Cinematic franchises literally don’t come any bigger than the Toy Story movies.
Together, Toy Story 1 to 3 made almost $2 billion at the international box office.
The Toy Story movies also constitute the most critically acclaimed franchise of all time.
The bible of movie/TV ratings sites, Rotten Tomatoes, has the first, second (and now the fourth) films holding a 100 per cent ‘Certified Fresh’ rating, while the third sits at 98 per cent.
As a modern film franchise, only The Lord of the Rings trilogy comes close with average ratings of 94 per cent compared to the Toy Story offerings’ almost-perfect average rating of 99.3 per cent.
But fourth films in a successful franchise are often awkward, troubled children. Consider Batman and Robin (1997), Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) and Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999.) OK, it’s a prequel to the original trilogy, but the principle stands.
As I write, Men In Black: International is making critics wish they could reach for the memory-erasing neuralyzer.
But while Cars 3 (2017) and The Good Dinosaur (2015) underperformed, Inside Out (2015) and Coco (2017) were masterpieces and franchise films Finding Dory (2016) and Incredibles 2 (2018) were hugely enjoyable.
Pixar simply doesn’t traffic in duds.
What it does best is explore growth, death, family and culture through the eyes of children in such a way that the eyes of adults in the audience well up in tearful recognition.
The Toy Story trilogy has captured brilliantly all the strengths of Pixar’s output, from the hilarious – evil Emperor Zurg trying to bond with his newfound son Buzz Lightyear through playing catch – to the profoundly touching, such as Jessie haunted by feelings of abandonment when she recalls how she was once loved and valued.
There’s no real need for a fourth film. The franchise rounded off its story arc satisfyingly with the transfer of the toys from Andy to Bonnie in Toy Story 3.
But there’s always a new angle, and Toy Story 4 takes the franchise’s key theme – what happens when toys become disposable and unloved – and flips it.
What happens when junk becomes a toy, like Bonnie’s peculiar craft class invention Forky (Tony Hale)? And what if that ‘toy’ knows it’s junk?
In that, Toy Story 4 may be the weirdest of the series. Forky is in some ways a bizarre version of Roy Batty in Blade Runner, an artificial entity aware of its origins and unsure if it can transcend them.
I suppose that repurposes the original film to a degree, where Buzz must confront what he is. But familiarity has its place and there’s not a boring moment in Toy Story 4.
As usual, the plot eventually requires the toys to rescue other toys through elaborate, athletic schemes. But we expected that, just as we expected a string of pop culture gems even if we can’t predict them.
The movie cashes in on the popular success of Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele as sideshow furballs and chooses wisely bringing in another high-profile guest star, Keanu Reeves, as Canadian stunt motorcyclist Duke Caboom.
Add to that the return of Bo-Peep (Annie Potts) as an amusement park warrior survivalist like Terminator’s Sarah Connor and a Mos Eisley cantina scene set in a creepy antique shop and we wander through another garden of Pixar delights.
I saw the film with my 18-year-old, 6 foot 5 son, born after the release of the first two films.
I didn’t need to ask whether he enjoyed it.
Toy Story’s message for 24 years has been that we might misplace the icons of our childhood, but they are never truly lost.
And while that message continues to be expressed with such fun and inventiveness, it will still find an audience long after the first Toy Story attendees cash in their franking credits.
Toy Story 4 is screening nationally from June 20