High-tension action-adventure has always been a key ingredient in the "Toy Story" films, but "Toy Story 4" may well be the most consistently anxiety-inducing of them all. There's a palpable sense that the characters are pushing their luck, not unlike the creative personnel of Pixar Animation Studios. Conventional wisdom among the filmmakers, fans and even casual film-goers accepted 2010's "Toy Story 3" as a perfect, emotionally satisfying ending for the series, but "Toy Story 4" makes a convincing case for Sheriff Woody saddling up again.
Three short films and a pair of television specials have extended the "Toy Story" between feature films, and it's almost certain we haven't seen the last of these characters. All the same, the series again adopts a valedictory tone. Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) and the rest of their toy family continue to be the playthings of young Bonnie, but Woody no longer has the security of being a favorite toy. When Bonnie creates a life by fashioning a googly-eyed friend named "Forky" (Tony Hale) out of a spork, a popsicle stick, and other arts-and-crafts odds and ends, Woody grants himself a new lease on life by becoming Forky's much-needed protector.
The compulsive search for a purpose, then, defines the characters of newborn Forky and aging Woody alike. "Toy Story"'s philosophical bent has always set the standard for Pixar, keeping it a cut above other animation studios with its intellect and knack for emotional storytelling. Soon after Bonnie gathers up her toys for an RV road trip with her parents, Forky's desire to take his life into his own hands winds up separating him and Woody from the RV. This turn initiates multiple missions for the toys, in familiar fashion: Rescue Forky, stall Bonnie's family until Woody's return, and the like.
"Toy Story 4" offers two contrasting new settings for toy adventure: the forbidding (if hopefully named) store Second Chance Antiques and a traveling carnival with rides and games. Woody's detour into the antique store reunites him with love interest Bo Beep (Annie Potts), a lamp's porcelain figurine imbued by the animators with come-hither looks and by the writers with a hard-won survivalism. No damsel in distress, Bo Beep embraces the freedom of being a lost toy, "lost" being just another word for nothing left to lose. The situation pushes Woody to a brink of maximum angst: Is his loyalty to Bonnie really non-negotiable? Does she really need him as much as Woody needs his own happiness?
Some of the franchise's shtick gets noticeably repetitive in this outing, with new characters Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) and Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves) respectively calling to mind Lotso (from "Toy Story 3") and the preening, posing Buzz. As such, this "Toy Story" feels thinner than its picture-perfect predecessors, but there's continuity in the voice cast's delicate emotional readings and crack-comic timing, and Randy Newman's scoring (he also adds two new songs -- "I Can't Let You Throw Yourself Away" and "The Ballad of the Lonesome Cowboy" -- to the franchise theme "You've Got a Friend in Me").
At a moment when studios and pundits have begun again to question the efficacy of sequels, Pixar's graceful follow-up justifies the practice, when executed with smarts and heart. Partly in its general excellence and partly by daring to step into the darkness before the dawn, "Toy Story 4" offers so much more than the typical kid's movie and, though, G-rated, remains hugely appealing to adults in its punchy humor and searching existential thoughtfulness. You can count on a lump-in-the-throat ending, though reports of the series' demise are likely exaggerated.