When I walked into the theater to see “Toy Story 4,” I knew absolutely nothing about it, except that many of the original characters return and new ones are introduced. Other than that, pure blank slate — which is the best way to experience all movies. Don’t watch any trailers, don’t read any reviews, just decide you’re gonna see it and then sit back and try to enjoy.
That said, how can I review this movie without impacting the way you’ll see it? By telling you exactly zero plot points, and focusing instead on another piece of miraculous moviemaking from Pixar.
Like each of the animated classics that precede it, “Toy Story 4” is visually stunning, as the hundreds upon hundreds of tech geniuses who work behind the scenes have yet again improved the state of the art. The lighting and detail are sharper, the sets more elaborate, and the humans more realistic, too. They’ve not only found new ways to showcase the recurring characters — Woody, Buzz, Hamm, Slinky, etc. — but added originals that fit in so naturally it’s like they’ve been part of this universe for a long time. There’s even a throwback to the first-ever Pixar short, as Tin Toy (first seen in 1988) makes a cameo appearance.
A movie like “Toy Story 4” is so complex it took more than three years to make, and yet looks absolutely contemporary, particularly with the empowerment of female characters on both the hero and villain sides. That doesn’t diminish the male leads, although Woody (Tom Hanks) gets a lot more of a showcase than Buzz (Tim Allen) — and a love story, too.
The roster of guest voices has been expanded to include Tony Hale, Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves, June Squibb, Bill Hader, Patricia Arquette, Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele. They even squeeze in tiny roles for Carol Burnett, Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, and Betty White, although their characters have barely anything to do and you’re likely to miss them entirely.
At the screening we attended, many parents brought their very young children, causing Martha and me to wonder how disruptive they’d be as the movie unspooled. I’m happy to say that “Toy Story 4” had every one of those kids paying rapt attention, laughing when appropriate and worried during the tense moments, but they didn’t talk at all as they kept their eyeballs glued to the screen. How many other films can do that?
Finally, a few words about Before and After.
Before: This was the first Pixar movie I can remember seeing that’s not preceded by a new short. To be honest, many of those shorts were — though dazzling to look at — not that entertaining. Last year’s Oscar-winning “Bao” was a pleasant exception, yet I still looked forward to seeing another.
After: Do yourself a favor and stay all the way through the end credits for the payoff on a joke that’s set up about halfway through the feature, which sent us home with even bigger smiles on our faces.
I didn’t think the “Toy Story” saga needed to continue after the Kleenex-soaking emotional finale of the third movie, but I was wrong. “Toy Story 4” is a compelling way to take these familiar characters down a new path, full of plenty of great jokes and all sorts of positive messages.
I give it a 9 out of 10.