‘Toy Story 4’ Brings Back Every Bit of Charm While Reflecting on Time’s Passing

Toy Story 4” brings one of the most beloved Disney/Pixar franchises to a new level of maturity while basking in delirious action and humor. Since the first “Toy Story” premiered in 1995 this series has understood in a particularly special way the passage of time. Children grow up, become adults, and their toys remain trapped in time, as permanent reminders of bygone days. This new, likely final chapter shifts the focus slightly to one of the toys, finding a unique way to explore the search for love.

It’s been a few years since the last adventure and Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) and the gang still belong to Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw), who is about to start kindergarten. It’s a nerve-wrecking experience but Bonnie makes a new friend, a makeshift toy from a fork and wire named Forky (Tony Hale). But unlike the other characters in Bonnie’s room, Forky doesn’t want to be a toy. He wants to be safe in the bliss of a trash can. When Bonnie and her family go on a road trip and she brings along the toys, Forky tries to escape out of the RV. Woody gives chase, determined to make Forky realize his value. The two end up wandering into an antiques shop where they meet Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), a 1950s pull-string doll looking for someone to give her their voice box to repair her own, broken one. This makes Woody not only an intruder, but a target. While Buzz and the other toys search for their missing friend, Woody and Forky try to escape Gabby Gabby’s clutches, while also bumping into an old friend from the past.

The “Toy Story” films are almost the animated chart of a generation. To be 10 in 1995 is to bee in your mid-thirties today, which means that along with the younger viewers this movie is naturally catered to, there will be audience members and parents who have followed this story for most of their lives. Fittingly, “Toy Story 4,” fun and inventive, reflects a lot on how the past follows us. The opening scenes are some of the year’s most heartbreakingly romantic, as Woody remembers the rainy night when his beloved Bo Peep (Annie Potts) was given away to new owners. Even after spending a while with Bonnie, Woody still can’t forget his first owner, Andy, and keeps referencing him to the others, or when trying to convince Forky to stay. While all of our favorites are back, including Buzz, the always fearful Rex (Wallace Shawn), Hamm (John Ratzenberger), Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head (Don Rickles and Estelle Harris), cowgirl Jessie (Joan Cusack) and Slinky Dog (Blake Clark), this saga was always primarily about Woody. It’s fitting that the refreshingly complex villain is set in an antiques shop, because Gabby Gabby is also a character haunted by the way the years go by and she can’t find an owner. She’s creepy at first, but not as vicious as the police state-running Teddy bear in “Toy Story 3,” although she is flanked by ventriloquist dolls as henchmen. Gabby Gabby inspires more pity than fear. She’s looking for what anyone would want in a lonely world.

Director Josh Cooley is making his feature directorial debut here, and he pulls it off with magnificent visuals both evocative and colorful. The action is taken away from the city and into the green outdoors and a carnival, giving Cooley and the animation team a fresh terrain for what at first seems like a new version of the same idea in every “Toy Story” movie. Someone gets lost and the other toys have to go rescue them. The new batch of characters is also hilarious to run around with. There’s Ducky (Keegan-Michael Key) and Bunny (the always versatile Jordan Peele), two smart-talking, carnival prize stuffed animals desperate to get won who get annoyed with Buzz when he ruins their gig. Forky is the ultimate scene stealer however, with his gangly design and high-pitched voice, desperate to escape into any trash bin and use tossed away paper like a blanket. Also brilliantly conceived is Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves), a motorcycle stuntman toy inspired by Evil Knievel. Caboom loves to pose and show off his looks, but he’s actually never pulled off any stunts and the idea terrifies him. When Caboom inevitably goes for it we can’t help but cheer. The carnival setting itself allows for some beautifully-imagined sequences, and while this “Toy Story” can be more action than story by the third act, it still has the kind of heart that’s always made this franchise special.

For older viewers the surprising angle that takes shape near the end is the theme of growing up and finding a different kind of love. Longtime fans will first rejoice when Bo Peep returns. She’s been on her own for several years now, using a mechanical skunk/car for cover and joined by her sheep and a jumpy comrade, the miniature Giggle McDimples (Ally Maki).When Bo reunites with Woody near the antiques shop he has to decide whether he really does want to continue being a toy, or find a real home with Bo. The way Bo is written is also a fresh take on the character, her once flirty attitude is now balanced with a new look inspired by the famous World War II “We Can Do It!” poster. That may sound quite far-fetched for a story about toys, but Disney and Pixar know how to pull it off. It sure says something that in a season of rehash sequels and snoozefest remakes, a movie about play things come to life ponders more deeply questions of life and relationships. While the best of the bunch remains “Toy Story 2” (with that unforgettably moving song “When She Loved Me”), “Toy Story 4” is another worthy adventure on its surface, but like its predecessors it is a parable about friendship and bonding.

This is what a family movie should be all about, wonderful visuals, meaningful ideas and gut-busting humor. The closing scenes suggest this is, or at least should be, the final “Toy Story” chapter. If so, the franchise is ending on a high note, reminding us that growing up is not such a bad thing after all.

Toy Story 4” opens June 21 in theaters nationwide.