It was nine years ago when Woody and his pals accepted their doom sliding toward the roaring flames of an industrial garbage incinerator. In terms of Disney’s predisposition for blunt force nostalgia, “Toy Story 3” might take the cake for Disney’s most throttling weaponization of audience goodwill, dangling beloved characters within snapping distance of the jaws of death and then forcing them to bid farewell to the now-grown owner/deity/blatant audience surrogate, Andy.
It was a disturbingly intense, albeit ultimately affecting, goodbye that made beaucoup bucks — the film was the highest-grossing release of 2010 — and seemingly surrendered Pixar to laissez-faire sequel-pumping that diluted its reputation over the following decade.
And so the 2010s have ended as they began for the studio — with a return to its crown jewel franchise. Considering the third entry bid adieu to viewers as many times as the von Trapp children, another sequel may sound like an afterthought on paper. Thankfully, “Toy Story 4” is hardly purposeless, operating as a slight but stirring epilogue for this motley crew while continuing to gesture toward the despair of its servient immortality.
Once the favorite toy in Andy’s playroom, the cowboy Woody (Tom Hanks) has become an old-timer, left in the closet to gather dust bunnies by his new owner, Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw). Infrequently wanted during playtime, Woody instead finds purpose by preventing Bonnie’s arts and crafts project Forky (Tony Hale) from committing suicide by throwing himself into the trash.
During a family road trip, Forky jumps through the window to become litter and Woody makes chase. While dragging the plastic utensil back to his creator, Woody runs into his old flame, Bo Peep (Annie Potts) — a table lamp figure conspicuously absent from “Toy Story 3” — who opens his eyes to what the world can offer outside of the toy chest.
What ensues is essentially a solo tale that brings Woody’s arc across this series full circle. The cowboy’s devotion to his owners has become more insecure and desperate with time. He finds himself confronting his lame-duck discontent after reuniting with Bo Peep. Having ditched her polka-dot dress for a practical pair of pants, Bo is an acrobatic free spirit about to hitch a ride with a traveling carnival.
As with many of Pixar’s belated sequels, “Toy Story 4” puts into perspective the relative rapidity of advances in computer animation. The original “Toy Story” managed to mask the limitations of its rudimentary technology by telling its story through rigid plastic features. Now, those toys get stuck in mud, porcelain dolls chip, and thin layers of dust accumulate on those forgotten. It’s these smaller, more complex textures that allow the animators to find new ways to articulate how upsetting these characters’ lives can be.
Just as such, though, the movie also functions as a reminder of how baggy Pixar’s once drum-tight story construction has become. Between all the delightfully choreographed chases, “Toy Story 4” makes room for Bo and Woody to debate the privileged security and inevitable abandonment that come with having a kid. Remarkably ambitious as that may be, their interplay runs in circles as the movie goes on, repeating themes that previous entries have already handled with a feather-light touch.
Most of the film’s energy comes from the googly-eyed Forky, who initially confronts his inexplicable sentience with hysterics and then bemused acceptance. The new toys each possess different comic flavors, with the reunited Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele playing headstrong carnival prizes and the marvelously dry Keanu Reeves as the insecure Canadian daredevil Duke Caboom. The script wisely keeps most of the old crew on the periphery, a decision that exposes how Woody’s pal Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) is shoehorned in with nothing much to do.
Pixar’s reputation has been easily reduced to unsparing tear-jerkers, but “Toy Story 4” will likely mark the umpteenth time the studio has produced the most colorful and consistently funny comedy of the season. It’s a tickling escapade with sharp jokes, so it feels oddly fickle that the story huffs and puffs just to get one character’s arc to the finish line. As frequently delightful as the movie is, it’s more of the same; that’s not necessarily bad considering the track record for “Toy Story,” but it’s something that had managed to be unprecedented until now.