Dir: Josh Cooley. Voiced by: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Joan Cusack, Annie Potts, Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves. Cert U, 100mins

Twenty-four years after the original Toy Story (1995) comes the fourth feature in the franchise. Woody and Buzz Lightyear haven’t aged in the slightest. The brilliance of the new film lies in the surefooted way it caters both for children too young to have seen its predecessors and for adults who’ve grown up (or grown older) watching the previous instalments. It takes some kind of genius for the Pixar animators to give such a searing emotional charge to a story in which one of the main characters is a single use plastic spork retrieved from the trash.

Separation and loss are the key drivers in Toy Story 4. Kids mislay their toys or give them away. There is no permanence in the relationships depicted here. Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks) is continually being abandoned by those he loves: locked out in the rain, given away by his old owner Andy, wrenched apart from the beautiful figurine Bo Peep (Annie Potts), or left neglected in the toy cupboard. The cowboy toy is one of cinema’s most stoical and selfless heroes, always ready to roll with the punches and always looking to do the right thing. It’s a moot point whether it is the skill of the animators or the cleverness of the editing but his face seems endlessly expressive. We read immense yearning and resignation in those huge eyes of his.

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Woody’s new owner, Bonnie, is about to spend her first day at kindergarten school. The cowboy hides away in her satchel, determined to ensure she doesn’t find the whole experience too traumatising. This is when Bonnie forms her bond with Forky, the piece of throwaway cutlery rescued from the rubbish which she has turned into a very ungainly toy. The little girl has lots of teddies and dolls but Forky is her favourite. Soon, it gets to a situation where she can’t even fall asleep unless the piece of plastic is on the pillow beside her.

The writers generate plenty of existential comedy from the scenes in which Forky tries to make sense of his new identity. “I am not a toy,” protests the piece of cutlery at the life he expected and the one he is now living. “I was made for soup, salad, maybe chilli and then – then trash!”

When Bonnie’s parents take her on a road trip, Woody, Buzz and the rest of the toys come along for the ride. Woody is determined to stop Forky going AWOL.

Toy Story 4 is coming out in the UK in the same month as horror flick Child’s Play, which brings back to screen the demonic doll Chucky. The Disney/Pixar family film and the slasher exploitation picture are poles apart but there are some surprisingly dark elements here. When Woody ventures into Second Chances Antiques, a dusty shop in a town called Grand Basin, he encounters some very vicious ventriloquist’s dummies who would give Chucky a run for his money. These are in the service of a neglected 1950s doll called Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) with a broken voice box. The antique shop has its own cat, which takes a ghoulish pleasure in ripping the stuffing out of teddy bears. The film includes a chase scene in which Woody and his colleagues scamper through a maze of bric-a-brac, ancient typewriters and old copies of National Geographic with predators inches behind them.

Even in the most fraught scenes, there will always be comic elements, puns and slapstick to lighten matters. The preposterous Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves), an Evel Knievel-like Canadian motorbike stunt rider with an inferiority complex, performs daredevil tricks – or, at least, contemplates doing so. The tiny elfin Giggle McDimples (Ally Maki) turns up as Bo Peep’s sidekick, sitting on her shoulders. While Woody is in peril in the antique store, Buzz is listening to his inner voice and trying to mount rescue expeditions while the other toys are busy sabotaging the camper van to ensure that Bonnie’s parents don’t drive off too soon.

Moments of broad farce are combined with scenes which are delicate and lyrical. The sound editing is subtle and inventive. Whenever Bo Peep, who is made of porcelain, is on the move, we will hear a slight tinkling of china.

Inevitably, some characters receive only very limited screen time and certain plot lines aren’t developed but that is only the most minor quibble. There is not a hint of cynicism about Toy Story 4 and no sense that the characters are being revived to drive merchandising at Disney and Pixar. This feels throughout like a project that comes straight from the heart. It is dealing with love, loyalty and sacrifice. Woody’s undemonstrative nature and Bo Peep’s fiercely independent nature make the film all the more affecting. Adults and kids alike will find its mix of comedy and pathos hard to resist.

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