Where does a beloved cultural property and celebrated family franchise go after contemplating the Void? Into a meditation on duty versus personal autonomy, I guess. But that makes “Toy Story 4” sound like a TED Talk, when it is, against all expectations for a series that should be running on fumes after 24 years, a hugely entertaining and emotionally resonant pleasure for audiences of all ages. Funny, fast, thematically profound in ways not usually associated with pixels, the movie reconfirms the “Toy Story” series as the gold standard for Pixar, Disney, and modern animated entertainment. Throw in most of popular culture if you’re of a mind.
The previous installment, “Toy Story 3” (2010), took a while to get going but ultimately brought Sheriff Woody and his pals to the brink of annihilation and beyond. “Toy Story 4” thankfully lowers the stakes, but not too far. After a prologue that details how Woody (voiced once more by Tom Hanks) became separated from his true love, the porcelain night-light Bo Peep (Annie Potts), the new movie jumps ahead nine years. The gaggle of toys are now owned by Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw), a 5-year-old nervously confronting her first day of kindergarten.
Woody is confronting something harder: obsolescence and forced retirement. Bonnie prefers to play with space ranger Buzz (Tim Allen), cowgirl Jessie (Joan Cusack), and the rest of the gang while the Sheriff languishes in the back of the play closet. Desperate to reconnect, Woody hitches a ride to school in Bonnie’s backpack and is present when she wraps a pipe cleaner around a plastic spork, glues on some googly-eyes, and names the results Forky. Who, because he is a toy, immediately comes to life (with the voice of Tony Hale of “Veep”).
There are, of course, endless teleologic and Talmudic arguments to be had about the line that separates an inanimate object from a living, breathing “Toy Story” toy. Forky’s more pressing concern — and Woody’s, since Bonnie adores Forky and the Sheriff’s prime directive is to keep his human happy — is that the new toy thinks he’s trash, not a toy. The movie backs gracefully into notions of identity and selfhood by playing them for ingenious slapstick.
A family road trip ensues, with a stop at a tourist town whose antique store and traveling carnival provide the stages for the remaining action. The store is an especially dark and wondrous creation: Cluttered and cobwebby, it’s a rest home for unwanted toys ruled by Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), a plastic doll with a broken voice box whose insecurities have turned her into a sort of Norma Desmond in Toyland. As henchmen, she employs four silent, lurching ventriloquist dummies that are up there with the winged monkeys from “The Wizard of Oz” as childhood nightmare material.
Plot matters less in the “Toy Story” films than the fillips of physical and character comedy that arise from so many different personality types being thrown together: Woody’s tightly wound sense of loyalty, Buzz’s dunderheaded pluck, the conjoined contortions of new characters Bunny and Ducky, a pair of sideshow shooting gallery escapees voiced — oh, joy — by Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele. Under the direction of Josh Cooley, the army of Pixar artists, designers, animators, and renderers creates a tactile miniature world whose absurdities and problems knowingly mimic our own while always remaining open to the element of surprise.
Spoiler alert: With the reappearance of Bo Peep, “Toy Story 4” becomes something richer — a rambunctious but plangent essay on moving on and becoming one’s own, uh, toy. To Woody, there is nothing more tragic, more meaningless, than a “lost toy” — for him, serving one’s child is the alpha and omega of existence. By contrast, Bo Peep’s years in the wilderness have made her stronger and more resourceful. She likes being a lost toy, and with that independence has come a new, adventurous community of friends: a tiny, bossy polly-pocket pal (Ally Maki), a cadre of plastic-jointed action figures (Carl Weathers), and an Evel Knievel-style daredevil cycle-dude who speaks in the tones of — oh, wow — Keanu Reeves.
If there’s a downside, it’s that characters we’ve come to care for over three previous movies — including Cusack’s Jessie, Wallace Shawn’s Rex, John Ratzenberger’s Hamm — are mostly sidelined this time around. They represent a deep bench of talent and personality, and because there’s a pervading, even nostalgic sense that this “Toy Story” may be the last — although we’ve certainly heard that before — you’re forgiven if you miss their sustained presence.
The new characters and dramas more than suffice, as do the unstated questions placed gently on the playground picnic table. What matters more, devoted service or freedom? Do you give yourself selflessly to others or do you live your own life? What’s life even for? These are the stakes of “Toy Story 4.” They’re just disguised (barely) behind splendid set pieces of wit and fast-paced action and the sort of eerie, otherworldly moments of ingenuity and presence — those dummies! — that only Pixar at its very best seems able to muster. But they’re there, and they imbue this digital geegaw with an emotional weight that even the youngest audiences will recognize and honor.
For a variety of reasons — the passing of time and executives among them — Pixar hasn’t been at its very best in recent years. “Toy Story 4,” then, is a reminder that when creative minds come together with faith in what they do and a belief in quality and originality over market imperatives, they can create entertainment that is both popular and resonant on a multiplicity of levels.
For millennial audiences who’ve grown up with Woody and the gang over years of toy stories, the movie may even seem a minor miracle — proof that faith can be kept in a faithless world. For the rest of us, it’s just grand, wise fun.
TOY STORY 4
Directed by Josh Cooley. Written by Andrew Stanton and Stephany Folsom. Featuring the voices of Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Annie Potts, Tony Hale, Christina Hendricks, Keegan-Michael Key, Jordan Peele, Keanu Reeves. At Boston theaters, suburbs, Jordan’s IMAX, Reading and Natick. 100 minutes. G (freaky-deaky ventriloquist dummies).