Let’s stipulate up top that Toy Story 4 has no inherent reason to exist. At the end of the last movie, the series’ arc felt perfectly complete: A motley crew of toys belonging to a young suburban boy named Andy, having witnessed his transition from kid to young adult, got passed on to a new owner, the preschool-age Bonnie. That film’s closing scene, which provoked more sobs than any Pixar moment since the hanky-drenching opening montage of Up, felt like our goodbye to the beloved playthings as much as it was Andy’s. And given that, since then, more than half of the studio’s releases have been sequels, it’s hard to shake the suspicion that Toy Story 4’s creation was motivated less by a passion to further explore the lives of Woody, Jessie, Buzz Lightyear, et al., than by a passion to make another billion dollars (the approximate global box-office take of Toy Story 3).
Then again, not having a reason to exist—and managing to make one’s existence joyful and meaningful anyway—is the central theme of the unexpectedly original (and expectedly delightful) Toy Story 4. As the movie begins, Woody, the cowboy doll voiced by Tom Hanks, is dealing with the existential crisis of no longer being top toy. At Andy’s house, he was the most played-with of all and thereby the crew’s ringleader, whereas at Bonnie’s he’s all too often stripped of his sheriff’s badge and left to gather dust in the closet while his old friends are treated to tea parties, dress-up sessions, and hours of interactive fun. Given that Woody’s supreme motivation in life is to love and be loved by a child, this reduction in status leaves him both depressed and nostalgic for the good old Andy days. Anxious about Bonnie’s preschool orientation, Woody stows away in her backpack to offer support—and, if we’re being honest, to reassure himself of his own usefulness. It’s there, in the course of a getting-to-know-you craft project, that a new character is born who brings the question of existential anxiety even more to the fore.
Assembled from a plastic spork, a broken popsicle stick, a few globs of modeling clay, two googly eyes, and a pipe cleaner, Forky (voiced by Tony Hale) is a sorry specimen of a toy, but Bonnie’s love for him brings him to instantaneous if utterly befuddled life. For his first few days of life on Earth, his only instinctual goal is to fling himself back into the trash whence he came. He aspires to be Oscar the Grouch, no matter how much the other toys assure him that his calling is to be there for the child who created him. Seeing how important this sentient utensil is to Bonnie, Woody makes it his job to save Forky, repeatedly and hilariously, from his headlong dives into the nearest garbage can.
In the last few days before preschool begins in earnest, Bonnie and her parents take a road trip to an old-fashioned amusement park with Woody, Forky, and the rest of the toys in tow. Just outside the fairgrounds is an antique store where Woody spots a familiar sight: a lamp base that once housed the porcelain doll Bo Peep (Annie Potts), who used to belong to Andy’s little sister. (Bo played a minor role in Toy Story 1 and 2; she was absent from the third movie, but a flashback introduction to this one documents her departure from her old home in a donation box.) Woody, who, the movie reminds us, always had a soft spot for Bo, sneaks into the shop to look for her, dragging the ever-confused Forky along with him.
In the dusty aisles of the antique store, they will encounter more new characters: the defective ’50s vintage talking doll Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), a quartet of silent ventriloquist dummies all named Benson, and the touchingly vain Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves), an Evel Knievel knockoff eager to remind everyone of his status as “Canada’s Greatest Stuntman.” Later, at the carnival, they’ll also cross paths with a pair of wisecracking plushies voiced by Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key. Thereafter, the action divides along two fronts: Woody’s attempt to find Bo, escape the store and get back to Bonnie, and Bonnie and her parents’ efforts to track down her treasured missing spork before getting back on the road.
Like all the Toy Story films, No. 4, the first Pixar feature to be directed by Inside Out co-writer Josh Cooley, is jampacked with innovative action sequences and skin-of-their-teeth escapes. It bounces along at such an antic pace that its 100 minutes feel like far fewer. But there’s a quiet contemplativeness at the movie’s heart, exemplified by a long scene in which Woody and Forky make their way along the shoulder of a highway, plastic hand in pipe-cleaner hand, discussing the meaning of life as a plaything. Theirs is a mentor-mentee relationship, but also, in its way, a parent-child one: “Carry me,” Forky demands intermittently, dragging his popsicle-stick feet on the gravel. By the end of that walk, Forky has begun to understand his purpose on Earth, and Woody is a little closer to reconsidering his own.
The choices Woody and the other characters make as the movie draws to a close don’t feel as necessary as the ending to Toy Story 3 did, but the emotions they evoke are similar: nostalgia for a lost past, hope for a yet-unknown future, affection for long-familiar companions. The first Toy Story movie, which was also audiences’ first introduction to the novel sensibility and animation style of Pixar Animation Studios, came out nearly 25 years ago; many of the children whose parents took them to watch it then may be bringing their own kids to theaters now. As the past two installments of the series taught us, it’s hard but important to know when it’s time to say goodbye to beloved childhood artifacts. Pixar itself may be ready to learn that lesson, if its corporate parent, Disney, is ever able to pry this lucrative franchise from its tighter-than-a-pipe-cleaner grip.
A P.S., because I myself am not quite ready to say goodbye: The closing credits of a Pixar film are always worth staying for, but those few extra minutes in the theater are especially recommended with this one. The long scroll of animators, computer modelers, and other artists—thousands of them—who worked to bring this technical marvel to the screen gets interrupted several times by vignettes imagining the future exploits of the toy-box gang. The last of these envisions a next chapter for the inimitably endearing Forky that again raises the question of toy sentience—that mysterious link between an inanimate bundle of matter and the life-giving spark provided by a child’s imagination. It will send you out of the theater laughing, crying, and thinking all at once, an appropriate mix of responses for what I hope, out of love, will be our last minutes with a franchise that’s given us so much.