Editor’s Note: The following article contains spoilers for all films in the Toy Story series, including the recently released Toy Story 4.
To celebrate this weekend’s release of Toy Story 4, I decided to take a look back on the long-running series, now in its 24th year.
Below is a list of each Toy Story movie ranked by overall quality, from worst to best:
4. Toy Story 2 (1999)
Even the worst film of the series has a 100 percent score on Rotten Tomatoes. That’s a level of excellence rarely matched by other studios.
Disney, then a co-financier of Pixar films, originally wanted Toy Story 2 to be a simple direct-to-DVD sequel. However, the studio itself had grander plans: a theatrical film to rival the first in terms of both storytelling prowess and visual sophistication. Thus, Toy Story 2 was born, its success paving the way for both Toy Story 3 and Toy Story 4.
Toy Story 2, which sees the toys set out to rescue Woody from the hands of an offbeat toy collector, is perhaps most notable for its introduction of two new central characters: Jessie, Woody’s cowgirl partner, and Bullseye, the toy sheriff’s trusty steed. Both would go on to play crucial supporting roles in later films, with the former having a particularly somber backstory that made for compelling characterization.
Toy Story 2 expanded the franchise in just the right way, adding new characters and settings without discarding the heart and soul that made the original film an instant hit.
3. Toy Story 4 (2019)
And here’s the new addition to the pack. After the satisfying finale of Toy Story 3, many wondered, myself included, what more a fourth outing could add to a near-perfect trilogy. The answer: much, much more than I ever would have believed.
More an epilogue than a continuation, Toy Story 4 focuses squarely on the series’ central hero, Woody, as he tries to adjust to a life without Andy, his previous owner from the first three films. Joining the sheriff is a new character, Forky, constructed from bits of trash during arts and crafts time in a kindergarten classroom.
It’s Forky here who really steals the show. His reveal asks deep questions about the nature of life in the Toy Story universe. What does it mean to be a toy, to be created wholly from the imagination of a child at play? More troublingly, what is the purpose of a toy’s existence, and is it perpetually tethered to the whims of its creator?
The answer is, well, it depends. In Toy Story 4, Woody and Forky are two sides of the same coin. While Forky begins the film with a complete and total aversion to being a child’s plaything, Woody wants nothing but to be by his owner’s side — even when he really needn’t be. As the story unfolds, Forky learns to love his new life as a toy, and Woody decides to leave his old life behind, riding into the sunset, so to speak, with an old flame.
It’s a fitting end to a character who seemingly already had a fitting end, but it’s an excellent story nonetheless.
2. Toy Story (1995)
The original film, though visually dated, is still an absolute delight. It effortlessly introduces what is, to us adults, at least, a perplexing world of sentient playthings.
At the heart of this movie, though, is not so much Woody’s relationship with his owner, Andy, but rather his relationship with his owner’s newest toy, the space action figure Buzz Lightyear. The hook of the story is that, unlike Woody and the rest of the gang, Buzz doesn’t realize he is a toy, but instead believes himself to be a “space ranger” who has crash-landed on an extraterrestrial world.
Of course, eventually Buzz realizes the truth. And, of course, eventually Woody comes to terms with sharing the spotlight with Andy’s new favorite. But the journey toward that conclusion, which sees Woody and Buzz journey across town, meeting many hilarious, and terrifying, characters along the way, is truly wonderful.
Toy Story was the film that launched an entire studio, and it deserves every bit of the high praise it continues to receive.
1. Toy Story 3 (2010)
Nine years ago, the unthinkable happened: Pixar went back to the archives and dredged up an ancient series. The gap between Toy Story 2 and Toy Story 3 was quite large — 15 years — but the studio managed to play the lengthy hiatus in its favor. The series’ third installment begins as Andy is about to leave home for good, heading off for further adventures in college, sans toys.
This narrative structure gave Toy Story 3 the perfect opportunity to remark on the relentless passage of time. All good things must come to an end, it seems, but new and exciting opportunities await just around the corner. The story was even more poignant for those of us, including myself, who watched the first two Toy Story films as children and were just now heading out into the “real world.”
Toy Story 3 ends with a proverbial passing of the torch. Before heading off to college, Andy passes his toys down to a young girl named Bonnie. Though they’ll remember and reminisce on the great times they shared with their former owner, the toys know, however difficult it may be, that they must move on. Toys are meant to be played with, not sit on shelf, collecting dust, as mementos of a long gone era.
And so it is with life. We must remain content with the inescapable reality of growing up and growing old. But leaving old things behind is not necessarily an act of disdain; moving on is often an act of the highest grace and maturity.
As Randy Newman sings, “as the years go by, our friendship will never die” — lines that meant a great deal in the original Toy Story. But in the context of the bittersweet ending of Toy Story 3, they mean so much more. ■