Nine years ago, “Toy Story 3” seemed to wrap up the beloved series quite neatly by giving Woody, Buzz Lightyear, and company a new everything-old-is-new-again home with the adorable toddler Bonnie. Accordingly, news that Disney/Pixar would be going back to the toy box for yet another sequel couldn’t help but sound like a “Cars”-style milk-the-kids cash grab. Also, pre-release info implied the new installment would include a hammered-in female-empowerment angle that could overwhelm the fun with too much social-justice lesson-forcing.
Well, forget every one of those concerns. “Toy Story 4” is not only a more than worthy extension of the blockbuster brand, it is the finest of the four movies so far. To get an idea of how rare that is, try thinking of another cinematic fourth time at bat that became a mega-franchise’s best installment. James Bond’s “Thunderball?” Not even as good as its predecessor (“Goldfinger”). “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Pt. 2,” “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides?” No way. “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace,” “Batman & Robin,” “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” “Terminator: Salvation,” “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace?” Please.
The main contender that comes to mind is “Mad Max: Fury Road,” which is unexpectedly fitting. That’s because Bo Peep (voiced by Annie Potts), who has appeared in all four “Toy Story” installments—but only briefly and with nothing to say in the last—is transformed here into an Imperator Furiosa-lite porcelain badass who even has her own custom-made set of wheels. Leaving behind the table lamp she formerly graced and taking along her three-headed sheep, she now scavenges in the wild as the cheerfully spunky alpha leader of other cut-loose rejects.
The screenplay (credited to Andrew Stanton and Stephany Folsom) manages to make Bo’s unlikely metamorphosis believable by giving her a good reason for going rogue and getting tough. She’s the latest victim of the oblivious thoughtlessness of children in the series who have lost interest in former treasures and cast them unsentimentally aside. These movies never have shied away from realistically showing that kids can be casually cruel in that regard, unconditionally loving something one minute and then coldly consigning it to the closet (or worse) the next.
A flashback reveals that Bo got separated from the rest of the gang when Molly, younger sister of the franchise’s original main human character Andy, allowed her mother to get rid of the lamp that Bo occupied. After escaping later from an antiques store shelf, Bo has been living off the grid and apparently thriving.
Including such a strong female character this time around may have been an attempt by Disney/Pixar to partially compensate for some embarrassing real-world #MeToo missteps. Former studio head and “Toy Story” director/co-creator John Lasseter (who co-directed “Toy Story 2” and has shared story credit on all four movies) exited the company in 2018 following allegations of sexual misconduct.
Regardless of what inspired Bo Peep’s power-up and promotion to the franchise’s front ranks, what matters is that the change doesn’t feel frustratingly forced or irritatingly agenda-advancing. She’s definitely the character who takes charge and wears the pants—or pantalettes—this time around, after she ditches her hoop skirt to get in action mode, but she rises to her new role with appealing aplomb.
As always, Woody the cowboy doll (voiced by a never-better Tom Hanks) is the movie’s heart, but Bo is the strategy-and-tactics brains of an operation to rescue the lovably dopey new character Forky (voiced by “Veep’s” Tony Hale). Created by Bonnie in kindergarten from things she finds in a wastebasket (a plastic spork, red pipe cleaner, googly eyes and a broken stick), Forky is being held hostage in the antiques store that Bo escaped. The ringleader doll there, Gabby Gabby, has a defective voice box she wants to replace with Woody’s. Her henchmen are several disturbingly creepy and clumsy ventriloquist dummies.
Christina Hendricks of “Mad Men” does a remarkable job of voicing Gabby Gabby with a mixture of menace and melancholy that makes her plight surprisingly moving. It goes without saying that tissues should be brought to any “Toy Story” movie, and this one is no exception. Amazingly, the villainous but tragic doll becomes one of the most interestingly layered and sympathetic characters you’re likely to see in any film this year.
At the opposite end of the emotional spectrum, the movie is filled with so many genuinely funny cast members it would be hard to pick a favorite. Tim Allen is back as the stalwart but somewhat simpleminded Buzz Lightyear, and Kristen Schaal is distinctively ditzy as Trixie the Triceratops. Archival recordings of the late Don Rickles, who gets an appreciation in the credits, are used briefly for his Mr. Potato Head. The movie’s human characters include the excellent Madeleine McGraw as Bonnie, taking over for Emily Hahn from “Toy Story 3.”
New toys include the perpetually posing motorcycle stunt rider Duke Caboom (voiced with hilarious intensity by Keanu Reeves), the pocket-sized Giggle McDimples (Ally Maki), and comedy duo Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele as the plush-with-attitude pair Ducky and Bunny.
The movie’s stunning computer animation has become easy to take for granted by now, but several state-of-the-art scenes are standouts: a sweeping aerial view of a carnival, prisms and reflections of chandelier crystals dappling the shelves of the antiques store, a dark road bordered by woods.
The animators also do an impressive job of giving the toys so much character that they can be genuinely heartbreaking. Aside from the big tearjerker moments, even little details such as Forky’s awkwardly amusing walk and Gabby Gabby’s expressive eyes are small wonders.
First-time feature director Josh Cooley expertly navigates the story’s mix of adventure, comedy, trauma and drama. Also, one of the movie’s gentle morals is handled with sufficient subtlety that it doesn’t feel oppressively obvious: Woody teaching Forky to stop thinking of himself as trash, because someone loves him and needs him no matter how he regards himself. Another lesson, about being brave, independent, and slightly selfish enough to forge a new future, offers a surprisingly mature take on the occasional necessity of leaving old friends behind.
Be sure to stay until the absolute end of the credits, when the final Pixar logo appears, for one last gag that’s both funny and heartwarming. That makes it the perfect summation of the entire “Toy Story” series. If this really is the final bow for the franchise, as Hanks himself has claimed, it will be ending on a note so high that this definitely should be one of the year’s Best Picture nominees.