What the ending of Toy Story 4 means for the franchise
Is Toy Story 4 really the end? That’s the question… and for the foreseeable future, the very contemplation of it is also the closest we’ll get to an answer.
As the forking-good reviews of Disney/Pixar’s summer sequel have already intimated, Toy Story 4 ends with something of a decisive stroke, a touch of finality that — no spoilers — will make it fairly difficult to continue the stories of Woody and Buzz together. Granted, fans felt similarly to the masterful ending of 2010’s Toy Story 3, but between both finales is a fundamental difference in the future potential of the Toy Story story, at least in the way we know it.
Toy Story 4 fills its runtime with questions of existentialism, not unlike the three films before it, but in its final moments, a purpose is determined and a course is presumably set: Woody, accepting that he’d rather explore the world with Bo Peep than be relegated to a closet by Bonnie, makes the decision to go kidless — leaving behind the now-fulfilled purpose he’d spent his life heretofore pursuing and, in doing so, parting ways with Jessie (to whom he bequeaths his sheriff’s badge), Buzz, and the rest of his synthetic friends from Andy and Bonnie’s rooms.
Now, we’ve been here before. Toy Story 3’s ending was a devastating if perfect goodbye that closed the door on Andy, but at least kept this makeshift toy family intact as they transitioned together toward a promising future with Bonnie. It reiterated a foundational tenet of the franchise: As long as these toys are together, there is an adventure to be had (and Pixar’s sundry post-2010 shorts, like Hawaiian Vacation and Toy Story of Terror!, have only further cemented this). Toy Story 4 tries to make good on that core promise that the fun will go on: The declaration of Sheriff Jessie is an exciting one, and even the silly mid-credits scene, in which Forky meets a female-encoded plastic knife who is just as confused about her existence as he once was, shows us that there is comedic territory to traverse. Like its predecessor, Toy Story 4 strives to show that there will be no lack of life in Bonnie’s room, whether we see that future or not. (And FYI, for those curious, the post-credits scene is just funny froth: Duke Caboom wheels around the Pixar logo and returns a long-awaited high five to Combat Carl.)
Yet without Woody, the Toy Story ensemble loses not only its narrative anchor, but also the thematic tether we’ve come to identify with the franchise (at least in its feature films). Bonnie’s room will of course still have a leader. It will have its conscience, its rescue missions, its occasional bouts of existential panic about a plaything’s purpose. Audiences will likely return to Bonnie’s room before we know it, with holiday specials and shorts sure to be on the horizon (especially now that Forky is a bona fide star). But what Bonnie’s toys won’t have is Woody. The disruption of his departure doesn’t just demand a question of whether a fifth film could be made (of course!) or should be made (of course not!), but begs us to consider whether the shape of any hypothetical sequel would be fundamentally accepted or rejected by audiences were it to either not have a Woody or not have an Everyone Else. (Because if an eventual Toy Story 5 does immediately bring Woody back together with Bonnie’s room, then everything is meaningless and we all deserve to be incinerated in a landfill anyway.) The business of moviemaking should tell us that this may not be the end of Toy Story, but it should be the end of what we know Toy Story movies to look like. There’s no more sheriff and space ranger—we’re either following Woody’s path now, or Buzz’s and beyond.
Earlier this year, EW asked director Josh Cooley whether Toy Story 4 marked the beginning of a new trilogy or direction for the series. “I don’t think so,” he said. “I think, from my point of view, my gut is that we’ve found a way to complete these characters. But that being said, I never in a million years would have thought that I would be directing Toy Story 4, so who knows. If there’s another idea for the future that works, who knows. But the way that we’ve been thinking about Toy Story 4 is that we’ve completed these characters’ arcs.” So, should Toy Story be considered a completed quartet? “Absolutely.”
Therefore the key to the future of Toy Story lies with a few decisions that both audience members and Pixar must make: whether you feel Toy Story is Toy Story without Woody, whether you accept that Woody’s arc has in fact concluded, and whether you recognize that it was Woody’s journey — and Woody’s journey alone — that this story has been about all along.
For whatever it’s worth, it took Toy Story 4 to remind me, a lifelong fan who grew up with these characters in tandem with Andy and probably owes more to the franchise than I’ve even let myself realize, of this fundamental truth about Woody. I can’t say it’s something I always would have defended, that this was meant to be Woody’s show and no one else’s. Certainly not when Pixar has masterfully applied such magnitude to every member of the ensemble, the Buzzes and Jessies and Hamms and Potato Heads of this world, to make them feel just as vital and true and monumental as the cowboy with the catchphrases. These characters all went through hell and back and came out the other side, and not for nothing, but Woody’s emotional ascension doesn’t diminish their experiences or their rightfully revered places in the pop culture pantheon; all it does is draw our focus back to the series’ wayward wanderer and demand we ask: When does a story truly end?
If Toy Story 4 should leave us with anything, it’s that it was Woody’s growing up, not Andy’s, that this great series was really about. And now, he has grown up. In Buzz, Woody found his humility; in Jessie, his soul; in Bo Peep, his future. This toy’s story has ended — and should a closed door dare to open again, perhaps we’ll find that it’s not the same without that familiar face greeting us on the other side.