Josh Cooley (Cars and Cars 2 art department) takes over the reins of the wildly successful Toy Story franchise in his first major directing position, bolstered by a script from original Toy Story writer Andrew Stanton and newcomer Stephany Folsom. While most franchises never make it this far, let alone successfully, this is one of those rare, shining exceptions.
Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), and the rest of the Toy Story gang are back. They have been passed from Andy to Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw), so Woody is no longer the leader and he is having a hard time adjusting to that fact. On top of this, Bonnie plays with him less and less. When Bonnie reluctantly goes to kindergarten, Woody takes it upon himself to make sure that she is okay. On her first day, she creates Forky (Tony Hale) to help her cope, but the little guy doesn't understand his importance. Woody tries to teach him what he means to Bonnie, and along the way, they encounter some new friends, some old friends, and a deeper understanding of what is important and how that can sometimes change.
After the conclusion of Toy Story 3, it seemed that the franchise was closed in an effective, tear-jerker manner and there was nothing left to tell. Yet Stanton and Folsom have managed to find a way to draw one more poignant story out of the toys. In a script that is insightful and at times unexpected, they manage to take on love, loss, commitment & bullying at a level which children can understand and parents will appreciate. There are a few slow moments, but they don't last very long - certainly not long enough for any age to lose interest.
All of the original actors are so familiar with their roles by now that it almost seems like they are not acting. Despite the fact that this is an animated film, the characters seem completely natural in their roles. New member Hale excels as the confused, innocent, neurotic Forky from his first moments right through to his final scene. However, the best new character is Duke Caboom, hilariously voiced by Keanu Reeves. Brief vocal appearances by Mel Brooks, Carol Burnett, Carl Reiner, and Betty White add to the charm.
As always, Pixar's animation excels. The rendering is clean, the movements are fluid, and the action is easy to keep track of. Some of the backgrounds are stunning, particularly the carnival featured in the main portion of the story.
Toy Story 4 is a film about change and accepting change and finding the courage to do so regardless of one's past. Despite some opinions that this movie is just a cash grab, the film enhances the closure from the third installment and seems to lock the door behind it while making sure they know the "friend in me" is still there, forever.