Pixar is suffering from a nasty bout of sequelitis. Since 2016, the Disney-owned studio has served up almost exclusively followups — “Finding Dory,” “Cars 3” and The Incredibles 2” — save for the marvelous “Coco” in 2018.
Now there’s “Toy Story 4,” and audiences are beginning to feel a lot like the kids that tire of their toys in seemingly every single one of these films. Enough already!
Does it tug the heartstrings? Absolutely. Is it funny? The funniest of the quartet, in fact, thanks to a weird new character. But Pixar, like its former funder Apple, has conditioned audiences to expect more than a nice little movie. We want to be amazed — not subscribe to Apple TV+.
Unfortunately, knowing the characters as well as we do now, and with a finite amount of mischief that miniature toys can get up to, “Toy Story 4” at times feels more like a high-budget episode of television than a sweeping film.
The big change here is our friends Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) and the rest are no longer in the possession of Andy, who moved on to college during the end of “Toy Story 3” that made millennials sob the world over. Now the gang belongs to little Bonnie.
As a new kindergartener, however, Bonnie can’t even bring her toys to school, giving Woody an existential crisis. Her favorite plaything — and the best part of this movie — becomes one she makes on her first day of class: Forky (Tony Hale). He’s a neurotic spork, with googly eyes, pipe-cleaner hands and a string mouth. Forky is entirely built from garbage and is therefore having a delightful identity crisis: He feels more at home in the bin than the toy chest.
“Trash!” Forky squeals with delight.
When Bonnie brings the special spork and the other toys along on an old-school road trip with her parents, Woody and Forky end up lost on the highway. In search of the RV park, they land in a “Shining”-like antiques store and later in a carnival, where some new playthings are introduced.
The film succeeds more as a collection of zany characters than a particularly well-told story. Some of the best new additions: Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves), a Canadian daredevil motorcyclist; Bunny (Jordan Peele) and Ducky (Keegan Michael Key), carnival plush toys with murder on their minds; and some silent, identical creeps called Bensons.
Another over-hyped scene that doesn’t deliver as promised features comedy legends Betty White, Carol Burnett, Carl Reiner playing, sigh, Bitey White, Chairol Burnett and Carl Reinocerous — toys in Bonnie’s closet. It’s short.
But you’ll still marvel at the animation in director Josh Cooley’s debut feature film, which makes 1995’s “Toy Story” look like the brick-maze screensaver from Windows 95. For most of CGI’s existence, a rule of thumb has been that water and fire are impossible to get exactly right. But the realistic rain in this film makes you want a bowl of soup.
“Toy Story 4” ends on a respectable, bittersweet note that would make the perfect bookend to this likable franchise. But so did the last movie. Throughout “4,” Buzz Lightyear, who’s underused, tries to “listen to my inner voice” to make sounder decisions. I suggest Pixar do the same: To infinity and beyond!