Toy Story 4 is on the brink of providing the resolute ending to the Pixar saga that Toy Story 3 emotionally diverted. Almost a decade after the trilogy came to a close (and following hot on the heels to sequels for other Pixar classics like Finding Nemo and The Incredibles), Toy Story 4 continues the tale of Woody, Buzz, Jessie and the rest - along with the return of Bo Peep and new addition Forky.
For a long time, the very existence of Toy Story 4 has seemed perplexing. Endings are hard to come by in cinema - series either peter out or get a reboot - but with Toy Story, it looked like Pixar were bucking the trend; Toy Story 3 ended with Andy driving off the college, putting his childhood - and the toys - firmly behind him. Several short films and TV specials later, however, it's clear Toy Story is more than just one child - and this highlights a flaw with that original conclusion.
From the perspective of Andy, a character who'd grown up across the Toy Story films from hyperactive child to angsty-yet-nostalgic teen, Toy Story 3 is the undoubted end: as he leaves for college, he passes on all his toys - including Woody - to preschooler Bonnie so they can live on. But Toy Story was never about the human (and not just because 1995 computer animation made them rubber-skinned monsters). It was about Woody and Buzz, and so with them finding a new life, there was inevitably going to be a new story to tell.
And that was just part of an issue with Toy Story 3's ending as definitive close. In Toy Story 2, Woody made the choice to stay with Andy for the short time he still had rather than being immortalized in a museum as a collectible; he chose mortality. His rationale was one of understanding: thanks to Jessie's own depressing tale of being forgotten by her original owner Emily, he knew that eventually, Andy would outgrow him and his friends, yet resolved "It'll be fun while it lasts." Toy Story 3 alleged to be the realization of that endpoint, with Andy on the brink of leaving home and getting ready to put his toys in the attic. Woody and co. were uneasy that the day had arrived, but through an ordeal at a purgatory of daycare and hell of the dump incinerator, eventually passed hands to a new life.
While that's visually and thematically sound for the whole trilogy (even if the journey of Toy Story 3 itself is more a literal retread of the ideas in Toy Story 2 and the daycare far too disconnected to be a proper middle ground), the ending still leaves things open. Woody hasn't escaped or solved the primary conflict, he's merely prolonged it by passing confronting loss onto Bonnie. The same conflict and ultimate facing of whatever toys regard as death remains.
So as much as Toy Story 3 was a wistful conclusion from a human angle, there remained unresolved aspects for the toys. Now, it appears that's where Toy Story 4 comes in. It would be very easy to have the gang once again dealing with a child aging out of them (following real-time, Bonnie would be in her early teens and thus getting past all her stuffed and posable playthings) but that would just be repeating what audiences - and the characters - have already experienced with Andy and Emily.
Instead, Josh Cooley's film eschews a proper time jump (Bonnie looks to be at most a few years older) and has Woody dealing with a child's changing attentions in regards to her love for Forky, a spork undergoing an identity crisis. This leads the pair on an adventure that reunites the cowboy with love interest Bo Peep and takes the whole gang to a carnival. There's a lot going on here that fundamentally extends the series' core themes, at their grandest the very nature of existence. And right at the center of that is not plot driver Forky, but long-standing protagonist Woody; the latest Toy Story 4 trailer sees him encouraging his new friend, yet in the process becoming sidetracked and beginning to question what he wants from his own life.
This is what Toy Story 3 ideally would have tackled. Not the diverting of addressing one's purpose, but the unassuming discovery of that discussion. In Toy Story 4, Woody will have to answer Bo Peep, now living an eternal life outside of the child "system", what the future really holds - and, if Pixar is confident enough, it could see him step out and become an ownerless toy too. If Toy Story 3 was heaven and hell, Toy Story 4 is shaping up to be something more spiritual and abstract. And that would be a perfect ending.