To a child, the amount of time is unfathomable: “Toy Story 4” opens this week, nine years after “Toy Story 3.” That’s high school and college combined.
“Toy Story 3” came 11 years after “Toy Story 2,” which came four years after “Toy Story.” That’s 24 years in all, a generation. A lifetime. The franchise is old enough to drink.
Weirdly, time enhances this series that, in the end, is about loss.
Woody (voiced excellently as ever by Tom Hanks) has long feared the day when he was no longer a favorite toy, no longer played with on a regular basis by a loving child.
So far, he’s managed to cheat destiny and hang on. In “Toy Story 4,” there’s no more cheating.
His boy, Andy, kept him around for a very long time before passing him to young Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw), who doesn’t have much use for an old cowhand. Woody spends increasing amounts of time in the closet.
At kindergarten orientation, with secret help from Woody, Bonnie creates a new friend, “Forky” (Tony Hale), from a spork. Then the family takes a road trip and Woody becomes obsessed with keeping Forky safe during a slightly tedious part of movie. (Forky is a one-joke idea.)
But later, at a roadside carnival and antique shop, a few more meaningful characters arrive.
Chief among them is talking doll Gabby Gabby, part sinister and part sad, voiced beautifully by Christina Hendricks. She has some truly frightening ventriloquist dummies as servants, slowly spinning their heads 360 degrees while keeping watch. (They may come clacking into your nightmares some day.)
Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele are back together, literally stitched, as Ducky and Bunny, providing big laughs with their imagined heroic scenarios.
Then there’s Keanu Reeves as the toy stunt-riding motorcycle man Duke Caboom, reading the role as only Keanu can, with a hint of the existential.
Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) plays a smaller part here, but embodies a funny and relevant sub-theme about one’s inner voice.
Josh Cooley makes his feature directing debut, having risen through Pixar’s ranks. He co-wrote the masterpiece “Inside Out” and wrote and directed short films “George and A.J.” and “Riley’s First Date?” But Pixar veteran Andrew Stanton co-wrote the “Toy Story 4” screenplay, retaining a sense of the familiar.
What’s striking here is the intensity of the close-ups. The toys always have been mismatched — Woody’s head is twice the size of Buzz’s, for example — but “Toy Story 4” gazes upon their shiny faces and finds an unmistakable humanity.
Although the plot focuses on Pixar’s exciting, expertly done rescues and escapes, “Toy Story 4” makes its masterstroke after those have played out. Without revealing too much, Woody learns to let go.
Each “Toy Story” movie gets more emotionally powerful: “Toy Story 2” dropped the first hint of what happens to toys when kids grow up and “Toy Story 3” dealt bravely with death in its gripping incinerator sequence.
Themes here are just as profound, but perhaps harder to explain. Fear is hardwired into our systems; we often don’t even know we’re afraid of things. Even when the worst happens, the reality is never as bad as our imagined anticipation. Yet humans continue to fear.
The genius of “Toy Story 4” is that these ideas are fresh to newcomers and to those who’ve followed Woody’s journey for a quarter of a century. It’s comforting to learn that things actually are going to be OK.
Toy Story 4
Starring: Voices of Tom Hanks, Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves, Annie Potts
Written by: Andrew Stanton, Stephany Folsom
Directed by: Josh Cooley
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes