Beloved toy characters return for another rip-roaring instalment
Film review: Toy Story 4 (U), 9/10
How do you improve on the perfection of Toy Story 3, which bade a moving farewell to Woody the cowboy (voiced by Tom Hanks), Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) and the other denizens of Andy's childhood?
Oscar-winning computer animation studio Disney Pixar comes tantalisingly close with a belated rip-roaring fourth instalment that will have parents dabbing at their eyes with almost as many sodden handkerchiefs as its predecessors.
Admittedly, popular characters including Jessie (Joan Cusack) and Rex (Wallace Shawn) are largely sidelined by a freewheeling plot that borrows heavily from past glories.
Director Josh Cooley's hare-brained rescue mission was always going to disappoint after the note-perfect resolution to the third film.
What this glorious episode might surrender in originality it compensates for with visual artistry, uproarious verbal sparring and deep sentiment.
The fractious central relationship between Woody and Buzz, which stretches back almost 25 cinema-going years, reaches a gorgeous, heart-rending crescendo that closes this toy box of wonders with a soft and satisfying emotional thud.
Woody, Buzz and the gang are now the property of a little girl called Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw), who is nervously preparing for kindergarten orientation.
The tearful tyke overcomes her nerves by creating Forky (Tony Hale) from discarded arts and crafts supplies.
The repurposed plastic utensil becomes Bonnie's security blanket during a family road trip to Grand Basin, which lights the touch paper on more than one existential crisis.
'I am not a toy.' rages Forky. 'I'm a spork. I was made for soup, salad, maybe chilli... and the trash.'.
When Forky falls into the clutches of sinister doll Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) and her army of ventriloquist dummies, Woody co-ordinates a daring rescue.
He is reunited with Bo Peep (Annie Potts) and her three-headed porcelain sheep Billy, Goat and Gruff, and makes a new ally in self-doubting motorcycle stuntman Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves).
Meanwhile, Buzz stalls for time by delaying the departure of Bonnie and her parents (Lori Alan, Jay Hernandez) from Grand Basin.
'We could frame Dad for a crime so he goes to jail,' suggests stuffed white unicorn Buttercup (Jeff Garlin).
Toy Story 4 opens with a lustrous flashback set during a torrential downpour that epitomises the immaculate attention to detail in every frame of animation.
Vocal performances complement the technical excellence and Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele are shameless scene-stealers as megalomaniacal fairground prizes, whose hysterical solution to an unwanted human incursion is a well-timed 'plush rush'.
The script quietly preaches the beauty of imperfection between breathlessly staged action set-pieces and a barrage of visual gags, which demand a second viewing.
'You can't teach this old toy new tricks,' sagely observes Woody.
True, but when the old tricks work beautifully, the wizards at Disney Pixar can still cast an irresistible spell.