The more Pixar pick up their toys at moments of crisis, the more those toys resemble therapy dolls or comforters, fixed points of security in an increasingly unstable universe. The studio's animators first turned back this way in the late Noughties, as the company was pivoting to Cars and Planes and watching the wheels come off their spotless creative track record; they do so again at the end of whatever we're calling this decade, which saw John Lasseter being placed on judicious leave and 2015's Inside Out burning through the bulk of the Pixar brains trust's better ideas. (It wouldn't surprise me if we were to see The Good Dinosaur 2 at some stage, but we surely cannot hold out much hope for its prospects.) In the years between Toy Story 3 and this week's Toy Story 4, Woody, Buzz and co. have been sent out to sing for their supper in a series of made-for-TV shorts and corporate ad campaigns, demonstrating once again that what begins as close-to-the-cutting-edge art generally winds up inhabiting the realm of commerce. As my Guardian colleague Peter Bradshaw observed in his review, these toys should by rights be looking a whole lot more careworn than they do in Toy Story 4: Andy's dog Buster aged more between Toy Story and Toy Story 3 than any of the lead playthings have in 25 years - but then maybe what they're ultimately peddling is the Disney fantasy of eternal youth and innocence.
Those spin-offs and footnotes have been fun, while seeming overburdened with residual characters. Toy Story 3 gained from hitting every last emotional beat of its closing transitional phase, which described the handing over of these childish things; the tears that sequence coaxed helped us forget what had gone before it, which often felt penned-in and cluttered, lacking the light, space and movement of its more dynamic predecessors, where the technology wasn't quite there to fill every inch of every frame. The first two movies were the Goldilocks' porridge of late 20th century cinema: not too many ideas, not too few, just right. In Toy Story 3, you felt a franchise getting too considered for its own good. The fourth film returns us to basics, and manages to be appreciably smart about it, if not perhaps dazzlingly so. There are still too many toys in this box - series veterans Rex and Hamm barely get a close-up between them - but we open on a clearout that separates Woody (voiced, again, by Tom Hanks) from his beloved Bo Peep (Annie Potts), and there's a new arrival whose basicness forces toys and animators alike into a rethink. At kindergarten, the toys' new owner Bonnie creates Forky, a spork with pipe-cleaner arms and glue-on googly eyes whose guileless after-hours personality is such that he's convinced he's no more than trash, and thus determined to throw himself into the nearest available bin. Forky (gurgled by Veep's Tony Hale) is both a typically funny Pixar idea - a toy who senses he's so disposable he voluntarily pitches himself towards oblivion - and one with obvious existential undertones: he needs rescuing and redirecting, like a toddler crawling with fingers headed for an electrical socket. Born of trash yet bound for better, he's also Pixar's doodled contribution to the nature-versus-nurture debate.
I felt I was back in safe hands around the time of the scene that finds Woody and Forky walking hand-in-hand along the the hard shoulder of a deserted freeway: it's quiet and slow, a simple moment of (father-son?) connection of the kind a digimation of the Wonder Park or Secret Life of Pets school would unfailingly hustle past. Furthermore, the sequence opens up the frame, and the series entire: we're on the road now, heading towards new horizons. The whole of Toy Story 4 is one of those outward-bound setpieces of which there were five or six in Toy Story and Toy Story 2, back when these films were packed with wonders. Forky strays into the clutches of a defective doll, Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), and her army of antique-shop ventriloquist's dummies; Woody and co. have to get him back. En route, the anthropomorphism that has converted pixels into plastic and then personalities with apparent feelings sets us to wondering whether there isn't something a little old-school Disney about the implied link between physical defectiveness and villainy (the idea is that, unlike the heteronormative Woody and Bo Peep, Gabby is childless, therefore bitter), yet there is something so very Pixar in the way this antagonist is herself finally redeemed. The movie turns out to be a rescue mission for every last one of its characters, and perhaps the franchise entire, not that it really needed it. No spork left behind.
If the toys haven't aged, the four films will stand as their own record of changing times in modern Hollywood. The voice cast, for one, is notably more diverse than it was for the first Toy Story, with Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key stepping up to provide the supporting schtick as a pair of fairground gonks. There's a vastly more proactive role for Bo Peep, who seems to have replaced poor old Buzz Lightyear as Woody's primary sparring partner. (May the Lord spare us the whiny online petitions.) And it makes instinctive sense that Woody and Bo Peep - the sheriff and the shepherdess - should have ended up as something akin to parents, or at least adoptive guardians, for the five-year-olds who sat saucer-eyed before the first Toy Story in 1995 will now be pushing thirty, and perhaps parents to five-year-olds of their own. This wouldn't be the first Disney property to operate according to some circle of life. What's been lost over the four films is that innocence our dewier movie ideas exude. Toy Story and Toy Story 2 sprung fresh from creatives we watched having immense fun establishing and expanding the boundaries of a new cinematic medium; traces of that vicarious viewing pleasure remain in the third and fourth instalments, but now we're watching those same creatives racking their brains as to how to continue having fun in that medium. The exuberant element of play has been replaced by exertion, plain old work.
Toy Story 4 is at least good, committed, largely diverting work. The grand finale offsets its vaguely familiar funfair setting against such amusing flourishes as having Kristen Schaal (as triceratops Trixie) voice a satnav; the very last line, tucked away amid the closing credits, gets to the heart of what this franchise has been about all along, and would be a perfect note to conclude on, if indeed this is meant as a conclusion. (Again, as with Toy Story 3, you sense Pixar working hard to come up with an ending that might redeem some of the so-so material that has preceded it: you leave the cinema on a wistful high, which wouldn't be the case if you'd left after an hour or half-hour.) It remains the curse of digimation that computer processing technology rapidly outpaced the analogue business of coming up with a worthwhile idea, turning that into an engaging story, and then setting that out in a script; it's why we've all sat through so many half-term screenfillers churned out without a trace of wit or invention, Forky-films sorely lacking the abundant, gifted writing staff who've succeeded in preventing Toy Story 4 from chucking itself in the bin. (Eight scribes are credited here, including Lasseter, Finding Nemo's Andrew Stanton, The Office's Rashida Jones and her Celeste and Jesse Forever collaborator Will McCormack.) I enjoyed Toy Story 4, but I can't help but think the one line the animators returning to this toybox responded to most keenly was Woody's response when asked why he's going the extra mile for Forky: "Because I don't have anything else to do."
Toy Story 4 is now playing in cinemas nationwide.