Toy Story 4

For moviegoers of a certain age, few film franchises have become a staple of our collective consciousness as much as Toy Story. Pixar Studios flagship series has entertained and enlightened an entire generation of kids on the virtues of imagination, friendship, loss, growing up, and all the complex and sometimes contradictory emotions that comes with. It's understandable why some might be skeptical approaching the fourth Toy Story installment, especially after Toy Story 3, arguably the most emotionally affecting entry in the series, forced our beloved cast of toys to confront mortality itself before safely whisking them away to what seemed a pitch-perfect note to conclude the trilogy. Thankfully, Toy Story 4 finds Pixar once again reaching into their magic hat to reward viewers with another heartfelt and hilarious chapter in the best film series about talking toys ever made (all due respect to Child's Play, of course.)

After an outstanding opening flashback sequence set sometime between the events of the second and third film that see's Woody bidding a bittersweet farewell to fellow toy Bo Peep as she leaves for an uncertain future, Toy Story 4 finds Woody and the gang where we last left them, in the possession of little girl Bonnie, who former owner Andy donated them to. Despite the five-year-old Bonnie being at the ripe age where toys can still light up a child's world, Woody now finds himself confined to the closet collecting dust bunnies during playtime, the connection he once had with Andy being largely non-existent in his new owner. Woody, not knowing any other purpose than to make a child happy, of course, still fusses over Bonnie's well being above all else, even sneaking into her backpack to accompany her as she takes on the first day of kindergarten. There he provides the raw materials for Bonnie to create one of the most memorable new characters in Toy Story 4, Forky, a hastily assembled googily-eyed spork figure made from glue and pipe cleaner who quickly becomes Bonnie's best friend. Unfortunately for Woody, shortly after Forky gains sentience he proceeds to do nothing but attempt to return to the trash bin where he feels most at home, providing some of the film’s funniest gags as Woody constantly must keep Forky out of the garbage and in Bonnie's loving hands. From here, Toy Story 4 takes to the road as Bonnie and her parents RV trip finds Woody and the gang meeting friends new and old in various exciting locales, while forcing Woody to re-examine their place in the world along the way.

The greatness of the Toy Story movies has always lied in the strength of its characters, and perhaps the best part of Toy Story 4 is how it takes our now-familiar heroes in new and unexpected directions. Among the new characters we meet are a couple conjoined stuffed animals voiced by Key and Peele, who bring their unique brand of comedy to the universe. The internet’s favorite human Keanu Reeves also lends his voice talents to a Canadian motorcycle-driving action figure who steals every scene he's in. There's also no shortage of colorful new environments for our heroes to explore, from a carnival of brightly lit rides and game booths to a speakeasy saloon inside an old pinball machine. Somewhat surprisingly, I found Toy Story 4 to be an unabashedly feminist film in its treatment of the character Bo Peep, who Woody reunites with on his adventure. Once confined to an old antique store (which also serves as the setting for much of the film’s action), Bo Peep is a strong, independent toy who has learned to live on her own with her three little sheep, enjoying the freedom provided by a vast village to explore and without the emotional needs of a child to cater to. She stands in stark contrast to Woody as she attempts to get the old cowboy doll to let go of his feelings for former owner Andy and embrace the possibilities of a new life as a toy. This conflict between accepting a toy's purpose in life as a vessel for a child's joy and imagination, only for them to inevitably become a forgotten object eventually discarded, has always existed at the heart of the Toy Story films. In some ways, however, Toy Story 4 offers the most interesting approach the series has yet afforded these themes, while still being a breezy animated adventure that's fun for all ages.