When “Toy Story 3” came out in 2010, that was that. You can’t do a trilogy better than what Pixar had achieved in its signature series — including a few goosebump-raising sequences in Part 3 that were unlike anything in cartoon history — so why continue the story?
Well, you know how things go. But whatever the motivations for “Toy Story 4” were (I’ve heard a rumor that parent company Disney is interested in making profits), the new film is wonderful.
It’s also very Woody-centric. Our favorite ragdoll cowboy, once again voiced by Tom Hanks, is undergoing one of his periodic identity crises. The toys’ new owner, a little girl named Bonnie, favors other playthings, even bestowing Woody’s sheriff badge on cowgirl Jessie (Joan Cusack).
A family roadtrip leads to Woody’s exploration of — and eventual imprisonment in — a small-town antique store, where a vintage talking doll (Christina Hendricks) covets Woody’s voicebox. She commands a retinue of eerily silent ventriloquist dummies; I will try to ignore them here, because I would prefer not having nightmares tonight.
As Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) and the gang search for Woody, an old friend returns: Bo Peep (Annie Potts), who now lives without an owner. Where Woody has always feared being tossed aside, Bo Peep has been liberated by her freedom. It really makes a toy think.
These escapades are adventurous and touching, but “Toy Story 4” has its secret weapon in a new character called Forky (Tony Hale). Created by lonely Bonnie during a classroom art project, Forky is a disposable plastic spork with googly eyes and pipe-cleaner arms.
He’s not much to look at, but a toy is a toy if a kid says so. And Woody takes this lovably misshapen object and exudes maximum parental concern over him.
If a review of a “Toy Story” movie inevitably starts to sound like a collection of serious psychological profiles, it’s because these films are so dense and observant. Even the little throwaway bits — like the introduction of a group of soldier toys called the Combat Carls (Carl Weathers), one of whom can’t get in gear with the others — have their soulful moments.
The old characters are in place, and so is Randy Newman’s music (his instrumental score is especially good this time). The only credit for John Lasseter, the man who built Pixar — and was sacked in 2018 over allegations of inappropriate behavior — is for the original story.
Newcomers include a pair of stuffed animals at a carnival (Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key), plus the Evel Knievel-like doll, Duke Caboom, a proudly Canadian stuntman. I’m not being facetious when I say that in the latter role, Keanu Reeves gives his greatest performance.
Director Josh Cooley, one of the “Inside Out” writers, keeps the humor well-timed, and the animation itself is astounding, far beyond what was possible in the original 1995 “Toy Story.” Admittedly, some ideas are recycled from previous chapters, a hazard if you’re making Part 4 of anything.
Despite a little deja vu, by the time “Toy Story 4” reaches its final stages, something haunting slips into the mix. The film’s themes of moving on and letting go become unexpectedly poignant, with real weight behind them. But then this is the world of “Toy Story,” so we should have expected it.
“Toy Story 4” (4 stars)
Maybe a fourth film wasn’t necessary, but it turns out to be wonderful anyway. This one is Woody-centric, with the cowboy ragdoll (voiced by Tom Hanks) off on an adventure with lovable new character Forky (Tony Hale). As usual with this series, the balance of comedy and unexpectedly poignant drama is uncanny.