When we last left our beloved characters, the Toy Story series was beautifully bookended with Buzz Lightyear, Woody and the rest of Andy’s toys being given away to Bonnie, a preschooler who promised to play with them with care and respect. The torch was passed on, and everyone who grew up with the films (myself included) graduated with Andy. It was a conclusion that genuinely lived up to Buzz’s signature catchphrase (“To infinity and beyond!”), where continued adventures could exist within us.

Then, news of a fourth installment broke out and took that away.

Not to sound overly dramatic about the subject, but it did feel like a bit of a betrayal. I thought: How is Pixar going to add a new entry and not make it feel like a cash grab? Will it feel earned? Where could they take the story and characters?

It seems like we just about explored all the possible areas without it feeling too much like a rehash. In the first Toy Story, Woody conformed to the idea of a new family member and overcame the fear of being replaced as Andy’s favorite toy. In the second film, the characters experience feelings of being pushed aside when they’ve become worn out. And in the third installment, we face the bittersweet reality that owners mature and no longer need toys.

You would think for being objects made out of plastic, these toys wouldn’t be so sensitive all the time, but here they are, tugging at my heartstrings and turning on the waterworks. Pixar is good at that sort of thing. As much as these films are shaped for children’s entertainment, adults can’t help but get emotional and relate to its themes.

With everything working against it, including production troubles and lackluster trailers, Toy Story 4 surprises. While it may still feel like a stretch, it’s a sweet continuation with plenty of fun new characters, lots of laughs (it’s easily the funniest Toy Story, too) and plenty of heart. So, if a fourth movie in the franchise had to be made, Toy Story 4 is about as good as it could be.

The film opens with a flashback to a rainy night nine years before the events of Toy Story 3 at Andy’s house — when Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks), Buzz (Tim Allen) and others fail to save RC (the race car) from getting swept away by a storm. That same night, Andy’s little sister, Molly, gives away her porcelain lamp figurine Bo Peep (Annie Potts) and sheep. Woody tries to save her, too, but she accepts her fate and is fine with being passed on to the next child. The two lovers say goodbye to each other. (We’re only five minutes in and the tears are already pouring out.)

From there, we fast forward to the toys at Bonnie’s house. We learn that Woody isn’t one of her favorite toys anymore and prefers Jessie. We also see that Bonnie is about to leave for her kindergarten orientation. Like any child, she’s incredibly anxious. So, Woody stows away in her backpack to comfort her, where he helps her make a special toy — a spork with googly eyes, pipe cleaner arms and a broken popsicle stick for feet, whom she names Forky (Tony Hale).

Forky unexpectedly comes to life and Woody decides to babysit him to educate him about his purpose. All Forky seems to want to do is flee and soak in some garbage, which is what he’s made of. Except one day, while Bonnie is only a family road trip, Forky does get away. Woody follows to get him back and meets some new characters along the way.

Toy Story 4 isn’t exactly new territory. A lot of the makeup is the same, only more developed in areas. For instance, Bo Peep, who Woody meets again at a local fairground, no longer is there to just look pretty and be a mere love interest for Woody. She’s gone full Mad Max: Fury Road and has a skunk remote control car that she uses to stealthily get around the park. She even has a broken arm that stays attached with some tape. (No doubt a nod to Charlize Theron’s Furiosa.) She’s survived being by herself and has carved a life for herself where she can be totally free.

The villain of the film, a 1950s baby doll named Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendrix), is also a fun development. Opposed to being another sociopathic baddie like all the other villains, Gabby Gabby just wants to be loved. She has a faulty voice box and wants Woody to win the affection of a little girl who often visits an antique shop. While she may use a team of creepy dummies to bend characters to her will (they even use the music from The Shining and move in the most slow-mannered way to raise the creep factor — parents, you have been warned!), Gabby Gabby isn’t all bad.

Another improvement is the animation. This seems to be the common thread with Pixar. The stories may be questionable, but the animation is always on the upward climb. You will notice from the first frame, which shows the camera (or computer camera?) tilting up from the rainy streets to Andy’s house. It’s about as lifelike as it gets.

Where Toy Story 4 truly excels, like all the other films in the franchise, is in its themes. Each film has taught valuable lessons to take to heart. While we may not be toys, these characters are stuffed full of humanity. One sequence that got to me where Woody is reflecting on the past while walking down the street with Forky. It’s like listening to a campfire story about the previous films, but it’s not a recap for the sake of being a recap. (Leave that to The Bachelorette.) You can see Woody recalling all the wisdom he has collected over the years and how much all the characters have grown. Through that, he hopes to pass that on to Forky, who has become like a child to him. Parents will especially appreciate their relationship.

There’s so much to praise about the film. In addition to having great new characters like arcade stuffed animals Bunny and Ducky (Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key) and, most notably, the Evel Knievel-like stunt bike toy Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves), the character dynamic of Woody and Bo Peep is the main takeaway. It’s a sweet love story that brings more focus to the toys’ thoughts and feelings and less about their responsibilities to their child owners. The balance between those two aspects are both there and are incredibly moving.

Some characters are sidelined (primarily the ones who got the chance in other films), and the adventure feels more like a fun TV movie journey, but you will eat up all its glory. It’s the family event of the summer. Let’s just hope the buck stops here, but something tells me a fifth one is on the way.

PRESTON BARTA is a member of the Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics Association. Read his work here, on FreshFiction.tv and on RottenTomatoes.com. Follow him on Twitter at @PrestonBarta.

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