in miniature. But what made the first three films so iconic is the depth, wit, and skill present in their storytelling, which just didn’t stick the landing for me here the way they should.
Toy Story 4 straddles this odd middle ground of trying to appeal to the deadened nostalgia sensors of people like me, while also engaging new audiences into Pixar’s most iconic world. What this leaves us with is an uncomfortable, often frustrating film that has flashes of the franchise’s famous brilliance, without climbing to the heights that its predecessors crested with ease. Maybe it’s my overworked nostalgia gland working, but they just don’t make ’em like they used to.
By Louise MacGregor
(header image via Rolling Stone)