For adults, childhood toys are as much a state of mind as physical playthings. Some of us relegated ours to the cupboard while others gave them away, but they still occupy a primal place in our minds.
Disney and Pixar understand that more completely than one would expect from big-studio moviemakers. In fact, in the first three films of the Toy Story series (which began with the groundbreaking original back in 1995) they seemed to toy – pun intended – with us on a psychological, almost spiritual, level. Nevertheless, the big question surrounding Toy Story 4 was whether the new film, like our own toys from a nearly forgotten time, would still conjure the requisite emotions.
It does. Indeed, new director Josh Cooley – working from a script by Andrew Stanton and Stephany Folsom, and a story from a host of Pixar veterans, including company founder and Toy Story creator John Lasseter – has delivered the sequel we didn't realize we needed. Admittedly, it doesn't feel as instantly necessary as the first and third films, and might fall just below all three previous editions if one had to rank them for quality, but it comes close. And in this era of endless sequels, reboots and remakes, that's more than we could have hoped for – and good enough to make Toy Story 4 the best family film of the year.
When we left Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) and the gang at the end of Toy Story 3 in 2010, Andy had just left for college and given his prize possessions to lovable little Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw). But a deeper dive reveals a Woody still haunted by the loss of not just Andy, but his old crush Bo Peep (Annie Potts), who was given away years earlier. To make matters worse, Bonnie now prefers her other toys, relegating Woody to second-tier status and promoting Jessie (Joan Cusack) to sheriff.
But loyalty and love matter to Woody, so when a new toy comes along in the form of a spork with pipe-cleaner arms and Popsicle legs, Woody embraces him because he sees just how much "Forky" means to Bonnie. Never mind that Forky (Tony Hale) is having an existential, runcible crisis and views himself as trash, a metaphor that is nicely explored in a new song by Randy Newman, "I Can't Let You Throw Yourself Away." To Bonnie, he's important, and that means the world to Woody, who is forced to play the hero yet again when the family goes on a road trip and Forky bolts.
Using startlingly realistic animation and imaginative scenarios, the filmmakers have welcomed us back into one of our favorite cinematic universes, one filled with warmth, humor and melancholy. Even better, we're treated to an array of new characters (probably too many), including a ghoulish group of ventriloquist dummies, an underconfident stunt-motorcycle racer (Keanu Reeves) and an overbearing (again, pun intended) duo of stuffed carnival animals (Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key). But it's an emotionally scarred antique doll (Christina Hendricks) who steals the show, thanks to her unwavering quest to repair her broken voice box and finally experience something she's never known: the love of a child.
I don't know what you're going to do after you see the movie, but this 46-year-old plans to return home, take his toys out of the closet and treat them to some long-overdue playtime.