It’s easy to question the necessity of another “Toy Story” movie, especially after the emotionally devastating “Toy Story 3.” Arriving nine years later, “Toy Story 4” has to earn its relevance. It does so in spades, with astonishingly beautiful animation, smart humor and a story filled with the kind of pathos and poignancy we expect. In a summer glutted with tiresome sequels, the team at Pixar more than makes the argument for another “Toy Story” by combining the beloved characters and tone of the original trilogy with fresh comedic elements and new additions to the toy crew — most importantly, a spork named Forky who isn’t even sure he’s actually a toy.
Writers Valerie LaPointe, Rashida Jones, Will McCormack, Martin Hynes, Stephany Folsom and co-writer/director Josh Cooley update the original tale by Andrew Stanton and John Lasseter featuring beloved cowboy Woody (Tom Hanks), who has been passed down to a new child, Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw), after his tenure with Andy. Woody’s had to embrace change over the passage of time, saying goodbye to old friends like Andy, and old toys, like Bo Peep (Annie Potts), relegated to the donation box. But despite the losses, Woody clings to routine, and to his mission: Be there for your kid.
With that calling in mind, Woody takes on the task of protecting Bonnie’s newest favorite plaything, a spork dressed up with googly eyes and a pipe cleaner called Forky. Taking care of the existentially bereft Forky (Tony Hale) is a unique challenge. He thinks he’s trash, not a toy, flinging his flimsy body into every garbage receptacle he can. Honestly, Forky’s plight is utterly relatable in these trying times, as he plaintively queries the universe, “trash?” before hurtling his frame into the void of space.
Woody is forced to grapple with his own existence when the family heads out on a road trip and Woody and Forky get separated from the group. Ironically, Forky doesn’t even want to be a toy, but he’s the most beloved of all for little Bonnie, so Woody takes it upon himself to teach Forky what it means to be a toy. Yet, as they make their way through the playgrounds and antique shops where lost toys go, Woody must contemplate existence outside of a child’s bedroom, which gives him pause. The one thing he can’t control is time and the inevitable change that comes with it as kids grow up and outgrow the playthings of their youth. Should he let time run its course or exert some effort over his destiny? Can he? It’s these huge questions about life and purpose that give the “Toy Story” franchise so much emotional heft, make it seem so much bigger than just a movie about toys.
Tom Hanks as Woody has always been one of the defining animation vocal performances, and here he is joined by new characters voiced by Jordan Peele and Keegan Michael-Key, who elicit the most laughs as a pair of plush carnival prizes; Keanu Reeves, embracing his Canadian heritage as Duke Kaboom and Christina Hendricks, who gives one of the most complex vocal performances as a creepy vintage baby doll, Gabby Gabby. Flush with new talent, there’s no question this old franchise still has some gas. “Toy Story 4” is a triumph of humor and heart.