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‘Toy Story 4’ plays well with others

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I didn’t want “Toy Story 4.”

Yes, I understand that sequels are valuable currency in the cinematic realm these days. And no, it’s nothing against Pixar – my admiration for their work is significant and well-documented. I just remember being so innately, fundamentally satisfied with how the trilogy wrapped up that the idea of another movie felt somehow … wrong.

So it was with some trepidation that I stepped into “Toy Story 4,” trying to give the studio the benefit of the doubt while still expecting to be vaguely disappointed.

Instead, what I got was a shockingly worthwhile addition to the series, a film that moves the saga forward in a way that is both respectful of what has come before and enthusiastic about exploring new directions. It is consistently hilarious, of course, with performers old and new delivering big-time. And while it is undeniably heartfelt – prepare for things to get dusty a couple of times; you know, standard operating procedure with Pixar – it also pulls its punches just a bit, largely avoiding the grown-up-targeted emotional haymaker.

Honestly, it’s just about the best possible follow-up to a movie that seemingly needed no follow-up.

The toy crew now lives with a little girl named Bonnie (Madeline McGraw, “Ant-Man and the Wasp”). They’re all there – Woody (Tom Hanks, “The Post”), Buzz (Tim Allen, TV’s “Last Man Standing”) and the rest of the crew – and they’re getting played with, as toys do. But Woody finds himself becoming less and less a part of Bonnie’s games, often gathering dust in the closet. So he resolves to find other ways to make himself useful.

That opportunity comes when Bonnie starts kindergarten; she’s scared and so Woody stows away in her backpack to help keep her safe. And when they return, there’s a new addition to the toy chest – a spork-and-pipe-cleaners handcraft named Forky (Tony Hale, TV’s “Veep”) that Bonnie made in class. Forky, however, struggles to adjust to his newfound toy sentience, seeking instead to make his way into the trash where he believes himself to belong.

But when Forky makes his escape during a family RV trip, Woody is forced to go after him. In their travels, he stumbles upon an antique store where he sees a lamp – the same lamp that was the home of his first love, the long-departed Bo Peep (Annie Potts, TV’s “Young Sheldon”). Woody meets some of Bo’s friends as well, like Canadian daredevil Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves, “John Wick 3: Parabellum”).

But he also captures the attention of Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks, TV’s “Good Girls”), a broken talking doll who wants Woody’s voice box to replace her own broken one; she and her army of SUPER CREEPY ventriloquist dummies are willing to do whatever it takes to get it from him.

Meanwhile, Buzz, in an effort to track down Woody, stumbles into a carnival and winds up stuck to a midway game prize board alongside Ducky (Keegan-Michael Key, “The Predator”) and Bunny (Jordan Peele, TV’s “The Twilight Zone”), a pair of prizes seeking their freedom.

The two groups come together, determined to figure out a way to get Forky back to the little girl that loves him – and whether their own journeys might lead them in an altogether different and unexpected direction.

There’s no denying that franchise bloat is a real thing. And the higher the number at the end of the title, the lower the general expectations. “Toy Story 4” shouldn’t work – it’s attempting to continue a story that already had a nigh-universally acclaimed finale. The stakes can’t help but be lower, which should be a problem … and yet, it isn’t.

It works because Pixar has spent the past two decades earning its emotional impact, and so they can feel comfortable turning back the dial. Don’t get me wrong – there are some feelings to be felt, particularly at the end, and you’re never going to get a “Toy Story” movie without some sort of existential provocation. But it isn’t the sort of devastating blow that they’ve been known to dish out in the past.

It’s also legitimately funny in ways that work on multiple levels. There are numerous ongoing bits – things like a stuffed unicorn suggesting framing the dad for a crime as a distraction or Ducky and Bunny developing fantastically vivid schemes and battle plans – and they’re good. Honestly, there’s a Ducky/Bunny bit that might be one of the best Pixar sequences I’ve ever seen (no spoilers, but I bet you’ll know it when you see it). And again – horrifying ventriloquist dummies.

The performances are, you’ll be shocked to hear, excellent. Tom Hanks as Woody is a fundamentally perfect match of actor and character, with Hanks unafraid to treat the role with the same dignity and genuineness that he gives to any other character. Allen’s Buzz Lightyear is as good as ever … and as goofy. Hale is exquisite as Forky; even as his dialogue consists of nothing but the word “trash” said various ways, he’s incredibly funny. Potts does first-rate work as well.

The performances of Key and Peele feel almost as if they’ve been dropped in from another movie – in a good way. They’re weird in ways that are actually reminiscent of their sketch work, which is a delight. And the Keanu-ssance continues – his Duke Caboom is a masterpiece of daredevil bravado and self-sabotaging regret.

“Toy Story 4” is legitimately great. It is smart and funny in the ways we expect from Pixar. It tells a meaningful story in a meaningful way, expounding on its ideas and engaging with our emotions without ever coming off as calculated or manipulative. The vocal performances are outstanding, and the narrative development is on point.

I didn’t want “Toy Story 4” – but I sure am glad I got it.

[5 out of 5]

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