When all seems lost and doom is certain, leave it to Sheriff Woody and Buzz Lightyear to swoop in and save the day.
The disaster, in this case, is 2019's Summer of Sequelae, as dismal a movie season as audiences can remember as one spinoff has followed the other with a graceless thud. Thankfully, "Toy Story 4" arrives just in time to redeem filmgoers' faith, if not in humanity, then at least in the humaneness of inanimate creatures who have more heart, pluck and conscience in their plastic pinkies than most real-life adults. Toys are people, too!
A diverting, visually dazzling concoction of wily schemes and daring adventures, "Toy Story 4" achieves that something that eludes most sequels, especially this far into a series: a near-perfect balance between familiarity and novelty, action and emotion, and joyful hellos and more bittersweet goodbyes.
"Toy Story" fans will remember that at the end of the last installment, Woody, Buzz and their fellow toys were donated by Andy, their original owner, to a little girl named Bonnie. After a brief flashback, "Toy Story 4" gets underway on Bonnie's kindergarten orientation day, when Woody (voice of Tom Hanks) sneaks into her backpack for moral support. After Woody throws some detritus on her table to help with a crafts project, Bonnie fixes up an instant friend made out of a spork, a pipe cleaner and a Popsicle stick: Meet Forky, an anxious, googly-eyed introvert voiced to neurotic perfection by Tony Hale.
It's during Bonnie's last summer trip - to an RV camp alongside a traveling carnival - that "Toy Story 4" really takes off. As Forky continues to try to escape his new owner's affectionate clutches, Woody tries to tutor the newcomer in proper toy comportment. When Woody spies his old friend Bo Peep's lamp in the window of an antique store, he and Forky embark on a perilous attempt to find Bo among the shop's gadgets, gewgaws and vintage playthings. Among them is Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) - a Chatty Cathy-type baby doll with enormous eyes and a creepy hidden agenda - and her henchmen: a group of villainous ventriloquist's dummies whose floppy necks and rictus grins inspire instant terror.
Of course, the plot isn't really the point in "Toy Story 4," which hews to its tried and true formula of mishap/crazy plan/unlikely success/life lesson. It's the way that the Pixar filmmakers, led by director Josh Cooley, manage to use that template to come up with something that feels fresh, funny and meaningful.
The resolutely handmade Forky might be the MVP this time out, but "Toy Story 4" is full of fabulous new characters, including a couple of street-wise plushies voiced by Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key, and Duke Caboom, a motorcycle-driving action figure voiced by Keanu Reeves. While it's wonderful to hear Hanks, Tim Allen and Annie Potts reprise their roles as Woody, Buzz and Bo, the filmmakers never pander to nostalgia for its own sake, ensuring that "Toy Story 4" will be as enjoyable to newbies as to the most sentimental superfans.
One of the continuing themes in the "Toy Story" movies is Woody's relationship to his owners. Here, he comes to see the cardinal virtues of loyalty and self-sacrifice through a different lens, as a group of "lost toys" show him the liberated advantages of the single life.
As gratifying as that emotional exploration is, the most pleasurable thing about "Toy Story 4" is its sheer beauty. Between the exquisitely detailed antique store, full of perfectly rendered artifacts from a multitude of eras, and the gem-colored richness of the carnival grounds, this is probably the most visually rich "Toy Story" film yet. Every dust mote, every linoleum scuff and porcelain glint has been crafted with breathtaking care. The light work is particularly impressive in a movie that can shift with ease from the neon luridness of the midway to the delicate tracery of sunlight refracted through a stately retinue of chandeliers.
Fair warning: Things get a bit dark in "Toy Story 4," as Gabby Gabby's intentions become unnervingly clear. But never for too long, and often the edgiest material is tinged with knowing humor (especially when it involves Key and Peele's characters).
As an ode to spunk, ingenuity, teamwork, storytelling and animation artistry, "Toy Story 4" fires on every spirited cylinder. And it provides an example that other studios would to well to follow when raiding their archives for old-new material: In the right hands, sequels can be good movies, too.