“Toy Story 4” will blow you away in ways you won’t be expecting. It’s something new from a computer-animated series so antediluvian that director Josh Cooley was in high school when the Pixar original came out back in 1995.
The never-ending stories of the psychological stresses and success of one kid’s toys, the films in the franchise have always been class acts, earning nine Oscar nominations all told and winning best animated feature for the previous entry in 2011.
Blessed with a closet full of characters, “Toy Story 4” pushes the inventiveness envelope by adding in crackling funny new folks like tiny but fierce Giggle McDimples (Ally Maki), powerhouse plush toys Ducky and Bunny (Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele) and the motorcycle-riding Canadian daredevil Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves, of all people).
Though the previous films were known for their visual inventiveness (the original was the very first computer-animated feature), “Toy Story 4” boasts animation so vivid and polished it makes its characters realer than they’ve ever been.
Best of all, as written by Stephany Folsom and the veteran Andrew Stanton, the film surprises with the amount of genuine emotion it generates with its focus on love, loyalty and what matters most in life, to humans as well as toys.
We already know, courtesy of the earlier films, that toys resemble people, so the focus here is on how toys need people, how their drive to have a child love them can lead to desperate, even reckless acts.
But the biggest surprise of “Toy Story 4,” the heart of the action in more ways than one, is the return of a woman from cowboy sheriff Woody’s past. That’s right, Bo Peep is back, and that turns out to be cause for celebration.
Before any of that can happen, however, “Toy Story 4” flashes back nine years, to a dark and stormy night (really) when Woody (Tom Hanks to the manner born) discovers that an RC Car that his kid Andy has left outside is about to get washed away to oblivion.
Aided by all the toys at his command, Woody launches a military maneuver to bring the car back, a Navy SEAL type operation that serves to show off just how talented Pixar’s animators are.
That night, however, turns out to be memorable for another reason: it marks the departure of Bo Peep (a picture-stealing Annie Potts) from Andy’s sister’s room.
Woody has always been more attached to Bo than he’s wanted to admit, and the farewell he shares with the comely shepherdess will get to you more than you anticipate.
After that the film moves to the present day, with Woody belonging to Bonnie (Madeline McGraw), the little girl he was bequeathed to at the end of “Toy Story 3,” now old enough to be headed for kindergarten.
Speaking of old, Woody is starting to feel his age. Bonnie is leaving him in the closet and playing with other toys more than she used to, so much that the other toys rib Woody about the dust bunnies he’s starting to collect.
Concerned that time is passing him by, fearful that he will no longer have an important place in Bonnie’s life, Woody, in one of the parallels that Pixar specializes in, begins to sound as much like a worried parent of college-age children as a pull-string toy.
Overcome by anxiety, Woody throws caution out the window and sneaks into kindergarten, where he digs through the trash and makes Bonnie’s day by providing the materials for her to construct Forky, a makeshift stick figure toy made up of a discarded spork and other flotsam.
Though the other toys are dubious, Woody takes it on himself to convince them that they need to embrace Forky (Emmy winner Tony Hale) because of his importance to Bonnie.
Making that more difficult is Forky’s determination to throw himself back into the trash whenever possible, a recurring situation whose repetitiveness ends up wearing out its welcome.
Fortunately, Forky, like the MacGuffin in Alfred Hitchcock’s films, only seems to be what “Toy Story 4” is about. As Bonnie and her parents take a motor home vacation in bucolic Grand Basin, Forky turns into the unknowing facilitator of the Woody/Bo reconnection.
Walking with Forky, Woody stumbles on Second Chance Antiques, and when he spies the lamp that was Bo’s base in the store window, he has to go in and investigate. Which is where the entire film kicks into a higher gear.
For one thing, Woody and Forky come to the notice of Gabby Gabby, a doll (splendidly voiced by Christina Hendricks) whose voice manages to be simultaneously sincere and sinister.
Gabby Gabby is attended by four silent henchmen, ventriloquist’s dummies every one and all capable of sending chills up your spine without saying a word.
And, against all odds, Woody does run into Bo again — and the reunion is unexpected in more ways than one. After seven years as a “lost toy,” living on her own with jaunty Giggles McDimples as her BFF, Bo is both the same and not.
Streetwise and capable of wielding her shepherd’s staff like a kendo master, Bo still takes Woody’s breath away, but what hope is there for two toys adrift on the seas of fate?
Aided by gifted actors including Laurie Metcalf, Patricia Arquette, Carl Weathers and June Squibb in even the smallest roles, “Toy Story 4” is astonishing, as its predecessors were, at getting us emotionally involved with G-rated computer-generated images. Who would ever believe that toys could break your heart?
'Toy Story 4'
Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes