Toy Story 4
Photo: Disney

By any measure ‘Toy Story 4’ is a splendid movie, full of heart, humor and with a strong and engaging story. In a summer of mostly blah, predictable sequels, it’s rare that a film improves on its predecessors, delivering one of the best and most touching cinematic experiences of the year.

But ‘Toy Story 4’ is a lot more because it serves as a reminder to filmmakers – especially in the visual F/X heavy world of science fiction – that a great film is all about characters that the audience identifies with and cares about being put into a variety of situations that let them (and us by extension) grow as we overcome these obstacles. It’s the hero’s journey pumped out of animation rendering program. The main characters, Woody (voice of Tom Hanks), Buzz (Tim Allen), Jessie (Joan Cusack) and Bo Peep (Annie Potts), are sweet and familiar, like an old friend you still really like but haven’t seen for a few years.

‘Toy Story 3’ ended with the toys all being given by college-bound Andy (John Morris) to the highly imaginative young Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw), and while ‘Toy Story 4’ opens with a flashback to Andy as a tween, most of the story takes place just a short while after the big toy handoff. Bonnie, we learn, is heading to kindergarten and she’s as anxious as any toddler with separation anxiety can be. It’s up to the toys, led by Woody and Dolly (Bonnie Hunt), to try and assuage her fears; she can’t just stay at home with her playthings for the rest of her life. Her first day brightens considerably when she decides to make a new toy for herself. Enter “Forky” (voice of Tony Hale). Forky is awkward, asymmetric and goofy, and is convinced that he’s just trash and is constantly trying to jump into a convenient trashcan. As he explains with some exasperation, he’s a spork, not a toy.

Woody takes Forky under his protection and tries to convince him that he’s not trash at all, but is a toy and should be happy to have become Bonnie’s most beloved plaything. School’s not quite starting, so Mom and Dad rent an RV and decide it’s time for a road trip, toys and all. Forky vanishes en route and Woody leaps out to follow. They’ll catch up with the RV at the small town ahead where there’s a grand outdoor fair with lots of amusement rides.

To Woody’s surprise, he is reunited with Bo Peep, who has lived as a “free toy” without a specific child as their own. This produces the great philosophical question of the entire film; is it better to be gradually forgotten and put aside, knowing you’ve been loved by a single child, or better to be out in the world and bringing happiness to many children? They end up in the town’s quaint antique store Second Chance, where Forky is being held by Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) and her mob of scary ventriloquist dummies Benson. Along for the adventure are also the hilarious Bunny (Jordan Peele) and Ducky (Keegan-Michael Key), tiny but adorable Giggle McDimples (Ally Maki) and stunt master Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves).

The animation is stunning, but that’s no surprise given the production team. It’s so good that you’ll almost instantly forget that you’re watching an animated film about the secret life of toys and be pulled right into the story itself. It’s that characteristic that’s so wonderful about ‘Toy Story 4’; visual effects, animations, special effects, everything else should always be second to character development and the unfolding story. So often science fiction films get this formula wrong and you end up with dull, lifeless but visually gorgeous films that you forget the morning after you’ve seen it.

Is ‘Toy Story 4’ actually “science fiction”? Probably not. It’s just a wonderful, heartwarming and highly amusing animated feature film from a company that’s at the top of its game. Go see it. Even without kids. You’ll thank me.