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For fans who remember growing up during the debut of the original Toy Story in 1995, the prospect of a sequel has been a risky one each time out. To attempt to follow up a film that iconic is to tempt fate, and it felt like Toy Story 3 would be the last temptation of Andy’s playtime pals. And then Toy Story 4 was announced, and everyone panicked.

It isn’t the first time Disney/Pixar played chicken with a sequel a good number of fans didn’t think should exist. And yet, with clever reframing of its classic franchise formula, some sparkling new characters that infuse this installment with some fresh comic energy, and one hell of an ending, director Josh Cooley and all involved have defied the odds yet again. Which leaves me pleased as ever to say that not only is Toy Story 4 is the sequel I never knew I needed, it’s quite possibly, the best Toy Story to ever be told.

With Toy Story 4 picking up a couple years after Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz (Tim Allen), and the rest of the gang were re-homed to new owner Bonnie, a road trip is in order to ease the young girl’s worries about starting kindergarten. Through a series of mishaps that lead to new pal Forky (Tony Hale) going AWOL on vacation, Woody is reunited with his long lost love Bo Peep (Annie Potts) and thrown into his greatest adventure yet.

As Toy Story 4 starts out, it feels like the standard comic misadventure that we’ve seen time and time again throughout the series that made Pixar what it is today. And it’s entertaining enough in those phases, as it feels like the nostalgia wheels are spinning in full gear, delivering a pleasing throwback that will keep kids that have latched onto the series in later years happy. Kids can marvel at Buzz Lightyear in action, while parents and older audience members can revel in Randy Newman’s heroic theme for his character making a reappearance.

If only the more mature audience members knew that this is a gentle diversion, which leads to the film’s ultimate purpose: redefining what a Toy Story can, and should, be.

Part of this is through the Woody/Bo Peep relationship drama, as the liberated Bo challenges the still-domesticated Woody’s school of thinking. Making Hanks and Potts’ classic characters the new focal point of the film’s narrative is a bold move, and it pays off, as their chemistry only heightens the drama involved in their separation through a flashback, and their push and pull between differing viewpoints in the present.

But, of course, a new Toy Story means new toys! And Toy Story 4 introduces several new playmates that add some brand new colors to the box of crayons we’re used to seeing this series color with. Comic relief characters like Keanu Reeves’ Duke Kaboom, as well as the Ducky/Bunny pair of Keegan Michael-Key and Jordan Peele, add that sparkling energy that pushes the film along in the best way possible.

One particular gag with that new double act of stuffed animals is something so funny, it actually causes tear-inducing laughter. As for Duke, his tragic backstory, mixed with a unique brand of Canadian moxey, continues to bring the world ample evidence that Keanu Reeves is having quite the moment in his career.

Most impressive though is the addition of Toy Story 4’s would-be villain, Gabby Gabby, voiced by Christina Hendricks. Without ruining the story, it can be said that Gabby’s arc starts out like the typical toy-turned-heel, but as her character develops, she turns into a Toy Story bad guy that marks new territory for adversarial toys in the franchise. Hendricks infuses this character with just the right ambiguity between menace and kindness that you think she’s going one way, which only leads to the complete opposite direction being the truth.

At the heart of Toy Story 4, there’s a story about knowing when it’s time to let go, which strangely enough comes packaged in the third sequel to a modern movie classic. But that message is played out with such empathy and thought in this film that it acts as a perfect finale to the series. In all honesty, this film should have been the third in the original trilogy of films, as the decisions in this film render Toy Story 3 practically obsolete.

If Disney/Pixar really wanted to, they could use Toy Story 4 as a continuation of the franchise, but it’s heavily advised that they don’t. While Toy Story 3 before it delivered what felt like closure at the end of its events, it’s really the story of Toy Story 4 that properly seals the deal for this toy box of legendary friends. The film wraps everything up with beautiful precision, and takes the themes that its predecessor played around with, but uses them more seriously.

Toy Story 4 is a treat for children and a delight for parents and older audience members who venture out to see it; as it is nothing short of magical. The audience may think they don’t need this sequel, but like Finding Dory before it, they’re about to be proven wrong in the best way possible.

9 / 10 stars
Rating: movie reviewed star rating out of five

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