When the first “Toy Story” was released in November 1995, it was unlike anything anyone had ever seen before. It was, with its scant 81-minute-runtime, the first full-length computer-generated feature film. Watching the film was like seeing “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” for the first time or maybe watching “Steamboat Willie,” the first animated film with synchronized sound (and the moment that Mickey Mouse went atomic). Looking back on the original “Toy Story,” it occasionally feels stiff, the plasticine rigidity of the toy characters extending to the humans too, but there’s no denying how cutting-edge it seemed back in 1995 and how the narrative, largely overseen by a bunch of computer technicians with little experience in storytelling, is just as rich and affecting today as it was then. (The screenplay was nominated for an Academy Award.) And I bring up seeing “Toy Story” for the first time, because when I was up at Pixar recently and got to screen about a half-hour of footage from “Toy Story 4,” my mind was blown just like it was in 1995. “Toy Story 4,” out June 21, might be the most beautiful-looking animated film ever.
Now, let me explain, and keep in mind I’ll be keeping it light with the plot specifics: “Toy Story 4” begins with a flashback. It’s a dark and stormy night and there’s a toy in trouble. Woody (Tom Hanks) needs help and gets that assistance from Bo Peep (Annie Potts, returning to the franchise for the first time since 1999’s “Toy Story 2”), and some things are established that had never really been established before, like how Bo is the leader of Molly’s room like Woody leads Andy’s room. Anyway, the shots in this sequence outside, in the rain, are truly astonishing. This is the first “Toy Story” installment presented in widescreen and the rain drops give the entire sequence a menacing, almost surreal atmosphere. The way the lighting is so aggressively amped up is also astonishing. It’s like the old “Toy Story” you know and love but more muscular and stylistically fearless.
It will leave you absolutely gob smacked and it goes a long way in justifying why there should even be a fourth movie, given how perfectly the series seemingly wrapped up with “Toy Story 3” (one of only three animated features to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar) and if you actively discount the three short films and two TV specials that followed (I will not; I love them all – and some are referenced in this movie!). You don’t need to grouse about the need for another “Toy Story” film; there’s another one and it’s here and it’s gorgeous.
The filmmakers, led by the wonderful Josh Cooley (he was a writer on “Inside Out” and directed the terrific “Riley’s First Date?” spin-off short), have taken the responsibility of contributing to the legacy of “Toy Story” by cranking up the visuals to 11 and going full on. The two other sequences we were shown, one which introduced the movie’s big bad, an antique doll named Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) in the halls of a dusty antique store and another that took place inside a pinball machine (where they meet Keanu Reeves’ Canadian stuntman Duke Caboom along with Tinny, the titular “Tin Toy” from the Pixar short that helped inspire the first “Toy Story”) are equally ravishing on a visual level but also an idea one. There’s the sense of adventurousness here, about taking the audience places they’ve never been before, even though this world has been thoroughly explored many times before. You get the sense that the filmmakers are saying, “So you think you’ve seen it all? Well…”
And the overwhelming beauty of “Toy Story 4” goes further when it comes to the design of the characters. Every time Pixar comes back to a property they’ve already engaged with, they do (mostly) subtle updates. Usually enough years have passed that an improved rigging system is required, stylistic refinements are more a matter of preference. (For an indication of how subconscious this can be, look at the characters from “Incredibles 2” versus the original.) But with “Toy Story 4” many of the characters look brand new. I don’t mean to say that you won’t recognize them because you will. These are the characters you know and love. But they are so much more expressive and lifelike and, particularly when it comes to Bo Peep, so radically altered as to give them fresh life and spirit. Again: the animators are giving you a reason to come back to this universe and soak up all the detail.
Just look at this comparison:
And trust me, that’s the tip of the iceberg. The two primary locations for this movie, the carnival and the antique store, are positively overflowing with detail. Not detail that takes you out of the movie and says, “wow, look at the amount of particulate dust floating in the background of this scene,” but one that just makes the movie feel more real and lived in.
More than a few times during our press visit, various filmmakers said that they didn’t want things to be too realistic, perhaps reiterating a criticism that befell “The Good Dinosaur,” a movie in which the cartoon-y main characters clashed with the photo-real backdrops a little too aggressively.
In the footage that we saw, any chance of “Good Dinosaur” syndrome is nowhere to be found. The toys themselves are heightened and expressive, the human characters have gotten a nice refresh (there’s a flashback to Andy where he no longer looks like a wax figurine come to horrifying life), and the backgrounds and environments have appropriately upped their game as well. Everything feels essential and new and gives you that excitement of jumping back into this world and with these characters. Whatever you’re expecting from “Toy Story 4,” just know that this might end up being the most beautiful animated movie you’ve ever seen.
"Toy Story 4" opens on June 21st, everywhere.