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Toy Story 4 (2019)::rating::4::rating::4

[su_dropcap size=”5″]R[/su_dropcap]ock critic Lester Bangs, a devoted cynic, expressed his belief that any Beatles reunion would’ve been “the biggest anticlimax in history.”  Therein lies the problem with making sequels to great films:  You can get the band back together, but you have to brace for the sobering possibility that they ain’t what they used to be.  Great sequels are rare because they have to strike a paradoxical balance between being refreshingly bold and comfortably familiar at the same time.

Has any franchise ever made walking this tightrope look easier than the Toy Story films?  The first film was magical, monumental, and infectiously quirky, and subsequent installments have only refined and expanded on that achievement.  This third reunion of Pixar’s flagship characters finds everyone in great form, with some brilliant additions who prove that the famed digital studio still has plenty of tricks stored in its magic Mary Poppins-style bag.

Both the movie and the remainder of this review assume you’ve already experienced the three previous storied Toy films.  If not, you’d better get to streaming, my peeps.  This story kicks off not long after Andy has gifted his cache of toys to Bonnie, an adorable neighbor girl.  Buzz, Woody, and the gang find that life in Bonnie’s toy closet is the best and worst of times:  Bonnie favors different toys than Andy did, meaning Woody often finds himself collecting dust in the closet.  This challenges his need to function as a loyal fixer.  After all, Woody can’t soothe the growing pains of childhood from the cheap seats.

When Bonnie skittishly departs for her first day of Kindergarten, Woody can stand passive no longer.  He stows in her backpack and watches over her like a plastic guardian angel.  When Bonnie has her first breakdown, Woody stealthily presents her with the ingredients to make a new companion:  A neurotic, googly-eyed spork named Forky (Tony Hale).  Bonnie’s affection prompts Forky to spring to life, and he wobbles his way into her clique of toys.  Forky’s brittle, brand-new psyche can’t accept his status as anything other than trash, and his wanderlust for the dumpster causes Woody and Forky to be separated from the gang.

Along their exodus, the two toys encounter a host of characters, both new and old.  Once again, the filmmakers do a great job of introducing characters who add humor and poignancy without hobbling the plot momentum:  Ducky (Keegan-Michael Key) and Bunny (Jordan Peele) are a sass-mouthed tandem of plush toys who link up with Woody and Forky at a nearby carnival.  Gabby Gaby (Christina Hendricks) is a baby doll whose single-minded creepiness masks a desperate need to be loved.  Amongst all this talent, the real breakout character here is Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves), a vain Canadian daredevil.  Reeves is perfect as the surly, vacant Caboom, whose ego is almost as big as his sideburns.

The first Toy Story rewrote the rules of animation, presenting the audience with a vibrant, jaw-dropping world, rendered entirely on computers.  Its sequels have ratcheted up that ambition, giving each story more color and texture.  That skill reaches full bloom with this fourth film:  Toy Story 4 has several moments that rate as staggering, self-contained achievements.  Woody and his companions find themselves in a spooky antique store, and catch the lampshades and stained glass through shimmering sunlight.  Later, the gang stands atop a carnival tent and marvels at the supernova of light and sound.  These moments are as complex and beautiful as anything in any animated movie ever made, and they raise the bar what’s possible.

Despite all the technical wizardry and colorful new characters, this franchise has never taken its eyes off the ball:  Toy Story has always been about Woody’s journey.  If the first film was about love and acceptance, subsequent films have slowly introduced a tinge of bittersweetness.  When Andy ages away from Woody’s embrace, this becomes a saga of letting go and moving on with life.  As Andy and Bonnie confront the great and terrifying prospects of growth and discovery, Toy Story 4 depicts a Woody who now sees that potential in himself.  It’s a great and sad moment, all at once. One of the most consistently incredible franchises in cinema history gets wrapped up in phenomenal fashion.  Someday, this band could get back together, but it’ll never be the same.  The Beatles taught us that lesson:  Appreciate the magic while it lasts.

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