Warning: Major spoilers for Toy Story 4 below!
Rarely has a sequel announcement brought about as much anxiety as that of Toy Story 4. It was hard to imagine a more powerful ending than the one provided in 2010's ostensible series finale, and most fans agreed extending the story further was inadvisable. But thanks to a few key decisions, Pixar's excellent, hilarious fourth chapter steers clear of undercutting Toy Story 3 the way so many had feared — at least, for the most part.
In some ways, Toy Story 4 does retroactively make its predecessor's ending somewhat less emotional, which was probably inevitable but still a bit bothersome. A significant part of the reason Andy passing his toys on to Bonnie wrecked an entire generation emotionally was the meta narrative that we, too, were saying goodbye to our childhood friends for good after growing up with the first two movies. Toy Story 3 will never function quite that way again, and that's kind of a bummer. Technically, that was already the case as soon as Disney began releasing short films and TV specials set afterward, but those were easier to ignore than a theatrically-released, numbered sequel.
The film also makes messy what appeared to be a fairly clean, happy ending. It might have seemed in Toy Story 3 like the gang found an ideal new home after fearing they'd never be played with again. But take that moment of Andy reluctantly handing Woody over to Bonnie, knowing she'd take good care of him and forget about it, as Toy Story 4 reveals that Bonnie is actually barely playing with Woody anymore, leaving him in the closet to literally gather dust. As necessary as this turn might be for Woody's new arc, it will likely prevent future rewatches of Toy Story 3 from being as satisfying.
But all in all, Toy Story 4 is able to avoid undermining the third movie's ending in several ways. For one, it thankfully resists the temptation to somehow check in on Andy, allowing his farewell to remain final. It also sidelines nearly every classic character as the adventure revolves around Woody and Bo Peep, with a small subplot for Buzz Lightyear. That might disappoint some, but it's actually a smart decision in that it allows Toy Story 3 to still feel like the gang's last major hurrah as it was at the time, while Toy Story 4 takes things back to basics to simply wrap up Woody's storyline.
The new film functions essentially as an extra piece of Toy Story 3's ending. We've seen plenty of instances over the years of movie franchises returning after a film that seemingly tied everything up, e.g. Star Wars: The Force Awakens. But that's typically done with an eye toward years of sequels to come. Some of the fear heading into Toy Story 4 was that it would be the beginning of a whole new trilogy or more, twisting Andy's goodbye into a mere plot point somewhere in the middle of a story, rather than its dramatic punctuation mark.
That doesn't seem like it'll be a problem, though, as Woody and the gang parting ways at the end of Toy Story 4 actually makes it even harder to picture a follow-up now than it was after Toy Story 3. The movie comes across not like an obvious attempt to kickstart years of new adventures but rather to deliver a brief epilogue, and the result is an effective exploration of what a character's journey looks like immediately following their story's logical conclusion.
In fact, with Pixar's typical self-aware brilliance, Woody's arc reflects our own feelings heading into Toy Story 4, as he faces the same questions about his value as we asked about the movie's. His life for so long was about making Andy happy, and that purpose was at the core of the original Toy Story trilogy. He did that. His mission is complete, and with Bonnie not having that same attachment to him that Andy did, he's not as useful anymore. What's he to do now? The answer lies in Woody's journey toward accepting a period of his life as having come to an end but discovering that a path he never previously considered might bring him a renewed sense of fulfillment.
Woody's decision to leave Bonnie and his friends might be a tough pill to swallow for some considering the series has hammered home the idea that being there for an owner is a toy's ideal state of being, with Woody having also repeatedly emphasized the importance of the toys sticking together. But Woody leaves Bonnie and his friends in good hands while pursuing a life of helping toys and children everywhere, and the movie offers a compelling message that we should not be afraid to pursue what makes us happy, even if it might go against what we once swore to be true.
Ultimately, the most painful betrayal of Toy Story 3's ending would have been a fluffy sequel that offers nothing new of consequence in its plot or themes, therefore taking back a satisfying finale for no good reason at all. With these meaty new ideas to consider, Toy Story 4 certainly isn't that.
Does the movie truly, absolutely need to exist? Maybe not. In a universe without it, no one sees the trilogy as missing anything. But Toy Story 4 is still great, and it works by respecting its predecessor's conclusive nature while offering a few additional thoughts rather than attempting to start over with a clean slate. Continuing on with a Toy Story 5 once again feels like it would be a mistake — but then again, as Woody's journey demonstrates, we should always remain open to unexpected new sources of happiness.