For many of us, the big question coming into “Toy Story 4” was, of course, “Why?” From every standpoint except commercial expediency, there was scant reason for Pixar to sequelize the glorious “Toy Story 3,” which nine years ago capped the franchise with a perfect denouement. How many movie trilogies can you name where the third entry was the best? (Except for “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,” I can’t think of any.) Creating a fourth anywhere as good would appear to be an impossibility.
Unlike “Toy Story 3,” “Toy Story 4” is not a masterpiece, but I was almost relieved about that. It doesn’t put you through the emotional wringer the way its predecessor did, but it’s consistently inventive, funny, witty, and heartfelt. In other words, it’s a lot better than it has any right to be. It’s more than good enough to justify its existence.
The new film picks up with college-bound Andy’s toys now the playmates of little Bonnie. Woody (voiced, feelingly as always, by Tom Hanks) oversees the assemblage, but he’s no longer a favorite toy.
He still sees it as his mission to look after Bonnie. So when she fearfully begins her first day in kindergarten, he hides inside her backpack and surreptitiously facilitates a project where she fashions a creature out of a plastic spork, pipe cleaners, wooden craft sticks, and googly eyes. Her beloved Forky (Tony Hale) becomes her new favorite toy, even though, cobbled together from trash can odds and ends, Forky has other ideas. The concept of a “toy” is alien to him. He keeps hopping back into wastebaskets because that’s where he thinks he belongs.
Woody proudly announces to his cohorts that Bonnie has literally “made a new friend.” But then Forky goes missing during a family outing in an RV to an outdoor carnival, winding up stowed away in a local antique store. Woody springs to the rescue, aided by, among others, Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), Ducky and Bunny (Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, respectively), Canadian stunt motorcyclist Duke Caboom (a hilariously amped-up Keanu Reeves), and Bo Peep (Annie Potts), who rejoins the fray after elatedly enjoying her independence. (Her touching separation from Woody comes soon after the film begins.)
Their chief nemeses are Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), the antique store’s Ginger doll, and her ventriloquist dummy henchmen. Gabby wants Woody’s voice box. Her scenes have an eeriness that at times seems more “Twilight Zone” than Disney, but that’s appropriate. Whether we are humans or knickknacks, toys are not always our friends.
What gave “Toy Story 3” its deep poignancy was the crushing realization that even favorite toys are eventually discarded. More so than ever, Woody has to face up to this fact in “Toy Story 4.” If a toy exists to be loved by a child, what then is its reason for being if it is no longer loved?
Director Josh Cooley and his writers, Andrew Stanton and Stephany Folsom, don’t pour on the pathos, which is just as well. I’m not a big fan of being hit over the head with life lessons when I go to the movies. Instead, the filmmakers have concocted a comic wingding, full of marvelous slapstick and sight gags, into which the more heartfelt moments are subtly woven. All of which makes this film, as was also true of the other “Toy Story” movies, but especially “Toy Story 3,” as accessible for adults as for children.
It should be past debate that wonderful children’s movies, almost by definition, are also wonderful for adults. Who would relegate, say, “E.T.” or “The Black Stallion” or Alfonso Cuarón’s “A Little Princess” to the realm of kid flicks? The glowing subtext of “Toy Story 4” has resonance for everybody: What happens to us when we no longer feel useful? If the “Toy Story” franchise were to end right here I would be more than happy, but then again, I felt this way nine years ago with “Toy Story 3.” Never say never. Grade: A- (Rated G.)
Editor’s note: This review has been updated to correct the name of the young girl who inherited Andy’s toys. Her name is Bonnie.