Toy Story was once one of the greatest trilogies in cinematic history. Neatly tying up the Andy years with a deeply moving finale in Toy Story 3, you may well be surprised to see a fourth film emerge over the horizon. Never one to retire a commercial success, Disney have worked out a way to bring back all the characters from the previous film, in a sweet adventure that lacks some of the narrative punch that has come before. Toy Story 4 picks up with Woody and the gang's new owner, Bonnie, heading to Kindergarten. Woody, who is struggling to settle into the new arrangement, finds purpose, first in the form of Forky, a toy Bonnie has made, and then in the return of an old friend, Bo Peep.
The film somewhat lacklustre plot is made up for by a roster of terrific new characters who each get scene-stealing moments. You've probably seen plenty of Tony Hale's Forky, who has been front and centre in the film's marketing. Hale is an endearing presence, and often feels like he is auditioning Forky to be the spiritual embodiment of how we all feel in 2019. But the film also has room for other new characters, including the consistently funny Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele as a pair of soft toys in search of an owner. Plus Keanu Reeves continues his incredible year with a wonderful turn as Duke Caboom, a Canadian stunt driver suffering the pain of a long-ago rejection. These newcomers make up for the lack of interest Toy Story 4 has in its previous characters, particularly Tim Allen's Buzz Lightyear who has noticeably less of an impact this time then in previous installments. It makes the film feel like a transitional one, leaving behind the characters we know and love from before.
The emotional centre of the movie is the pairing of Tom Hanks' Woody with Annie Potts' Bo Peep (noticeably absent from the third installment). Director Josh Cooley (making his feature debut) and the film's writers (all eight of them) have shaped an endearing romance at Toy Story 4's centre, picking up a strand that had previously been dropped and exploring it to its logical conclusion. While Woody's angst is fairly familiar by this point, the new perspective is refreshing, and leads to a climax that, while not reaching Toy Story 3's dizzying heights, manages to have an emotional impact.
There is one more aspect to be mentioned about Toy Story 4, and that is the visuals. The strength of Pixar's CGI creations is often taken for granted, given the consistent quality of their output visually (if not narratively). But they've stepped the quality up again here, with moments that are really quite beautiful, leading to a staggeringly gorgeous film. This iteration of Toy Story may have a weaker plot, but it looks incredible and benefits from some hilarious new recruits. Yet maybe this should be the end point of the series, as Toy Story 4 does just enough justice to the rich legacy that has come before.