The “Toy Story” trilogy was perfect. The 1995 original changed filmmaking forever as Pixar delivered the first-ever digitally animated feature film with unforgettable Randy Newman tunes and a Buzz and Woody buddy comedy to “infinity and beyond.” The impressive feat earned a spot on the American Film Institute’s list of the Top 100 Movies of All Time.
The sequels rose to the challenge, as “Toy Story 2” (1999) introduced the cowgirl sidekick Jessie to prove that sequels could still strive for greatness, and “Toy Story 3” (2010) gave us all the feels as Andy went off to college and said goodbye to his favorite childhood playthings.
Now, we get “Toy Story 4,” which like last week’s “Men in Black 4″ doesn’t really need to exist, but unlike “Men in Black 4,” it at least features its original cast members for a fun nostalgia ride at the movie theater and an enjoyable family outing this summer blockbuster season.
This time, the story follows the toys as they adjust from leaving their old owner Andy to a new young girl named Bonnie. On her first day of kindergarten, a lonely Bonnie crafts a new friend name Forky, a plastic spork with pipe-cleaner arms and googly eyes. When the naive Forky runs away, Woody leads a rescue mission to save the silverware from a spooky antique shop.
The film is worth the price admission alone for the laugh-out-loud antics of Forky. Believing he’s more trash than toy, he hilariously wants to jump in every trash bin he can find. Tony Hale (“Veep”) voices the character with zany innocence, while the animation team designs his distinct walk as the same sort of staggering waddle that made us giggle watching “E.T.” (1982).
Meanwhile, Tom Hanks carries the film as Woody, frustratingly trying to retrieve Forky each time he makes a mad dash for a dumpster. Not only is it comic relief, it speaks to something deeper in Woody’s internal journey. No longer needed by Andy, he feels obligated to save Forky for Bonnie as his last reason for existing, like an old gunslinger looking for one last job.
Somehow Pixar has done it again, giving an impressive character arc to a digitally created creature. Here, Woody needs to learn the lesson of Bo Peep (Annie Potts), who insists that there is no such thing as a lost toy. Bo Peep’s feminist growth is one of many welcome evolutions penned by screenwriting duo Stephany Folsom and Andrew Stanton (“WALL-E”).
Still, many of the tried-and-true elements remain. Just like the silent yet heartbreaking opening montage of “Up” (2009), “Toy Story 4” opens with a montage that catches us up to speed after nine years, showing Woody passing from Andy to Bonnie with a new name etched on his foot. Film students should study Pixar’s ability to relay information so economically.
The animation reaches its dazzling zenith at a carnival, where Bo Peep brings Woody to the top of a tent to see the lights of the rides and games. Similar wonder awaits inside the antique shop, where sparkly old chandeliers create an iridescent view that the toys view as heavenly.
It’s also here that debut director Josh Cooley delivers some impressive jump scares by creepy dummies resembling Howdy Doody. Upon meeting them, Woody slyly greets them by saying, “Howdy,” no doubt an intentional reference. These dummies are the cohorts of an adorable baby doll named Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), who yearns to fix her broken voice box.
While the antique store is a masterfully constructed visual world — like Pizza Planet in Part 1, Al’s Toy Barn in Part 2 and Sunnyside Day Care in Part 3 — the script drags a bit during this sequence. The second half of Act Two relies too much on random gags, be it stunts by Evil Knievel daredevil Duke Kaboom (Keanu Reeves) or flashbacks by stuffed animals Ducky and Bunny (Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele), who make us laugh but don’t advance the plot.
These moments are deliciously consumed in the moment but lack a sense of wholeness by the time we reach Act Three. Most disappointing is the way that Tim Allen’s Buzz Lightyear fades into the background in favor of Woody, a letdown considering the entire “Toy Story” franchise was built on the buddy-comedy premise of two opposite personalities bonding.
So if the “Toy Story” trilogy took us to infinity, the fourth installment just took us beyond.
Here’s hoping Woody hangs his hat here and goes out on top.