A lot of “Toy Story 4” is great-ish. The animation is striking, the jokes amusing and the story sweet, though this being Pixar, the tale can be melancholic enough that the whole lot feels deeper than it really is. Put simply, the movie is accurately everything you expect – no more, not less – from an estimably well-oiled machine like Pixar. It appears almost greedy to want something better, less familiar. The fault lies with the studio, which includes trained us to anticipate greatness, partly by making movies as seemingly inimitable as “Inside Out” and “Wall-E.”
Those movies haven’t made sequels, but serialization in and of itself isn’t the condition with “Toy Story 4.” It’s that long-running franchise (the first film opened in 1995) already felt over and done by its last installment. In “Toy Story 3” (2010), the boy who owned Woody (gently voiced by Tom Hanks), Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) and their colorful playtime cohort, is headed to school and provides his toys to a fresh child, milestones that appeared to bring the series to a decisive, narratively rounded end.
[Read kids’ reviews of “Toy Story 4.”]
Never say never in sequel-happy Hollywood; hence this installment, that was directed by Josh Cooley from Andrew Stanton and Stephany Folsom’s script. Woody, Buzz and the others now live with Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw), who’s nervous about starting kindergarten. Woody, an old-timey cowboy doll with an avuncular persona, decides to greatly help Bonnie by hitching a ride in her backpack. When she returns home, he’s crammed in next to Forky (Tony Hale from “Veep”), a whatsit she made that day from a plastic spork, a pipe cleaner, lopsided googly eyes and trash-bin bits.
The drama first turns on Woody’s crisis of confidence (Bonnie neglects him) and his dealings with Forky, who keeps diving in to the nearest wastebasket. (The toys come “alive” only with each other.) Forky subsequently opens up a ticklish existential question – is he a toy or trash? – that echoes ideas that reverberate through the series. Exactly what is a toy? Exactly what is a toy without the love of a kid? Forky isn’t a knife, but he minces no words: “Why am I alive?” The same question troubles Woody, who feels baffled. If Bonnie doesn’t play with him, in the end, he isn’t part of her imagination, her being.
There’s charm – and a wistful flashback to more ideal times – in this opening stretch, although story drags as the movie sleepily comes awake. It jolts into full-on perky once Bonnie’s family continues on a road trip, packing a chest’s worth of toys into an RV. Shortly once they motor off, Forky hurtles out from the RV one night. This leap in to the (relative) void is darkly suggestive of suicide, a concept that’s soon swamped by chatter and bustle as Woody heads off to find Forky and bring him back.
The runaways soon reunite, ambling later on in a short buddy movie. There are further separations and the intro of conjoined plush buddies energetically voiced by Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele. There’s also an overdetermined reunion when Woody meets a vintage friend, Bo Peep (Annie Potts), a porcelain figurine who used to go on a lamp, but has shifted. Finally, the story shifts to the antique store that becomes the setting for pure dazzle. There, amid shadows and detritus, a small number of delectably creepy collectibles, especially a vintage talking doll and her servile ventriloquist dummies, thrust “Toy Story 4” right into a visually and tonally richer register.
Little shop of terrors: Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) with among her ventriloquist dummies and Woody.Credit…Disney
In the almost quarter of a hundred years since this series began, Pixar’s animation is continuing to grow more complex and its own worlds more lifelike. There’s a genuine wow factor to the studio’s renderings, to the graphical details and spatial dimensionality that persuasively advise quotidian existence and our very own chairs, floors and trees. This photorealist quality could make you wonder what you’re looking at. (In digital cinema, life and animation blur.) Sometimes, there’s something deeper here, too, as when the visuals advise textures that one could almost feel in your fingertips, a feeling of touch that awakens memories of the smooth plastic and nubby cloth of your favorite childhood playthings.
Pixar figured out way back when that toys could be portals into childhood, assembly-line madeleines. But once you’ve crossed to that enchanted place where your misty memories mingle with the images flickering onscreen, something must keep you tethered. In the first three movies, that hook was the relationships among the toys and their bonds with the kid, who grew as the series did. Bonnie and her world – using its sniffles, scrupulous verisimilitude and psychological shallows – are too bland to be interesting. So it’s a relief when Woody and Forky meet Gabby Gabby (dexterously voiced by Christina Hendricks), the antique store’s unloved doll and, briefly, its tiny mistress of terror.
Once Bonnie’s world gives way to Gabby’s the movie gets its groove on, turning out to be a labyrinthine haunted home with ominous corners, scarily frozen smiles, zigzagging Tom-and-Jerry choreography and perilously teetering stuff. Gabby also takes Forky hostage, a turn that creates tension and causes a rescue mission and a dynamic that evokes Hale’s tenure on “Veep.” It’s almost over before it starts. Yet even following the sun and narrative order re-emerge it’s hard to essentially shake Gabby Gabby. With her otherworldly eyes and volatility, she actually is simultaneously a scary doppelgänger for Bonnie and a startlingly honest touch upon childhood as a dark well of impossible need.