Warning: Mild spoilers ahead for Toy Story 4.
Minutes into Toy Story 4, Woody (Tom Hanks) loses his beloved sheriff badge. Bonnie, the little girl Andy gifted his toys to in Toy Story 3, has moved on from her Woody phase, and after plucking the star off our hero’s vest, she tosses him back into her closet, pins the bauble on Jesse the Cowgirl (Joan Cusack), and declares there’s a new sheriff in town. Just like that, Woody’s kid — as the beloved playthings in the Toy Story franchise call their owners — may not need him anymore.
While the story is largely an allegory for parenthood and the emotional plight of a soon-to-be empty nester, the sharp pain of rejection that Woody feels is something every one of us has felt at least once or twice. That universality is the hallmark of any Toy Story movie — all of which pull from the same playbook designed to employ zero-hour speeches, nuggets of wisdom about love and friendship, and a nostalgic, plinky Randy Newman soundtrack to force us to work out a few feelings, shed a few tears, and sniffle our way to the funny parts.
In this seemingly final instalment, Andy’s one-time Favourite Toy can’t accept Bonnie’s rejection, so he tags along to her kindergarten orientation, desperate to be the toy that keeps her childhood magical. With Woody’s help, Bonnie does find some magic, in the form of a new toy she crafts herself: Forky (Tony Hale), the manic spork with pipe-cleaner arms and two popsicle stick tips for feet that you’ve seen plastered across every Toy Story 4 ad.
The craft-come-to-life is absolutely a walking (or should we say scuffling?) merchandising opportunity, but that obviousness is easy to forgive because he’s just so damn funny. Case and point: He spends most of his initial screen time screaming that he’s trash and trying to fling himself into every single garbage can he lays his googly eyes on. Woody sees Forky — who, at one point, is found sleeping cozily in a bin with an old tissue as a blanket — as his new purpose, the thing that will ensure Bonnie continues to need him. If he can just keep Forky out of the trash, everything will be fine.
But things are not so fine when he and Forky get lost. On their way back to Bonnie, Woody is momentarily distracted when he stumbles upon Bo Peep’s (Annie Potts) lamp, which he hasn't seen since Andy's mom gave Bo and the lamp away some time between Toy Story 2 and Toy Story 3. Suddenly, Woody risks everything for the chance to possibly, maybe find his old flame in an antique store. He does eventually find Bo, who’s living out in the wild as the Toy Story world answer to Mad Max’s Furiosa, but not before he and Forky are captured by Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) and her goons, a brigade of ventriloquist dummies that give the creepy Spider Baby from Sid’s room a lumbering zombie-run for its money. Gabby Gabby wants to take Woody’s voice box to repair her own, but he escapes, leaving Forky as her hostage.
The story, which is credited to eight different writers including Toy Story 4 director Josh Cooley and Rashida Jones, meanders a bit from there. It seems unsure whether it’s a heist movie, wherein Bo Peep and a gaggle of new characters help Woody save Forky; a romance, about Woody and Bo finding their way back to each other; or an elaborate synergistic scheme to bring Disney’s new Pixar Pier attraction (complete with the rainbow Ferris wheel and carnival games we see in the film) to the big screen. Still, Bo and Woody's sweet reunion is sure to inspire thousands of couples' costumes next Halloween, and their mission is high-stakes and full of suspense, despite the fact that the film telegraphs its multiple twists from minute one. Even when we see each major moment coming, they're still pretty satisfying — each one carefully crafted into that sweet, sweet emotional manipulation that we crave from a Toy Story adventure.
In its quest to get you to shed a tear, Toy Story 4 doesn’t forget its comedic roots, either. Woody’s signature rag doll slapstick comedy is in full swing, from the cowboy flailing atop an angry cat running in circles, to getting his face stepped on by Bonnie’s dad, to flinging his limbs every which way to keep Forky in check. Buzz Lightyear’s endearing misunderstanding of the real world is not only back, it’s his entire storyline (has he always been this dim and literal?). But the majority of the series’ most-beloved Andy’s Room characters, including Rex and Jesse, are largely sidelined to showcase new toys.
We spend most of our adventure with Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key’s misguided schemers Ducky and Bunny; Keanu Reeves’ hilariously emotional Canadian daredevil Duke Caboom; and the Polly Pocket-inspired cop with impeccable comedic timing, Giggles McDimples (Ally Maki). While they’re all good for a few big laughs, they don’t seem like characters who will stick with fans the way one-time newbies like Jesse and Bullseye managed to. The exception, of course, is Forky, who will undoubtedly permanently worm his fuzzy, misshapen arms into all of our hearts and have us wearing T-shirts emblazoned with “I’m trash!” in no time.
So, while Toy Story 4 won’t ever outrank the original film, it earns its spot in the pantheon of Woody and Buzz’s many adventures. For the fourth outing from a group of cartoon characters who’ve been at it since 1995, it’s a pretty decent ride. And by the time Woody finds his way and the credits roll, you’ll either be reaching for the nearest tissue or scrambling for your phone to give your parents — who might understand a thing or two about what Woody’s going through — a call.
Toy Story 4 is in UK cinemas from 21st June