Now that Josh Cooley’s “Toy Story 4” has officially entered global consumption, dry those tears because it’s time to lay down some hard facts. Naturally comparing precious childhood properties seems downright cutthroat, but growing up sometimes requires strapping on those cowboy and cowgirl boots and facing harsh reality. While there’s no clunker in the bunch, there is a proper order of good to greatest within this beloved franchise. Below is the definitive ranking of Pixar’s sole franchise worthy of sequels.
“Toy Story 4” (2019)
“Very good” may seem like disappointing feedback, but the sentiment doesn’t diminish the necessity of this fourth – and hopefully final – installment. Some of our favorite toys take a backseat to newer, hipper, flashier ones, but Stephany Folsom and Andrew Stanton’s script emphasizes Woody’s narrative anchoring. It’s Woody who decides what course of action needs to be taken to sustain their new kid’s happiness. However, when Bonnie makes it clear that Woody isn’t of interest the way Andy favored the pull-string cowboy, Woody is forced to confront the next daunting chapter of his life: independence.
Reuniting with Bo Peep and her fellow “lost toys” only reinforces Woody’s resolve to move on. He learns that his controlling nature is a byproduct of self-interest rather than a noble leadership quality benefitting the group. Sometimes facing the truth of one’s fatal flaw is the toughest part, especially when parting goodbyes cut so deep. This sequel may lack the inventive and emotional punch of its predecessors, but at least it goes out with respect for the childhood memories we leave behind but never forget.
“Toy Story 2” (1999)
In many ways, this is the most depressing of the “Toy Story” films. Woody faces his mortality right off the bat, wondering whether his injury automatically disqualifies his existence in Andy’s eyes. Then to be kidnapped, learn about his origins and possible “true” family, and double-crossed by this same family is more than a person should ever experience, let alone a toy. But even Woody’s adversities don’t compare to Jessie’s early abandonment, revealed in one of the most agonizingly tragic flashbacks in cinematic history.
The film’s overarching bleakness prevents it from being embraced as warmly as the other entries. “Toy Story 2” might be far too wise and mature for its own good, but at least the tears and fan-service pandering (Buzz and Emperor Zurg confrontation) are well earned. Because of “Toy Story 2’s” brilliant writing, this animated sequel avoided an embarrassing straight-to-video fate.
“Toy Story 3” (2010)
Does Lotso basically serve the same villain purpose as Stinky Pete from the prior movie? Yes, admittedly so. However, this blemish aside, Lee Unkrich’s “Toy Story 3” is a vat of emotional turmoil, triumph, and catharsis. It contains two of the most memorable sequences in the animation genre’s history: the toys facing death by incinerator and Andy’s last play session before going off to college. That one-two kick in the gut catapulted this sequel into the Academy Award “Best Picture” lineup, an honor only bestowed on two other animated films (“Beauty and the Beast” and “Up”).
Giving the characters a chance to experience the horrors of the real-world while still clinging onto hope ultimately epitomizes the transformation from child to adult. The ones we love will always love us, but sometimes it’s necessary to face what’s beyond home’s door. Conversely, letting Andy go is one of the most painful yet responsible decisions these toys make, allowing their former owner to enrich his life after livening theirs for years.
“Toy Story” (1995)
When it comes down to what audiences take away most from the series, it’s the camaraderie among Andy’s toys. The way they interact, view their place in life, surrender to their individual idiosyncrasies in a very public, trusting way is what every society should embody. Watching Buzz struggle with the reality of his identity, Woody making poor choices yet being unfairly ostracized, and seeing the cruelty of Sid shaped the ways children viewed the world around them. Trust, loyalty, friendship, honesty, community, faith, and bravery are all themes amplified to the nth degree for our privileged consumption. “Toy Story” revolutionized the way animation is evaluated, no longer viewed as derivative fun with syrupy endings, but as a medium that communicates difficult truths without distilling any of the imaginative fun.