'Toy Story 4' review: Triumph of the spork!

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In a simple stroke of do-it-yourself genius, “Toy Story 4” introduces a pip of a character made out of a spork, named Forky. He is a googly-eye startle reflex in motion. And he has been created by little Bonnie, whose fraught first day of kindergarten provides the highly relatable starting point of this enormously winning sequel.

Fished out of the trash by backpack stowaway Woody (Tom Hanks, better than ever), Forky (voice by Tony Hale) initially knows nothing beyond an impulse to return to the garbage from whence it came. The narrative of “Toy Story 4” deals with various challenges of letting go, and learning to move on, and when to remind yourself that — as we know from Arthur Miller, the writer least likely ever to be adapted by Pixar Animation Studios — there’s “a universe of people outside, and you’re responsible to it.”

In the big eyes and indelible heart of Sheriff Woody, a toy can find no greater satisfaction than to aid and comfort and help launch a child into adulthood, even if that means saying goodbye in the process. The entire “Toy Story” universe spins around this idea. While I still struggle with aspects of these beloved movies (more on that topic in a sec), for reasons both visual and emotional, I found “Toy Story 4” warmer, funnier and a little less dubiously ruthless in its pathos than its billion-dollar-grossing predecessor, “Toy Story 3.”

Let’s be honest. Among “Dark Phoenix,” “Aladdin” and (opening this week) “Men in Black: International,” there isn’t much reason to check out how some of these product lines are doing. “Men in Black: International” is actually the least objectionable of those three. I mean!

But “Toy Story 4,” which opens June 21, knows what it’s doing. While we all, as moviegoers, experience franchise and sequel fatigue on our own unpredictable timetables, this film brightens the summer without simply going through the motions.

Briefly: After a prologue explaining how Bo Peep becomes separated from the toys, the screenplay by Andrew Stanton and Stephany Folsom jumps ahead nine years. “Toy Story 4” is a road trip saga, with Woody, Buzz Lightyear and the rest accompanying Bonnie and her parents in an RV. Much of the action takes place in a consignment shop, where an array of rescues, escapes, cliffhangers and existential riddles confront our heroes.

In the “psychological torment” department, there’s a manipulative frenemy of a defective doll named Gabby Gabby (voiced by Christina Hendricks), who wants to gut (literally) Woody for his pull-string so she can talk to humans and find a child to call her own.

Gabby’s quartet of ventriloquist dummy henchmen are only slightly less frightening-looking than Fats, the nemesis in the 1978 thriller “Magic.” This part of the busy, teeming picture won’t be for everyone, certainly not for every preteen hoodwinked by the film’s G rating. But the wildly differing strains of humor to be found in “Toy Story 4” constitute a positive, not a negative. And the snark remains relatively under control.

Along with Forky, there are other new characters: a couple of plush toys voiced by Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, to name two. And crucially, a Canadian motorcycle daredevil with the perfect name of Duke Caboom rolls into the story around the midpoint. Keanu Reeves voices this beguiling poseur, very much in the Michael Keaton-does-Ken-doll routine in “Toy Story 3.”

The humor here is akin to the gags found in the “Lego Movie” realm, when it’s not recalling Buzz Lightyear himself, as we knew him in the first couple of “Toy Story” movies. (Tim Allen reprises his vocal chores in what is now a supporting role.) The film retains a steady focus on Woody and his reunion with Bo Peep, and what toy love can mean when the love is a natural occurrence between two consenting toy adults. Wait, does that sound skeezy? It doesn’t play that way. Anyway.

Randy Newman’s score includes a couple of infectious, Cajun-spiced songs accompanying the inevitable reuse of “You’ve Got a Friend in Me.” Some of the pure-action scenes feel protracted (especially the chase involving a terrorized cat — I don’t even like cats, and I felt sorry for this one). But by the end, my heart was warmed, my laughter was frequent and “Toy Story 4” has the tact and good sense not to try anything along the lines of the tasteless near-mass incineration climax of the last one. I’ll never be a fan of the photorealistic animation aesthetic of these Pixar films, creating a different look entirely than, say, a masterwork such as “Ratatouille.”

But the clinical edge has softened a bit in this picture, gratifyingly.

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