Much of “Toy Story 4” is great-ish. The animation is striking, the jokes amusing and the story sweet, though this being Pixar, the tale is also melancholic enough that the whole thing feels deeper than it is. In other words, the movie is exactly what you expect — not more, not less — from an estimably well-oiled machine like Pixar. It seems almost greedy to want something better, less familiar. The fault lies with the studio, which has trained us to expect greatness, partly by making movies as seemingly inimitable as “Inside Out” and “Wall-E.”
Those movies haven’t generated sequels, but serialization in and of itself isn’t the problem with “Toy Story 4.” It’s that this long-running franchise (the first film opened in 1995) already felt over and done by its last installment. In “Toy Story 3” (2010), the boy who owned Woody (gently voiced by Tom Hanks), Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) and their colorful playtime cohort, is headed to college and gives his toys to a new child, milestones that seemed to bring the series to a decisive, narratively rounded end.
Never say never in sequel-happy Hollywood; hence this installment, which was directed by Josh Cooley from Andrew Stanton and Stephany Folsom’s script. Woody, Buzz and the rest now live with Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw), who’s nervous about starting kindergarten. Woody, an old-timey cowboy doll with an avuncular persona, decides to help Bonnie by hitching a ride in her backpack. When she returns home, he’s crammed in next to Forky (Tony Hale from “Veep”), a whatsit she made that day from a plastic spork, a pipe cleaner, lopsided googly eyes and trash-bin bits.
The drama first turns on Woody’s crisis of confidence (Bonnie neglects him) and his dealings with Forky, who keeps diving into the nearest wastebasket. (The toys come “alive” only with one another.) Forky in turn opens up a ticklish existential question — is he a toy or trash? — that echoes ideas that reverberate through the series. What is a toy? What is a toy without the love of a child? Forky isn’t a knife, but he minces no words: “Why am I alive?” The same question troubles Woody, who feels at a loss. If Bonnie doesn’t play with him, after all, he isn’t part of her imagination, her being.
There’s charm — and a wistful flashback to more ideal times — during this opening stretch, though the story drags as the movie sleepily comes awake. It jolts into full-on perky once Bonnie’s family goes on a road trip, packing a chest’s worth of toys into an RV. Not long after they motor off, Forky hurtles out of the RV one night. This leap into the (relative) void is darkly suggestive of suicide, an idea that is soon swamped by chatter and bustle as Woody heads off to find Forky and bring him back.
The runaways soon reunite, ambling down the road in a brief buddy movie. There are further separations and the intro of conjoined plush buddies energetically voiced by Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele. There’s also an overdetermined reunion when Woody meets an old friend, Bo Peep (Annie Potts), a porcelain figurine who used to live on a lamp, but has moved on. At last, the story shifts to the antique store that becomes the backdrop for pure dazzle. There, amid shadows and detritus, a handful of delectably creepy collectibles, most notably an old talking doll and her servile ventriloquist dummies, thrust “Toy Story 4” into a visually and tonally richer register.
In the almost quarter of a century since this series began, Pixar’s animation has grown more complex and its worlds more lifelike. There’s a real wow factor to the studio’s renderings, to the graphical details and spatial dimensionality that persuasively suggest quotidian existence and our own chairs, floors and trees. This photorealist quality can make you wonder what you’re looking at. (In digital cinema, life and animation blur.) At times, there’s something deeper here, too, as when the visuals suggest textures that you can almost feel in your fingertips, a sense of touch that awakens memories of the smooth plastic and nubby cloth of your own favorite childhood playthings.
Pixar figured out long ago that toys can be portals into childhood, assembly-line madeleines. But once you’ve crossed over to that enchanted place where your misty memories mingle with the images flickering onscreen, something needs to keep you tethered. In the first three movies, that hook was the relationships among the toys and their bonds with the child, who grew as the series did. Bonnie and her world — with its sniffles, scrupulous verisimilitude and psychological shallows — are too bland to be interesting. So it’s a relief when Woody and Forky meet Gabby Gabby (dexterously voiced by Christina Hendricks), the antique store’s unloved doll and, briefly, its tiny mistress of terror.
Once Bonnie’s world gives way to Gabby’s the movie gets its groove on, turning into a labyrinthine haunted house with ominous corners, scarily frozen smiles, zigzagging Tom-and-Jerry choreography and perilously teetering stuff. Gabby also takes Forky hostage, a turn that creates tension and leads to a rescue mission and a dynamic that evokes Hale’s tenure on “Veep.” It’s almost over before it starts. Yet even after the sun and narrative order re-emerge it’s hard to really shake Gabby Gabby. With her otherworldly eyes and volatility, she is at once a scary doppelgänger for Bonnie and a startlingly honest comment on childhood as a dark well of impossible need.
Toy Story 4
Rated G. Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes.