'Toy Story 4'
(G / 90 mins)
Overview: Woody (voice of Tom Hanks) has always been confident about his place in the world, and that his priority is taking care of his kid, whether that's Andy or Bonnie.
So when Bonnie's beloved new craft-project-turned-toy, Forky (voice of Tony Hale), declares himself as "trash" and not a toy, Woody takes it upon himself to show Forky why he should embrace being a toy.
But when Bonnie takes the whole gang on her family's road trip excursion, Woody ends up on an unexpected detour that includes a reunion with his long-lost friend Bo Peep (voice of Annie Potts).
After years of being on her own, Bo's adventurous spirit and life on the road belie her delicate porcelain exterior.
As Woody and Bo realize they're worlds apart when it comes to life as a toy, they soon come to find that's the least of their worries.
Verdict: Adding a dash of creepiness to the usual formula, 'Toy Story 4' exceeds expectations by - ahem - toying with them.
It's not as if the world needed a fourth Toy Story movie. After an unbroken string of gems, Pixar has been hit-and-miss since Cars 2, and Toy Story 3 was a step down from its predecessors, although it did manage to deliver a great third act and a poignant coda that seemed to wrap up the franchise and put it to bed for good.
What more was there to say after Andy passed on his toys to a new child?
Surprisingly, 'Toy Story 4' has an answer good enough to justify the film's existence as something more than a cynical cash grab. It may not be A-list Pixar, but overall it is better than its immediate predecessor.
Fans will not only be pleased to see the lovable characters back in action; they will be surprised to see a new story unfolding on its own terms, uncompromised by concerns for preserving the franchise.
You don't need an advanced degree in plot structure to see that 'Toy Story 4' is all over the map. First, it's about Woody feeling bad that Bonnie chooses to play with other toys. Then it's about Forky wondering why he's alive.
Next it becomes about rescuing Forky from the antiques store, which leads to the subplot about Gabby wanting Woody's voice box, which in turn segues into Gabby's dream of being chosen by the granddaughter of the store owner; which leads to one of Pixar's patented third-act action scenes, in which the other toys prevent Bonnie's family from continuing on their vacation, which would leave Woody and Forky behind.
You also don't need an advance degree in existentialism to see that Forky's angst shouldn't be particularly remarkable in the Toy Story universe. After all, his Big Question ("Why am I alive?") could just as easily have been asked by any of the other toys, all of whom were created by humans; the only difference is that he was not made professionally. This isn't really enough to self-awareness more of an issue for him than it is for the others.
Fortunately, this is not a problem, because Forky's suicidal tendencies are a plot device that give Woody a problem to solve; the film rightfully focuses on Woody's issues, which form the film's emotional core.
The first level of genius of Pixar's writing team is that they know how to wrap the various set pieces and plot devices in a character-oriented story, which is ultimately about Woody finding his place in the world in the wake of Andy having outgrown him.
The glue holding the film together is the love story about Woody reuniting with Bo, who was given away nine years before the events of this film take place.
At that time, Woody's loyalty to Andy prevented him from running off with Bo, but now things are different, and Woody has to decide whether he is acting simply out of desperation to make himself feel useful when he might be better off following his own personal happiness.
The second level of genius of Pixar's writing team is they know how to dramatize this conflict with action, hiding the love story in the weave of other plot threads, then tying them all together and taking the film around full circle in a way that allows for a revisiting of Woody's earlier decision after he has gone through enough adventures and hardships to give him a new perspective affecting the choice he will make.
It would be unfair to reveal that decision, but let's say that it is completely motivated by the character and the story, not by planning for future sequels. It's pure and perfect.
The horror elements are a welcome surprise: those amusingly creepy ventriloquist dummies certainly outshine Chucky, and Gabby's harvesting of Woody internal organ (well, voice box) has an aura of mad science surgery.
Even better, this apparent tangent turns out to be part of the film's emotional fabric - Gabby becomes Woody's mirror-image, also acting desperately to win the love of an indifferent child, revealing the dangers of too desperate to be needed.
Ultimately, 'Toy Story 4' is not up to the standard of the first two installments, but it asks some interesting questions: Is it better to be free or to belong?
If being needed gives your life meaning, does it also restrict you from following your own bliss? Heady stuff for a family-friendly entertainment, but the film is amusing throughout, if not hilarious, mixing the familiar gang with some new characters (stunt rider Duke Caboom is more annoying than funny, but Ducky and Bunny are a blast).
Pixar's computer-generated animation continues to improve, making the once-amazing original Toy Story look almost drab by comparison. (The technique still seems better suited to anthropomorphized toys than to humans.) Randy Newman's score expertly underlines the big emotional moments.
Like its immediate predecessor, the latest Toy Story sequel delivers a wonderful resolution that redeems any missteps along the way - it's a three-star film with a five-star ending.
There is less of the interplay between Woody and Buzz, who is reduced to supporting character here; fortunately, Buzz's time onscreen is well spent, especially near the end when he delivers an ambiguous line that informs Woody's ultimate decision.
Buzz's limited screen time is perhaps emblematic of 'Toy Story 4's success: the movie doesn't deliver exactly what you expect, but it does deliver.