Everyone thought the Toy Story series had gone out on a high note in 2010 with Toy Story 3, which was loved by fans, critics, and even the Academy, which nominated it for Best Picture. But… surprise! Here we are, nine years later, and the franchise is back for what appears to be one last time. Those involved have said they wouldn’t have made the movie had the script not been something special, and they were right. The Toy Story movies have always excelled in hitting the right emotional notes, and Toy Story 4 is no different.

The movie opens, fittingly, on a flashback to nine years ago, when Bo Peep is discarded and leaves the group, despite Woody’s best efforts to keep her. In saying goodbye, Bo Peep gives Woody some sage advice about what it really means to be a toy, words that have stuck with Woody as the film transitions into the present day. Now, the toys belong to Bonnie, who is scared to start kindergarten. Sneaking into her backpack, a neglected Woody helps Bonnie make it through her orientation by unwittingly giving her all the tools she’ll need to create a new toy — Forky, a spork given googly eyes, pipecleaner arms, and popsicle-stick feet. Proud of her creation, Bonnie is no longer afraid of kindergarten.

However, Bonnie doesn’t realize what she’s created — in the presence of the other toys, Forky comes to life, and much of the film’s first half-hour is devoted to Forky’s ongoing efforts to climb back into the trash, where he thinks he belongs.

The movie asks a lot of questions, and Forky’s journey poses the most existential: What is a toy, anyway? All of the others are manufactured, mass-produced toys, but Forky is an arts and crafts project with the most humble of roots (Woody salvaged his parts from a wastebasket). Yet Bonnie loves her new creation just as much — if not more — than the other toys she’s been given.

With a week to spare before school starts, Bonnie’s family hits the road for a short vacation; of course, the toys all come along. That sets the film’s great toy adventure into motion: After Forky escapes from the family’s RV, Woody sets out after him. Once he’s convinced Forky that he belongs and is, in fact, cherished by Bonnie, the two of them try to rejoin the family. On their way, however, they pass an antique store where Woody sees Bo Peep’s old lamp in the window! Could he really be lucky enough to have found the woman he loves? He has to find out. But what he finds in the store is nothing but trouble — a troubled doll with a defective voice box who wants to steal Woody’s! This doll, along with a crew of creepy ventriloquist’s dummies, holds Forky hostage while Woody escapes. But, being loyal to Bonnie and knowing how much Forky means to her, Woody can’t leave Forky behind.

Suffice it to say, it takes a small army of toys to set things right, as the Toy Story stalwarts, along with some new characters, finally figure out a way to reunite Bonnie and Forky.

But as clever as the caper might be, the movie’s true value comes from its emotional weight and the questions it asks. Two of them involve finding your voice: Buzz Lightyear wants to know how to find his inner voice; the defective doll, Gabby Gabby, seeks to find her worth by finally getting a voice of her own. The toys also grapple with issues of loyalty, honor, and love, and they’re expertly expressed in ways that will reach both the children and adults who watch the film.

As always, the film’s visuals and performances are top-notch. He and the character may be older and wiser, but Tom Hanks is still the same old Woody. Annie Potts brings just the right mixture of sassyness and compassion to Bo Peep, Tony Hale brings a quizzical sense of wonder to Forky, and Keanu Reeves adds some energy as Duke Caboom, a daredevil cyclist from north of the border (his catchphrase is “Yes I Canada!”). The only misfire is Tim Allen — as a younger man, he brought fantastic energy to the character of Buzz Lightyear (“To infinity and beyond!”), but Allen’s voice has not aged well, and the gruff sound doesn’t really fit the character anymore. (Perhaps the animators realized this, since they seem to have given Buzz a few more battle scars and scuff marks.)

You don’t need to know the previous Toy Story movies to appreciate Toy Story 4, but knowing the characters’ history does bring a deeper meaning to the movie, especially as the characters face some difficult decisions along the way. The film was clearly written as a love letter — and, most likely, a farewell — to these characters we’ve loved for nearly 25 years, and it succeeds on every level.

If this is, in fact, the final film in the series, it definitely ends the franchise in a satisfying way. And, since the earlier films set the bar high, that’s saying a lot.

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Posted Ari Coine