Which Toy Story movie is the best in the series? The franchise and the Pixar legacy itself kicked off with the original film in 1995, which was a landmark occasion for the industry. As most know by now, Toy Story was the first full-length computer animated feature, wowing audiences as a tremendous technical achievement. But that was only half of why the movie was considered a success; it received rave reviews for its funny and touching story that explored fascinating human emotions through the lens of inanimate objects. Toy Story essentially established the Pixar template that's stood the test of time for nearly 25 years.
Pixar's track record isn't entirely spotless anymore (see: Cars 3, The Good Dinosaur), but there's no denying Toy Story is extremely consistent when it comes to quality. Even though the recently-released Toy Story 4 was hit with production difficulties and was subject to intense skepticism, the consensus is it's as strong a film as any of its predecessors, further cementing Toy Story's claim as the strongest Hollywood franchise. Because all of the movies are excellent, it makes ranking them a difficult task, but that's what we're attempting to do in this space. Here's our countdown of the four Toy Story films, from worst to best.
4. Toy Story 3 (2010)
In the original trilogy finale, Andy is now a grown-up and about to head off for college. The main group of toys (except for Woody, who Andy plans to bring to school) accept their new fate as attic inhabitants, but due to a misunderstanding wind up at Sunnyside Daycare. There, they meet Lotso Huggin' Bear, who ensures them there will alway be new kids ready to play with them. However, it's revealed Lotso rules Sunnyside with a tyrannical iron fist, making the place an absolute nightmare for new toys. What ensues amounts to a daring prison breakout, where Woody and his friends survive everything thrown their way (include an incinerator) to make their way back to Andy's. Afterwards, Andy passes the toys down to the young Bonnie and bids his old friends a tearful goodbye.
Toy Story 3's final sequence is the heart-wrenching, poignant content Pixar is well-known for and worked as the perfect sendoff for Andy. But an argument can be made that everything leading up to that isn't as strong when compared to the other films in the franchise. Toy Story 3, while great, is guilty of retreading material from the second film - namely confronting what happens when a toy's kid gets older. It's more head-on here for obvious reasons, but the similarities are there. In particular, Lotso reads as an amalgamation of Toy Story 2's Jessie and Stinky Pete, getting his own tragic "When Somebody Loved Me" backstory but also being a cruel villain. And though the farewell to Andy is very touching and makes even adults cry, the film concludes on a bit of a false hope. Yes, Woody and the gang found a new kid, but Bonnie will get older one day too. It feels wrong to call Toy Story 3 the "worst" of the bunch, but that's more of a testament to how fantastic the others are.
3. Toy Story 4 (2019)
Warning: Spoilers ahead for Toy Story 4
As Toy Story 4 picks up, Woody is struggling with the transition to Bonnie's room, feeling lost and purposeless. So, he takes it upon himself to watch over Bonnie's new favorite toy, Forky - an art project who believes he's a spork destined for the trash. When Forky throws himself off the family's RV, Woody goes on a rescue mission to bring Forky back to Bonnie. Along the way, Woody reconnects with his old flame Bo Peep, who's been living as an ownerless toy for years (and really enjoying life to boot). This experience challenges Woody's long-established notions of what a toy can be, and he finds himself questioning his place in the world and what truly makes him happy.
Toy Story is no stranger to tackling heady themes and concepts in the guise of family entertainment, and the fourth film does this in spades. Director Josh Cooley and company crafted a deep and intricate arc for Woody, who has always been the protagonist of these movies. The story goes in some interesting directions, emphasizing topics like existentialism to push the main characters and force them to make some life-altering decisions. As great as it was to see Woody and Bo reunited, the newcomers of Toy Story 4 complemented them immensely. Gabby Gabby proved to be a compelling "villain," while the likes of Duke Caboom, Ducky, and Bunny provided plenty of laughs. Many were cautious about Toy Story 4 when it was first announced, but it's a worthwhile entry in the series, giving Woody an emotional conclusion that feels right.
2. Toy Story (1995)
In the film that started it all, Woody is enjoying life as Andy's favorite toy, but is upset when that dynamic is changed when Buzz Lightyear arrives. As the shiny new birthday present, Buzz receives a lot of attention and becomes the new favorite toy, making Woody extremely jealous. When an attempt to knock Buzz behind a desk goes haywire, Woody has to save Buzz to prove his innocence and get back in the good graces of the other toys. Woody and Buzz need to set aside their differences as they work together to escape Sid's house and form a friendship that will last a lifetime. And along the way, Buzz needs to come to terms with the fact he's not a real space ranger.
The cultural significance of the original Toy Story and what it meant for the evolution of the animation art form cannot be overstated, but the film would just be a historical footnote if it was solely a technical achievement. What made Toy Story so beloved and endure for decades was its tightly constructed story that captured the imagination of audiences of all ages. A lot of care was put into making Woody and Buzz well-rounded, relatable characters that people could relate to, even though they were a pull string doll and an action figure. Both of them went through captivating transformations, and nothing in their journeys felt short-changed despite a brief running time (about 80 minutes). Nearly 25 years after its initial release, Toy Story still thrills and entertains, which is the hallmark of an all-time classic.
1. Toy Story 2 (1999)
In Pixar's first sequel, a damaged Woody is left home on the shelf as Andy goes to cowboy camp. When attempting to save Wheezy from the family yard sale, Woody is stolen by collector Al, the owner of Al's Toy Barn, who is also trying to get rich off of his Woody's Round-up merchandise collection. While in Al's apartment, Woody meets Jessie, Stinky Pete, and Bullseye - who are all excited they're finally going to be on display in a toy museum in Japan. Meanwhile, Buzz leads a group of Andy's toys on a rescue mission to get Woody back home before Andy returns.
The promise Pixar demonstrated with the first Toy Story is delivered upon here via a film that's broader in scope and thematically richer. Woody comes face-to-face with some harsh truths in this film, contemplating life without Andy and imagining what the future holds for him. He knows there isn't anything he can do to change things, which puts him in a truly fascinating position and it's easy to understand both sides of the conflict. The newcomers here, Jessie and Stinky Pete, help underline the subtext by illustrating the difficult realities of life. Jessie's "When Somebody Loved Me" song is one of the earliest examples of Pixar going for the emotional knockout punch, highlighting the inevitable pain of "mortality" in a toy's world. When viewed through adult eyes, Toy Story 2 is a story about acceptance of the fact nothing lasts forever and being at peace with that. This was when the fledgling Pixar really established themselves as Pixar.
- Toy Story 4 (2019) release date: Jun 21, 2019