If you were a kid in the prime of your toy-playing years when the original “Toy Story” was released back in 1995, you’re old enough to have little ones of your own, and if you do, I’ll bet they’ll love “Toy Story 4” as much as nearly all of us have loved every entry in this timeless, enchanting, generation-spanning franchise.
These are kids’ movies for adults, grown-up movies for kids, instant animated classics rich in material and character and vibrant visuals.
Here’s the great news: The fourth entry is a worthy addition to the “Toy Story” library, bringing back some of the most beloved characters in the history of animated film and introducing us to a fantastically entertaining new bunch of toys — some of them adorable and huggable, some of them more reminiscent of a certain type of creepy, old-school doll usually seen in R-rated horror films.
Can you believe it’s been nearly a decade since 2010’s “Toy Story 3,” one of the greatest “three-quels” of all time?
Still, the years have been kind to Sheriff Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) and Co., what with them being toys and all. (Not that toys can’t get bruised and battered and torn apart and left for “dead.”)
Directed with a sure-handed touch by Josh Cooley, “Toy Story 4” opens with a flashback scene setting up certain key events to follow, and then settles in to present day, with Woody, Buzz, Jessie (Joan Cusack), Rex (Wallace Shawn) and a host of other mainstays comfortably ensconced with Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw), whom Andy gifted with the toys a few years back.
Ah, but things HAVE changed. The once super-popular Woody is no longer a Bonnie favorite and is regularly left in the bedroom closet with the other also-rans come playtime.
Further complicating matters: Bonnie returns home from her first day of kindergarten having made a new friend. I mean, she actually MADE a new friend: Forky (Tony Hale), a plastic spork utensil with one eye much larger than the other, pipe cleaner arms and pieces of popsicle sticks for feet.
You’re gonna love Forky. He’s kinda dopey — at first, all he wants to do is return to the trash can from which he came — but he also enters consciousness as a being in existential crisis, trying to figure out who he is and what purpose he has in the grand scheme of things. Overall, he’s just a good guy. Or fork. Spork. Toy. You know what I mean.
(I’ll admit it: When I first heard of this Forky, I thought it sounded like something out of an Onion headline. How stupid of me. This is Pixar; of course, they figured out a way to make Forky an endearing, lovable character.)
When Bonnie and her parents go on a late-summer road trip, Bonnie is most concerned about her new best friend Forky coming along, but Woody, Buzz and the gang hitch a ride as well.
(We were about halfway through the adventure when a relatively simple establishing shot nearly took my breath away. In the larger story, it was nothing — just a few seconds of visuals, introducing us to a stretch of Main Street in a resort/vacation town. But my goodness, the attention to detail, from the shadows to the hint of a breeze gently moving the foliage to the natural wood grains. We’ve seen this kind of beauty from the Pixar animation geniuses for the better part of three decades now, but it’s still something to behold on the big screen.)
When Forky becomes separated from the family, Woody embarks on a heroic mission to find him and bring him back to Bonnie, which allows time for Woody and Forky to strike a bond, and eventually leads to Woody finding his long-lost friend Bo Peep (Annie Potts), who’s livin’ the life as a “lost toy” after having escaped the musty confines of the town’s antique shop.
About that antique shop. It’s the setting for some genuinely chilling escapades, seeing as how it’s populated by one Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), a character clearly inspired by those Chatty Cathy dolls sold by Mattel in the 1950s and 1960s. Eesh, those dolls were always rather unsettling.
Gabby Gabby was born with a defective voice box and has her sights set on stealing Woody’s, and she’s got four spooky ventriloquist-doll-type henchmen as muscle to help make it happen.
Dang, “Toy Story 4”! Getting a little dark on us.
On the much, much lighter and brighter side, Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele are hilarious as Ducky and Bunny, a couple of carnival plushies who have been pinned to the wall of an arcade game for years and dream of breaking free one day, and Keanu Reeves kills it as one Duke Caboom, a Canadian daredevil toy complete with motorcycle and Fu Manchu, who is haunted by being rejected by his kid because Duke didn’t live up to the impossible promise of his TV commercial.
Filled with laughs and perfectly choreographed slapstick adventures, “Toy Story 4” also knows just when to insert the life lessons and when to deliver those moments guaranteed to put a lump in your throat.
If this movie doesn’t touch your heart, you’d have to be as lifeless as the toys pretend to be when humans are in the vicinity.
“TOY STORY 4”
- Grade: Four stars
- Starring: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Annie Potts ,Tony Hale
- Rated: G
- Running time: 100 minutes
Richard Roeper reviews movies for The Chicago Sun-Times. Distributed by Universal Press Syndicate.