Toy Story 4 (Walt Disney Studios, G)

When a fourth installment to the beloved Toy Story series from Pixar was announced, it seemed like the most unnecessary film. For one, it was another in a long line of sequels that have made up most of Pixar’s output (though a lot of them have been great). But the most important reason is that the predecessor felt like the perfect conclusion to this story about plastic playthings that feel as human as us. Why compromise that finale by extending the story?

So, it brings much delight to inform you that Toy Story 4 not only builds on what made the series so treasured in the first place but also finds new emotional ground to explore. This may be Pixar’s best sequel yet and the most fulfilling film in the series to date.

The days of Andy have ended. The toys we’ve followed for years, which include Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) and Jessie (Joan Cusack), are now under the care of young Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw). Bonnie is about to start kindergarten, and during orientation, she creates a new “toy” out of a spork and fuzzy wire, whom she calls Forky (Tony Hale). But Forky does not want to be a toy, as he says his purpose is to be used for food and then be tossed in the garbage. During a family road trip, Forky escapes, and Woody goes after him. Now, they must make their way back to Bonnie and her family before they get too far. Along the way, Woody reunites with his old flame, Bo Peep (Annie Potts), who is without an owner.

The first Toy Story film established Pixar’s position as not just a pioneer of breathtaking animation, but as a studio that prioritized strong storytelling and character work alongside the visuals. As a result, these toys packed an emotional punch that surprised many. Every subsequent film afterwards continued, and even expanded on, that tradition. These toys could not only delight kids but make adults cry. Toy Story 4 manages to accomplish all of this and more. While the previous film dealt with the question of what happens when a toy’s owner grows up, this film asks what happens when a toy has outlived its usefulness, and if a toy can have a purpose without an owner. These questions, and the themes of friendship, love and home, are explored thoughtfully in the screenplay by Stephany Folsom and Pixar mainstay Andrew Stanton, and the answers will not leave a dry eye in the house.

At the center of this story are familiar characters we know and love, with Woody and Bo Peep taking the spotlight this time around. Tom Hanks always gave the character of Woody an emotional push, and here, he gives his best vocal performance as the character. He is given an equal partner in Bo Peep, and both the script and Annie Potts give her urgency and a thoughtful arc. The new characters are quite memorable as well. The eccentric Forky is brought to life by the equally eccentric Tony Hale. This spork can make you laugh and cry, sometimes in the same scene. That is a testament to how great Hale is in this role and how wonderfully animated this character is. Other highlights include Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele as a plush duck and bunny combo, and Keanu Reeves as the daredevil Canadian stunt-toy Duke Caboom, who all provide some of the films best comedic moments.

If there is a small criticism, it’s that fan-favorites like Buzz Lightyear, Jessie, Rex, Slinky Dog, and Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head are pushed to the side, but you could argue that this story is about Woody’s exploration of his role as a toy, and not theirs. Still, for those who love the overall ensemble, this could be a bit of a disappointment.

It is hard to talk about a Pixar film without mentioning the tactile and intrinsically detailed animation. Director Josh Cooley and his team are not working with fantastical worlds, instead settling for bedrooms, small towns, an antique shop and a carnival as the main settings. And boy, do these environments feel so real and lived-in. The film contains many exciting set-pieces that make creative use of every setting. And with Randy Newman scoring once again, the animation and story are given maximum impact. To say that Pixar has delivered another stunning feat of animation feels like the most obvious statement ever.

But you know what is not an obvious statement? Toy Story 4 defies expectations and strengthens the already tremendous legacy the series has established. This film is not only exciting, funny and heartwarming, but establishes a different kind of farewell to the characters that holds as much weight as the previous film did. | Bill Loellke

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