To paraphrase Don Draper, nostalgia is delicate, but potent. It is a desire to return to a time and place gone by. It’s painful, like showering with a sunburn, yet wonderfully uplifting. It is in that emotional space that Pixar lives (more like thrives), teaching children lessons of the world and reminding adults of the paths they once walked with the innocent obliviousness of youth. No set of films in the studio’s illustrious track record better exemplify this than the Toy Story franchise.
Stretching from the 1995 original to Toy Story 4, arriving in theaters next Friday, this 24-year-old franchise is the rare series never to produce a sub-par entry. Each installment is brilliant and heartfelt and wonderful in its own unique way—which is likely what Woody would say about each and every toy.
With the understanding that you can’t go wrong with any of them, here is a ranking of the four Toy Story movies.
4. Toy Story 4
To say that Toy Story 4 is the lowest-ranking movie in the franchise is like saying pizza is your third-favorite food. You’re still talking about a Hall of Fame addition.
I was always of the firm belief that Toy Story 3 was the perfect conclusion to the series with Andy generously bequeathing his childhood toys onto a precocious young girl before going off to college. But Toy Story 4 is a beautiful sendoff in its own way, especially for audiences that have grown up right alongside the series.
The fourth film brings Woody’s story full-circle, thrusting him further into a parental role to kids and new toys alike before bringing that life experience to its natural conclusion. The movie is meant to remind you that after years of taking care of others, it’s OK to take care of yourself, too. There’s an assurance that if you’re ever feeling lost, you can find yourself again, even in unexpected ways. Yes, before you ask, you will cry. But you’ll also laugh. A lot.
In between the waves of charm and whimsy is the fact that Toy Story 4 is the funniest film in the franchise by far. Nearly every scene has a perfectly structured joke (Forky’s love of trash, evil ventriloquist dummy henchmen, Key & Peele doing Key & Peele things, etc.). Keanu Reeves, as expected, emerges as a clear scene-stealer.
You’re gonna love it.
3. Toy Story 2
It might seem blasphemous to have the series’ first sequel ranked this low—it’s basically The Godfather II of animated follow-ups. But remember, each Toy Story movie is an instant classic.
Toy Story 2 is the net-positive of clever sentiment—think Steven Spielberg mixed with John Mulaney. It’s a feeding frenzy of visual gags (Bullseye covering his nether regions, Hamm humiliated when his coins comes spilling out of him) and a deepening of our bonds to these characters. Toy Story 2 is 14 minutes longer than the incredibly tight 81-minute original, giving us more time to sit with the shockingly relatable interpersonal dynamics of these toys. Still, it’s not nearly long enough to satisfy our love for this treasure trove.
Introduction to new characters such as Jessie the Cowgirl and a backstory for Woody serve as excellent world-building elements that expand the scope of the franchise (and, cynically, sell more toys). But what Toy Story 2 does best is sell specificity as understanding. Who among us hasn’t fantasized about something grander for our lives, much like when Woody discovers he’s a full-fledged celebrity? Toy Story 2 makes us feel seen while we deeply relate to the experiences on the screen. That’s something most movies simply can’t match.
2. Toy Story
The 1995 original, the work of Disney and Pixar, is a medium-redefining movie. It was the first full-length feature to be created entirely with computer-generated animation. The film inspired industries of all manner to investigate this new visual technology. Personal computers were suddenly inundated with new graphics capabilities; video game developers opted for new ways of rendering characters and objects; even artificial intelligence experts hoped develop Pixar-like characters. Hell, a Buzz Lightyear action figure was actually taken into space! If that isn’t a legacy, what is?
While Toy Story left a lasting footprint on the macro, its poignant and light touch with the micro is what makes it truly special. The film is an allegory for family and the ebbs and flows that define such relationships. Connections that are founded on love can’t be severed by petty squabbles as family, unintentionally or not, is what drives us to learn about our own flaws. It’s a toy version of the real world, thus making Toy Story a beautiful lesson in humanism, which ascribes value to the natural and innate rather than divine or supernatural matters. This serves as a through line for the entire franchise and establishes Toy Story as the most mature animated kid’s movie in history.
Really, Toy Story is an adult tale of finding purpose and self-worth and that cuts right to the heart of life’s immovable challenges.
1. Toy Story 3
Maybe I’m biased because, much like Andy in this movie, I saw Toy Story 3 in theaters as an 18-year-old just weeks away from heading off to college. Or, maybe Toy Story 3 really is the most mature and emotional film in the franchise. The debate might come down to what you value in your entertainment—singular moments of standout excellence or consistent quality throughout. Toy Story 3 boasts, without a doubt, the most striking scene in the entire series, a record-scratch moment with all of the cheerful humor stripped clean.
With the gang of toys trapped in a garbage incinerator, Jessie desperately asks “What do we do?” as the Toy Story movies take a decidedly darker turn into mortal tangibility. A resigned Buzz wanly takes her hand as the rest of the toys slowly link together and resign themselves to their fate with the flames growing ever closer. They accept the inevitable.
Shit just got real.
Of course our beloved animated friends are eventually saved by the green aliens who worship “the claaaawwww.” But for a minute, you truly believe this is it, they’re all doomed. And in that moment, there is a clarity so heart-wrenching that you feel the universe fold in on itself. By accepting their deaths with admirable grace, these characters transcended toys and films to become, however briefly, the most human versions of us all. It is our species incarnate, fighting against the certainty of demise until the last moment when noble acceptance leads us into the next journey. And it is staggering.