4 Stars

I’m sure like most of you, the “Toy Story” films have meant a great deal. Whether you watched them as a child, or have just been a fan of the films, the series has been regarded as one of the best film franchise — certainly animated — of all time. Thematically involving childhood imagination and the fear of adolescence, something most everyone can relate to, these characters represent figures of our finest earliest memories without cynically coasting on nostalgia. 

So when “Toy Story 3” seemingly concluded the franchise with Andy saying goodbye to Woody and the gang and leaving them with Bonnie, understandably, most of us were intensely skeptical of the idea of a “Toy Story 4”. Miraculously, “Toy Story 4” is as good as you could ever hope for, if not slightly better. 

Living up to the expectations of the first 3 is a near impossible task. For myself, each film is immensely nostalgic, with “3” taking my emotions on a journey they haven’t experienced since, so the nostalgia factor no longer plays in here. Only time will tell if “4” will hold the special pace in my heart the original 3 do, but on its own merit, this is a soulful, breathtaking and moving piece of cinema. 

Set two years after the events of “Toy Story 3”, Bonnie, the new owner of Woody and the gang, and her parents set off on a road trip before Bonnie begins Kindergarten. On the trip, Bonnie’s recent hand-made toy, Forky, voiced by Tony Hale, a plastic spork with googly eyes, broken popsicle-sticks and other pieces of trash, goes AWOL, Woody takes it upon himself to find Forky. When Woody gets separated from the group, he must find Forky and return to the RV before Bonnie’s parents leave the RV park they’re currently stationed at. 

One of the newest and strangest (in a good way) additions to the franchise is the character, Forky. Having been built by Bonnie on her first day of Kindergarten orientation, Bonnie becomes infatuated with her new toy. Forky, however, struggles with the fact that he’s made out of garbage and wants nothing to do with his newfound family. Humorously voiced by Tony Hale, Forky provides some extremely funny and unabashedly existential moments that will make the character a new favorite in the Pixar canon. 

“Toy Story 4” creates and builds upon some fascinating and complex characters. The re-introduction of Bo Peep (Annie Potts) is perhaps the brightest example. Having last been seen in “Toy Story 2”, the character is given a total makeover, but still remains consistent with her previous turns. Bo is given much greater character depth and is turned into something of a badass without her new turn feeling forced. She still loves Woody and their relationship is one of the critical aspects of the films sizable heart. 

Woody, after all the years of being boxed up during Andy’s teenage years, yearns for the attention and purpose he once had. When Bonnie begins to repeatedly set Woody to the side, eventually tossing him into the closet with her older baby toys, Woody makes it his goal to find a new meaning in his life. He is destined to make Bonnie happy and if he can’t do it, he’ll rescue the toy that can. 

The returning voice cast led by Tom Hanks and Tim Allen have not lost a step. The bond between Buzz and Woody is strong as ever and both actors still manage to capture the infectious energy of the characters.

Every “Toy Story” film features a compelling villain and “4” is no different. Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), is a vintage doll that controls everything inside a locally owned Antique store. Wanting nothing but to be played with, Gabby believes Woody possesses an item that will be the key to getting a child to love her. Without going into detail, Gabby is menacing from the get-go — there’s even a “Shining” reference thrown in for good measure — but the character is given several layers and a few twists that make her even more memorable. 

Several new side characters also make lasting impressions. Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key are dynamic as Ducky and Bunny, two plush toys that have spent years inside a carnival as hopeful prizes. Keanu Reeves continues his red-hot year as the voice of Duke Kaboom, a French-Canadian, stuntman action figure.

Some fan favorite characters do take a backseat, though. Jessie doesn’t have much to contribute in terms of plot progression and Buzz does have a subplot about finding his conscious, but disappears from the movie a number of times. Part of me also wished for just one more scene between Woody, Buzz, Ham, Rex, Slink and Potato Head. In the end though, this is really Woody’s story. These are more or less personal gripes and nothing on the films part.

This is a film filled with beautiful and dazzling wonderment. Once again, Pixar has pushed the boundaries of animation here. So much of the film looks and feels photo-realistic, despite the starring ensemble of toys. The depth in the drops of rain, the glistening reflection of sunlight beaming on Bo’s face; the detail in the animation is staggering. 

The animation is further accentuated by the inventive visual storytelling from director, Josh Cooley. A longtime Pixar vet, Cooley makes his directorial debut here and continues the bold direction the franchise has taken since all the way back in 1995. Cooley keeps the film moving at a brisk pace and never slouches, making the most of its 102 minute runtime. Even with the fast pace, “4” doesn’t skimp out on the quieter character moments. 

Keeping with franchise consistency, what would Toy Story be without a musical score from the great, Randy Newman? Newman creates a wonderful new song for the film and his score is just as graceful.

“Toy Story 4″ continues to find our beloved characters grow and develop along their journey. This could easily be the final film in the franchise and it would make for a tender and satisfying conclusion to these characters. The door is also left open to possibly continue the franchise as well. Without giving spoilers, the climax is deeply satisfying and will certainly leave you in tears. It may not reach the drastic emotional high that “3” delivered, but the ending is moving and is sure to fill your heart with warmth and closure.