Sure it might sound a little dramatic to get this emotionally invested in the legacy of an animated series about anthropomorphic toys, but Pixar and Disney did this to themselves by creating something so precious and lasting. But I'm delighted to report that the fears were unwarranted. "Toy Story 4 " is a blast and it's great to be back with the gang.
It took a herculean effort behind the scenes to get here too, nine years after "Toy Story 3" left many of us sobbing in our seats. Ousted Pixar head John Lasseter, who directed the first two, was supposed to direct and the screenplay switched hands three years into development (which helps explain why eight writers get "story by" credits). Eventually the project was handed over to animator, sometimes voice actor and first time feature director Josh Cooley to bring it home.
None of that disorder is apparent on the screen, however. A flashback tells us what happened to Bo Peep (Annie Potts) all those years ago, and reminds us where we left off: With Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz (Tim Allen), Jessie (Joan Cusack) and the rest of the toys being passed on to a new kid, Bonnie, as their beloved Andy heads off to college.
But it turns out Andy's talk with Bonnie about his favorite toy Woody didn't have much of an impact on the fickle 5-year-old. At playtime she prefers Jessie and often leaves Woody in the closet with the rest of the toys she's outgrown. "Remember house," a forlorn chair (Carol Burnett) says wistfully, as they all notice Woody has picked up his first dust bunny.
This sends him into a panic spiral as he grasps for anything that will make him essential to Bonnie's life. When she decides that a deranged arts and crafts project made of a spork she calls Forky is her new favorite toy, Woody becomes his protector. Tony Hale provides the perfect voice for this insane but charming addition who keeps trying to jump in the trash. (It's his destiny as a disposable utensil after all!)
Indeed, "Toy Story 4" introduces a whole batch of fun new characters, like the Canadian stuntman Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves), the 50s antique and all around head case Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) and her creepy "Vincent" henchmen. There's also Combat Carl (Carl Weathers), Bunny (Jordan Peele) and Ducky (Keegan-Michael Key). And pay close attention and you might also spot Melephant Brooks (Mel Brooks) and Carl Reineroceros (Carl Reiner) too.
A family RV trip takes all the toys to a new location, where Woody encounters Bo Peep for the first time in almost a decade. She relishes her freedom as a lost toy and leads a happy, rag-tag existence wandering around and meeting new kids everywhere. It's enough to make even the most loyal toy question his purpose. And they go on some enormously fun and inventive adventures trying to get Forky back to Bonnie. The signature "Toy Story" wit and irreverence might not be quite as sharp as it was before, but there are enough truly inspired moments to keep you smiling as you savor the unexpected fun. Cooley and the writers even brilliantly play on some kid-friendly horror movie tropes, adding a fresh dimension to this journey.
If there is a complaint, it's that Woody and Bo's quest takes us away from most of the original toys for a large part of the movie, although Buzz still finds a way to be part of it. Although it doesn't exactly reach the emotional heights of the previous films, the conclusion is still effective and well executed.
Let this be a lesson to all franchise cynics: Sometimes more is actually good. Woody needed some closure he couldn't even comprehend. And, it turns out, so did we. "Toy Story 4," a Walt Disney Co. release, is rated G by the Motion Picture Association of America. Running time: 100 minutes. Three stars out of four.
MPAA Definition of G: General Audiences. All ages admitted.
Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ldbahr