The major thematic thread that ties all the “Toy Story” movies together is “a toy’s noblest purpose,” to entertain, teach and belong to a child.
That fits neatly in the Disney and Disney/Pixar cartoon continuum, that an animated children’s film’s highest purpose is to touch us, with just music, hand-or-computer-drawn characters and sympathetic voice actors.
That’s how they get you. And “Toy Story 4” passes that toughest test.
That’s even more remarkable for the fact that it happens in a film that is, by Pixar’s “Toy Story” gold standards, unremarkable.
The animation is Next Gen vivid, and there are laughs — just not nearly as many as in the earlier classics in this supposedly concluded series.
The narrative is recycled from all the earlier films. A toy is in trouble, the child who owns it must be spared its loss, even as the toys grow more acutely aware of their mortality, how disposable they are in the lifetime of a child.
And the pacing, with the odd exceptional antic moment, is slow enough to maybe make you recall that this epic was wrapped up — perfectly — in “Toy Story 3.” Nothing we’re seeing here feels like anything more than a pointless epilogue, an anti-climactic one at that.
Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) and most of the other inhabitants of Andy’s toybox have been handed down to a little girl named Bonnie, who had other toys, some of which she’s more into than the mostly vintage ones Andy passed on.
Sheriff Woody has to get used to being second banana to boss doll Dolly (Bonnie Hunt) in terms of leading Team Toybox.
He’s getting left behind in the childplay arena, again. Bo Peep (Annie Potts) was resigned to being passed on, again, years earlier. “It’s time for the next kid.” But Woody shudders at being told, “Look, you’ve got your first dust bunny!”
Bonnie’s first day of kindergarten — which the sheltered little darling resists — gives him purpose. He hitchhikes to school and smoothes the way for her in several delightful helicopter-parent (toy) moments.
But Bonnie’s adjustment is even better aided by the toy she makes as a school project. “Forky” is concocted out of a spork, pipe cleaner, beady eyes and popsicle sticks. Instantly, he’s her new favorite, somebody Woody, Buzz and the rest will take a backseat to and be charged with protecting from a forgetful little girl.
It’s just that “Forky” is born into existential crisis. He knows what he is, and wants to go back to being that.
Some of the funniest moments on “Toy Story 4” involve Woody and the others taking on suicide watch duty for the spork toy lol. He’s hell-bent on “disposing” of himself.
“I can’t letcha throw yourself away!”
A family vacation just magnifies the problem. Woody finds himself searching an antiques store where Bonnie manages to lose Sporky — again — and facing off with a gang of ventriloquist dummies led by Gabby Gabby, an antique who resembles that darned “Annabelle” doll of the Amityville/Annabelle/Insidious horror universe.
Woody had something Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) needs.
Bo Peep re-enters the story, and the script introduces a couple of subversive plush carnival toys (the great Key and Peele) and a Canadian motorcycle stunt doll named Duke Caboom, and given his “Whoa” by Keanu Reeves.
The settings, from the store with collectible toys to the sandbox, are new versions of “worlds” previously visited by the toys. The carnival is novel and ably mined for a laugh or two.
But it’s a “Toy Story” movie, which means you can’t really compare it to “The Secret Life of Pets 2” or “Cars 1, 2” or (God forbid) “3.”
Most of the characters we’ve invested in are shuffled into the background to make room for those voiced by Timothy Dalton, Kristen Schaal and Jeff Garland. The story arc is “friend in me” worn out. And as a result, it plays longer than its 100 minute run time.
It’s easily the weakest of the four iterations of that title. If Disney and Pixar really needed to revisit a tale that they had gracefully ended, it should have been more of a victory lap.
This, whatever its modest charms, has the feel of an end zone dance — crass, unnecessary, and a slightly pale reflection of the glories that warranted it.
MPAA Rating: G
Cast: The voices of Tom Hanks, Annie Potts, Bonnie Hunt, Christina Hendricks, Keegan- Michael Key, Jordan Peele, Tim Allen.
Credits: Directed by Josh Cooley, script by Andrew Stanton and Stephany Folsom. A Disney/Pixar release.