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Toy Story 4 review: Pixar plays with our emotions in one of the most delightful blockbusters ever made

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Woody, Bo Peep and Giggle McDimples in a scene from Toy Story 4
Woody, Bo Peep and Giggle McDimples in a scene from Toy Story 4 Credit: pixar

Dir: Josh Cooley; Starring: Tom Hanks, Annie Potts, Tony Hale, Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves, Tim Allen, Joan Cusack. U cert, 100 mins

“The meaning of life is not something discovered, it is something moulded,” observed the French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Make that injection-moulded. Considering its main characters are mass-produced PVC playthings, Pixar’s Toy Story series has always been game to grapple with the big questions of human life and purpose. Take the bit near the end of number three when Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks), Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) and friends join hands as they slide towards a furnace.

If there has been a more direct or humane exploration of mortality in recent cinema than that, I must have missed it. This outstanding fourth instalment – released nine years after the third, and a clear generation after the original – is no exception, and in fact uses the considerable passage of time since the first instalment as brutal existential leverage. 

Remember Woody’s exasperated yelp of “You…are…a….toy!”, when Buzz refused to accept he wasn’t a unique Space Ranger, but just the latest short-lived action figure to have rolled off the factory conveyor belt? Well, Toy Story 4 has some bracing news: in a very real sense, so are you, so get playing now, because the jumble sale crate is closer than you might like to think.

That’s a roundabout way of saying that the last act of Toy Story 4 had me sobbing like a lawn sprinkler, but it juggles this stuff with some of the most purely delightful character animation I’ve ever seen and a script that made me shake with laughter at least once every five minutes. That all of these elements combine in dreamy harmony is testament to how much thought and care Pixar is still prepared to lavish on their crown-jewel franchise.

The highest compliment you can pay Toy Story 4 – which was directed by Josh Cooley, previously a co-writer and storyboard artist on the studio’s masterpiece, Inside Out – is that it’s a Toy Story film through and through.

Even so, it recognises that 1995 was an age ago, and Woody’s glory days as Andy’s favourite plaything are long past. At the end of Toy Story 3 he was passed on to pre-schooler Bonnie, but now he’s gathering dust in the cupboard while a home-made knick-knack, Forky (Tony Hale) – a plastic spork with googly eyes, pipe-cleaner arms and lolly-stick feet – monopolises her affections.

In short, Woody has become the toy equivalent of a widowed empty nester: being a favourite is all he’s known for years, and he’s quietly unnerved by the seeming purposelessness of this new phase of life. So whenever Forky goes missing, Woody gladly leaps into guardian angel mode, making it his new mission to keep Bonnie and her beloved piece of plastic cutlery united.

Gabby Gabby, voiced by Christina Hendricks Credit: Pixar

The initial separations are brief, uproarious and frequent. Forky sees himself as rubbish rather than a toy, and keeps trying to throw himself in the bin – a running gag so inspired and weird, it wouldn’t be out of place in a classic 1950s Chuck Jones cartoon. (The contrast between Forky’s jolting body language and the other toys’ smoother movements is sublime physical comedy.)

Later on, however, Forky has to be pried from the ceramic clutches of Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) – a vintage talking doll with a faulty pullstring, who dreams of being loved one day by a child who’ll overlook her broken voice-box. Gabby who presides over a dusty antique shop like Norma Desmond swishing through her Sunset Boulevard mansion, waited on by some deeply spooky Von Stroheimian ventriloquist-dummy butlers.

The shop is also home to other half-forgotten playthings including Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves), an amusingly underwhelming Canadian stuntman doll, and also Woody’s old flame Bo Peep (Annie Potts) – unceremoniously written out of the series between instalments two and three, but here revived as a free spirit in retirement, sunnily embracing her new-found childlessness.

Woody meets Forky in a scene from Toy Story 4 Credit: pixar

Her and Woody’s reunion is one of the greatest, subtlest scenes in Pixar history: clutched by the same kid, they both remain frozen, and the film makes us project their upwelling emotions onto their motionless faces.

No other animation studio – in fact, make that studio full stop – would be brave enough to use stillness like that in a blockbuster release these days. But Toy Story 4 reaffirms that Pixar, at their best, are like no other animation studio around.

Toy Story 4 is released in UK cinemas on Friday  June 21

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