four out of four stars

Let’s get real here. By the time any franchise gets to the fourth installment, all but the most dedicated fans have lost interest or drastically lowered their expectations. But “Toy Story” is, and will forever be, the lone exception to that rule, an opinion shared by both audiences and virtually all critics.

No franchise in history has better critical approval than this one, period. As of this writing, “TS” and “TS2” are at 100 % on rottentomatoes.com and “TS3” sits at 98%. Evidently there are a handful of impossible-to-please critics who felt watching “TS3” was an unpleasant experience. Even the 22-minute, 2014 made-for-TV special “Toy Story That Time Forgot” has a perfect score.

The secret behind the commercial and critical success of the “Toy Story” movies is simple, which means I have a theory of how they did it: Conceive and produce each installment as if it were the last movie you would ever make and on which your legacy would be judged. That’s it.

Don’t just crank out a film thinking there will be another after it. Craft movies that can stand alone yet still offer special rewards to the returning faithful. Above all, be honest. If you fake sincerity with what you’re doing, the two best lie detectors on the planet (children and house pets) will ferret you out and make you feel bad for trying to fool the rest of us.

From a distance the plots for all four of these movies are basically the same, which of course is oversimplification and akin to saying Mozart’s first four symphonies are interchangeable. These movies aren’t about children and their toys but rather the toys when a child tires of them. Giving these animated characters life with the voices of Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Annie Potts, Keanu Reeves, Joan Cusack, Tony Hale and countless other gifted artists lends them depth and texture. But the writers never make the supreme mistake of pretending they’re human. They don’t think or act like humans, they behave like toys.

After experiencing the arc of Sheriff/Cowboy Woody (Hanks) from franchise start to finish, many would rightfully say he’s very human, but he’s not; he’s better than that. After collecting dust in the closet recently and not coming close to being the favorite of his new child Bonnie, Woody still recognizes that her happiness is the only thing in the world that matters.

To that end, Woody makes it his mission to look after Forky (Hale), a spork Bonnie made into a piece of crude pop-art in kindergarten class to help her get over the opening-day jitters and separation anxiety. Making this a constant and permanent challenge is Forky’s innate and understandable belief that he is little more than disposable trash, and he is always trying to find a way to end it all. It’s not at all what you might think, and is far funnier than it might initially sound.

Whether you label it “repurposing,” “recycling,” looking for a “second act” or “moving on,” it is the toys’ collective desire to find new life and renewed purpose (the burning mission of the spooky doll Gabby Gabby, voiced by Christina Hendricks) with another child or tossing it all in and going rogue solo (Potts as Woody’s plucky love interest Bo Peep), none of the toys want to be reduced to a state of irrelevance. What could possibly be more human than wanting to stay relevant, useful, happy and wanted?

When “TS3” ended, everyone was sure it offered solid closure and couldn’t possibly be improved upon, but it has. And now the same comments are being revisited. The ending of this film had grown men and women weeping with bittersweet joy at my viewing. And while anything is possible, Pixar and Disney should count their blessings (and many receipts) and exit while leaving the audience still wanting more. Note to Disney: please don’t make another “Toy Story” movie and ruin the greatest franchise in history. It’s not worth it.

However, it is worth mentioning that “Toy Story 4” is rated “G,” which technically makes it suitable for all audiences, yet — sadly — it is not. There have been few movies in the history of this medium that could successfully keep toddlers and infants focused for more than a couple of minutes and this film — as transcendent and fantastic as it may be — is no different.

If the audience at the preview screening was any kind of indicator (and they usually are), you’ll need to prepare for essentially uninterrupted and unwanted background noise. These productions aren’t nonstop action affairs with bright lights and funny noises, although this one does have more than a few frantic chase scenes. More importantly, there are frequent, often extended passages of silence and even mild horror (Gabby Gabby’s four henchmen). Infants and toddlers don’t usually do well with silence, fear and dark rooms at the same time.

But those are minor quibbles. If this is the end, it’s a great final act. Happy viewing!


React to this story: