After the apparent finality of Toy Story 3, the very concept of another sequel felt like little more than one of the hollow cash grabs Disney is so known for. But despite the odds, Toy Story 4 feels neither perfunctory nor contrived. It’s the rare sequel that smartly shifts sideways rather than awkwardly pressing forward.

Toy Story 4 is more fun, heartfelt and expertly executed than it has any right to be, given the irascible sense that this project is little more than a vestigial tail on a series that already had its curtain call. But it’s one of the more unique sequels in recent memory for the way it relates to the films that precede it. The gang’s all here from the last outing, still ostensibly led by Woody (Tom Hanks), only now living as Bonnie’s toys instead of Andy’s, it seems that every cast member fits into the new paradigm except our favorite cowboy.

But rather than retread similar arcs Woody has gone through in every previous iteration of this narrative, the many credited writers introduce a minor retcon to the off-screen exit of former cast member Bo Peep (Annie Potts) that perfectly sets up a new journey unique to Woody and his experiences as an ex-favorite toy and pseudo-Toy Elder. The thrilling prologue sequence, a flashback to Andy’s youth, both explains how Bo Peep became a lost toy and heavily foreshadows Woody’s uncertain new future. It’s a brilliant little story wrinkle that upends the simplicity of these toys’ lives and goals, like finding a new door in an old house that opens to several other heretofore unseen new rooms.

The film expands the spectrum of humanity within how we’ve perceived these toys thus far, particularly through the new breakout character Forky (Tony Hale), a spork brought to life by Bonnie and some pipe cleaner that can’t accept that he is now a toy and what that means. Forky’s arc is largely a funny one, but there’s an existential boldness to its inclusion that makes the film feel fresh and new in a way few would have anticipated. Let’s be honest. Toy Story 4 could be a straightforward collection of fan service moments and it would still make a ton of money, but there’s enough lurking under the surface to suggest this was done for love as much as money.

But beyond Pixar’s usual sturdy screenwriting and the exciting way they pack so much story into agreeable runtimes, this movie is truly a beauty to behold. Every year, we as consumers get more and more excited about the way individual strands of hair can now be rendered, and with specs increasing year over year, Moore’s Law dictates that computer animated films will continue to grow ever more horrifying in their realistic splendor. Yet this isn’t a case of detail and richness for its own sake, but of carefully realized visuals supporting the tenderness and humanity of an otherwise fantastical story.

Whereas the then astounding visuals of 2010 were focused on making everyone cry as hard as possible as often as possible in Toy Story 3, this film picks up the baton from Spielberg’s Tintin work in making computer animation more swashbuckling and epic, particularly with the film’s handling of the new and improved Bo Peep. No longer a background character and casual love interest stuck behind Woody, with her snatched waist and slim thicc frame, Bo is the dashing co-lead of a Romancing The Stone style screwball comedy alongside Woody, suggesting an entire world within the Toy Story mythos beyond a bunch of old toys looking sad that their kid is too old to play with them. She’s a charming action hero bursting out of a slice of life drama and showing that drama’s protagonist, Woody, that there’s more to life than doting on a child.

But the sentimentality doesn’t get entirely jettisoned. This is still a three-hanky picture that further develops and strengthens the motivations of toy heroes. It just does so, miraculously, in a way that doesn’t retread what came before it. Somewhat mercifully, Toy Story 4 does such a good job of suggesting a life beyond this installment that audiences would never need to see it come to life in an eventual Toy Story 5. The team left it all out on the field with this one. Perhaps it’s time to retire their jerseys and let well enough alone.

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