For the first time in what feels like an infinite number of years, Pixar finally released a new movie on the big screen with the cosmic adventure Lightyear. The film chronicles the exploits of everyone’s favorite space ranger Buzz Lightyear — except he’s no longer the toy we’ve come to love. Rather, this is the action hero who inspired the figure Andy desperately clung to in the original Toy Story.
Since Lightyear is technically part of the Toy Story canon, we thought this was a good time to rank the beloved series from worst to best. While none of these animated flicks are bad, let’s just say some entries are way beyond the others in terms of quality.
5.) Toy Story 4
Although gorgeously animated, Toy Story 4 lacks the ingenuity of the first three entries, resulting in an adventure that feels more than a little redundant. The plot hits all the familiar beats — rescue mission, bitter toy villain, plucky side characters — but it can’t quite stir the various elements into a satisfying whole, leaving this fourth outing stuck on the shelf alongside Pixar’s lesser efforts. No, it’s not exactly Cars 2 level bad, but I feel comfortable ranking it next to The Good Dinosaur and Brave, if I’m being perfectly honest. Also, how do you waste Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key? Why isn’t Buzz Lightyear given more to do? What is Forky doing in this movie? Why the hell does Bonnie dump Woody in her closet after Andy specifically told her to cherish him above all the other toys? Sheesh, maybe Woody should have joined his old partner at college.
Negativity aside, director Josh Cooley’s film still entertains in spades. Bo Peep’s (Annie Potts) transformation from helpless onlooker to badass action hero works quite well, while Keanu Reeves’ Duke Caboom remains one of the more ingenious creations to come from the franchise. As a final adieu to our plucky sheriff Woody, Toy Story 4’s climax will leave you reaching for the tissues. We just wish the rest of the film had followed suit.
Pixar returns to the big screen with Lightyear, an entertaining adventure that follows the real Buzz Lightyear (now voiced by Chris Evans), who inspired all those action figures in the Toy Story quadrilogy. Boasting stunning visuals and assured direction by Angus MacLane, the animated flick moves at a nice clip, while the impressive voice ensemble (namely, Evans, Taika Waititi, Keke Palmer, James Brolin, and Uzo Aduba) display tremendous chemistry. Kids are sure to be delighted with all the whiz-bang action on display, but the film lacks the adult appeal found in Pixar’s better efforts.
Even so, making Buzz the literal enemy in his own feature feels like a weird creative choice, while the constant lecturing (this is the anti-John Wayne movie) often distracts from the fun. You keep waiting for the film to really take off, or for Buzz to do something truly extraordinary that takes him to infinity and beyond, but too often the character is weighed down by a predictable story that forces him to cast aside the snazzy heroics and play nice with a ragtag group of would-be soldiers — consisting of a cowardly man, an old woman, and a young girl with zero field experience — that no one in their right mind would follow into combat.
It’s fair to wonder if Andy (or any kid for that matter) would want this iteration of Buzz Lightyear, who is a more overtly flawed (though earnest) hero than an out-and-out action star. Let’s put it this way: there’s a reason why everyone is talking about a robot cat and not, you know, Lightyear.
3.) Toy Story 3
As “finales” go, Toy Story 3 is aces. Director Lee Unkrich delivers a delightful romp that is both enormously entertaining and emotionally overwhelming. Visually, the sequel is glorious to behold, boasting colorful scenery, beautifully rendered characters and locales, and enough detail to make your eyes explode. Michael Arndt’s screenplay pops, while returning players Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Don Rickles, Joan Cusack, Wallace Shawn, and John Ratzenberger slide into their roles like a well-worn glove. Even so, it’s Michael Keaton’s sexually confused Ken who steals the show, along with Spanish Buzz and a tremendously realized prison break sequence that pays homage to everything from The Great Escape to Escape From Alcatraz.
On the negative side, the main plot mostly hits the same beats as Toy Story 2, right down to the main villain, Lots-o’-Huggin Bear (voiced by Ned Beatty), who fails to conjure much empathy despite a rather tragic backstory. Also, where the first two entries were mostly carefree adventures that leaned on their absurd premises for laughs, Toy Story 3 delves deep into existentialism and arrives at a wild conclusion: the life of a toy sucks. Our plastic heroes may enjoy immortality, but with that power comes abandonment, disfigurement, loss (Bo Peep is MIA because Molly got tired of her), and eventually cynicism, if not outright hatred. It’s a wonder the world isn’t overrun with bitter, angry toys yearning to get revenge on the child that abandoned them.
Why do these toys continue following rules that ultimately leave them broken and alone? Is there a toy god? At one point in Toy Story 3, our heroes nearly suffer death by fire — would they go to Toy Heaven? Toy Hell? The film doesn’t say.
We shouldn’t be asking such questions in an animated adventure, let alone the third entry of a franchise that had formerly waded in the shallow end of the depth pool.
2.) Toy Story
In 1995, Toy Story stunned audiences with its ground-breaking visuals, heartfelt story, quirky characters, and clever humor. At the time, I remember thinking a film about toys had no reason being this good, and ended up seeing the computer-animated spectacle a number of times in theaters. Indeed, the plot about two rival action figures — a cowboy doll plucked straight out of the 1950s, and a space ranger with a massive ego — could have devolved into atypical animated fare on par with Disney’s mid-90s offerings — A Goofy Movie, Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, for example — but somehow avoided disaster and delivered an astonishing adventure few animated films (outside of Pixar) have matched.
While Toy Story now resembles a PlayStation 3 cutscene, John Lasseter’s big-screen directorial debut still packs an emotional wallop and remains one of cinema’s groundbreaking achievements — even if it was indirectly responsible for those terrible Minion films.
1.) Toy Story 2
Toy Story 2 may not boast the incredible visuals of later entries, but no film in the Toy Story saga came close to balancing playful adventure with weightier emotional beats than John Lasseter’s supremely entertaining follow-up. As all good sequels do, Toy Story 2 fleshes out its main heroes a little more — Woody, we learn, hails from a 1950s TV show that was abruptly canceled — and introduces some intriguing drama. Notably, this is done by exploring the anguish suffered by the film’s villain, Stinky Pete (Kelsey Grammer), and the sadness endured by plucky new heroine Jessie (Joan Cusack) after she’s abandoned by her owner at a yard sale.
Yet, for all of its weepy melodrama, Toy Story 2 is first and foremost a lighthearted comedy adventure. Buzz (Allen) takes center stage and enjoys some of the film’s best gags (the “I am your father” is perhaps the best parody of Star Wars ever conceived), while supporting players Ham (Ratzenberg), Mr. Potato Head (Rickles), Rex (Shawn) and Slinky (the late Jim Varney) are each given their moment to shine. Tom Hanks, no longer relegated to the villain role, infuses Woody with the kind of wild energy often found in the star’s earlier works (he’s a plastic Rick Gassko, just less horny). Set pieces abound, including the memorable traffic cone sequence, and a lengthy climax set at an airport that makes great use of its location.
No, Toy Story 2 isn’t the game-changer that Toy Story was, but the sequel nonetheless pushes the boundaries of animation whilst delivering the razzle-dazzle spectacle, comedy, and warmth that has since become a Pixar trademark (and those end credit “outtakes” still make me laugh).