'Toy Story 4': Film Review

Still batting a thousand.

The beloved Pixar franchise returns for a fourth installment with a new director and Keanu Reeves and Christina Hendricks among additions to the voice cast.

Any fears that the further Disneyfication of Pixar would result in the diminution of the latter's foundational franchise are put to rest at once in Toy Story 4, an entirely wonderful continuation of the series that 24 years ago launched an era in the annals of animation. It's been nearly a decade since Toy Story 3 put a satisfying capper on what seemed likely to remain a trilogy, but the same level of wit, imagination and, yes, magic has been summoned to create yet another fully worthy sibling.

If it wasn't clear before, it's now certain what one of the summer's blockbusters will be. More than that, how many other film series can legitimately claim to have hit four home runs in a row?

After its incredible early run, Pixar began showing some chinks in its armor in the early- to mid-2010s with some subpar sequels (Cars 2 and 3, Monsters University, Finding Dory) and a couple of less-than-stellar one-shots (Brave, The Good Dinosaur). Increased pressure from Disney, real or imagined, to keep the hits coming at a stepped-up rate was seen to foster a certain creative slippage. Yet so complete was the Toy Story trio that a follow-up seemed ill-advised creatively, even if desirable commercially.

All the more reason, then, to be disarmed and thrilled by this new installment, which sees several new creative hands join forces with some veterans for a story that is fresh and different while remaining at one with what's come before. Walt Disney's best work has always seemed timeless, and this entire series does, too.

The textures of a rainy night in the opening scene impress as even more expressively vivid than what Pixar has delivered in the past as we re-engage with some of the old gang. With their former charge Andy having left for college and their new one, Bonnie (voiced by Madeleine McGraw), preoccupied about starting kindergarten, Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks) and Buzz Lightyear (voiced by Tim Allen) are lying around the house without much to do. At this point in his life, however, Woody is philosophical about being ignored, figuring that when something new turns up, he'll be ready for it.

But even the lowliest, dirtiest and most ignoble doll or toy would be insulted by what, at her school orientation day, little Bonnie publicly embraces as her new best friend and companion: a plastic fork (or, perhaps more precisely, a spork, voiced by Tony Hale), one with lopsided eyes, a waxy mouth and pipe-cleaner arms. In other words, it's a piece of trash and, better yet, it knows it; "I'm a fork!," it insists, adding that it doesn't even comprehend what a toy is. In the world of Pixar, even its name, Forky, sounds more than a little dirty, and it's hard to imagine the scene at an early Toy Story 4 story conference when somebody blurted out the idea of having a major new toy character be a disposable fork and everyone said, "Yeah, sure, great, that's it! I wish I'd thought of that one myself!"

Whether the notion was embraced at once or prevailed a year later after no one could come up with anything better, the choice ultimately seems inspired, provoking a goodly share of laughs. "You're a toy now, Forky," it's told in no uncertain terms, and no one attempts to eat with its assistance thereafter.

Before school proper begins, however, Bonnie (with Forky and Woody in tow) is taken by her parents on a road trip to a pristine old Western town called Grand Basin, where a big carnival is underway. There's also a large secondhand store stuffed with yesteryear items, including a long-neglected talking string-pull doll named Gabby Gabby (voiced by Christina Hendricks) and four extremely creepy Howdy Doody look-alikes.

In the context of the Toy Story world, "secondhand" also implies the possibility of a second chance (as well as the name of the antique store), which is exactly where the new film really takes off. A character so secondary in the first two installments that she was excised from part three, the young lady (and former adornment to a lamp base) named Bo Peep (voice by Annie Potts) has been fleshed out and made so ingratiating and self-confident that she now emerges as something close to the heart of the film. Co-scripters Andrew Stanton, who co-wrote the first two Toy Story features as well as five other top Pixar titles, and first-timer Stephany Folsom have taken a less-than-exciting porcelain character and given her a plausible interim backstory of solitary adventure and self-discovery so that she can emerge as an immensely capable shepherdess who's come into her own and makes a perfect match for Woody. Their lively banter and mutual understanding provide a romantic backbone for the story as well as a genuine rooting interest in a couple that seems better matched than the vast majority of those to have turned up in live-action films of late.

This would not be a Pixar film without innumerable mad dashes, close calls, frantic snatches of victory from the jaws of defeat and assorted other wild physical predicaments that call on the ingenuity and, perhaps more so, the dexterity of its persistently appealing set of characters. It's not so common in films these days that you actually enjoy being in the company of the people onscreen, and if it takes an animated pic to deliver them up, so be it.

A good measure of the credit for this belongs to the first-rate voice cast. As Woody, Hanks still sounds as youthful and energetic as he did a quarter century ago, and he plays a significant part in making the revisiting of this franchise all these years later such a pleasure. Potts returns to really come into her own as Bo Peep, who may share an intimate past with show-off Duke Caboom ("Canada's Greatest Stuntman"), whom Keanu Reeves helps turn into an egotistical hoot; even he, however, has a poignant backstory.

Ultimately, what gives Toy Story 4 genuine heft is that it's a tale of second chances and characters who take advantage of them. Like its predecessors, the film is rambunctious, noisy, genial, unpretentious, action-packed and old-fashioned in a very good way. After a nine-year wait, it's gratifying to see original Pixar hands like Stanton, executive producers Lee Unkrich and Pete Docter and composer-singer Randy Newman collaborating at their usual high level with relative newcomers, most notably director Josh Cooley, who worked his way up through the ranks at Pixar for 15 years, toiling in the art department there on five films, helming two shorts and co-writing Inside Out.

With some Pixar franchises having worn out their welcome and lent the impression of a capitulation to Disney's desire for more sequels at the price of less preparation and care, this one conveys the confident feel of a creation that, as a big man used to say, has not been served before its time.

Production company: Pixar
Distributor: Disney
Voice cast: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Annie Potts, Tony Hale, Keegan-Michael Key, Jordan Peele, Madeleine McGraw, Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves, Ally Maki, Joan Cusack, Jay Hernandez, Lori Alan, Bonnie Hunt, Kristen Schaal, Wallace Shawn
Director: Josh Cooley
Screenwriters: Andrew Stanton, Stephany Folsom; story, Andrew Stanton, John Lasseter, Martin Hynes, Rashida Jones, Will McCormack, Valerie LaPointe, Josh Cooley, Stephany Folsom
Producers: Mark Nielsen, Jonas Rivera
Executive producers: Andrew Stanton, Lee Unkrich, Pete Docter
Production designer: Bob Pauley
Editor: Axel Geddes
Music and songs: Randy Newman
Casting: Natalie Lyon, Kevin Reher

Rated G, 101 minutes