It’s Toys Times Up with Toy Story 4! When I was a kid, my favorite toy was an Alf doll. He was my best friend. I took him everywhere; my sister kremped his hair (look it up if you don’t know what this it) for a family photo, and he’d sit with me while I watched his TV Show. I loved that Alf doll. When I went away to college, my mom gave him away. I was devastated when I realized. I felt like a part of me was lost. He had all my secrets, all my tears, he heard every Oscar speech I had ever written, and he knew the movie ideas I had yet to write.

Most people can relate to this feeling, which is why the Toy Story franchise has become a juggernaut in the Pixar line up of films. Kids have an intimate relationship to their childhood toys. They help shape our creative imaginations. When we dream, our toys become our avatars for adventure – riding horses, flying spaceships, living underwater in a sea quest laboratory, or flying through the air in a daredevil jump across time and space.

Since the 70s, there have been numerous studies on the power of toys in early childhood development, and more specifically, toys and their relationship to the formation of gender identity. In Toy Story 4, it is in this moment, at the beginnings of the first wave of post-#timesup sensitivity over gender representations in the media, that we find our hero, the always loyal and faithful, Woody, played by the incomparable Tom Hanks.

After a childhood spent as Andy’s most cherished toy, Woody is gifted to Bonnie, a young friend of the family, and soon realizes that he’s no longer the sheriff in town. Bonnie prefers Jesse, the cowgirl to be the sheriff, as Woody is relegated to the closet with the few remaining rejected toys. Anxious about Bonnie’s nerves the first day of Kindergarten, Woody sneaks into her backpack and witnesses the creation of her new favorite toy – a Frankenstein-esque toy named “Forky.” Forky is forged out of trash, and thus only knows that as his identity.  He continually tries to return from whence he came, running toward a trash can of any kind, so Woody remains intent on keeping him with Bonnie and teaching him how to be a toy.

The filmmakers are making light out of an interesting phenomenon in a society where older archetypes respond to growing arguments for diversity of new ideas and identify formations by teaching them how to conform and function within the existing infrastructure. As we all know, this kind of token conformity is ineffective, and Toy Story 4 is no different. Forky eventually emancipates himself by jumping out of a window. Woody, the ever optimist, sets out on a path to bring him home to Bonnie, and thus unfolds his new journey that will cause him to question everything he stands for.

Playing opposite Woody is Bo Peep, voiced by the no-nonsense Annie Potts. Bo runs with the lost toys and navigates the world free from kids, with few attachments, and even fewer responsibilities. She and her staffs (both her literal staff and her collection of friends) are the keys to helping Woody find Forky and get him back to Bonnie. She is smart, capable, and more importantly, the rightful leader in any situation. Something that is not lost on Woody, who’s outdated rugged individualism often compromises missions and complicates situations as a whole. He means well but doesn’t have the know-how to navigate this new world.

The villain of the story is the very misunderstood Gabby Gabby, voiced by Christina Hendricks. Not unlike her character Joan on Mad Men, Gabby Gabby is a complicated toy with numerous motives for using the simpler toys to help her do her bidding. I won’t spoil the overall storyline, but I can say that Gabby Gabby’s character arch is one of such beauty and care the likes of which I haven’t seen in live action cinema, so the fact that they can accomplish such a stunning character development in an animated movie for kids is nothing short of brilliant. If Meryl Streep played her she’d have an Oscar nod.

Not to be outdone, there are huge comedic standouts like Keanu Reeves who voices Canada’s Duke Caboom, a hilarious daredevil motorcycle rider who struggles with inadequacy. Also, Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, who voice Ducky and Bunny respectively, steal every scene they are in as fluffy carnival prizes. Tim Allen once again voices Buzz Lightyear, the space hero whose heroic alpha male mentality is adorably mocked throughout the film.

The animators at Pixar have outdone themselves with this one. The richness of the colors and textures of the animation help supplement the motion of the narrative in a symphony of colors and landscapes. The cinematography in both the interior and exteriors were superb, and the action sequences rivaled that of live action. It’s a stunning achievement in both editing and sound design as well. Nothing felt forced or rushed.

Overall, Toy Story 4 is surprisingly one of the most feminist films I’ve ever seen without being heavy-handed or overtly about gender. It’s just great storytelling about an old Cowboy hanging up his badge and setting out on a new journey. This is a beautiful send off of an incredible franchise that reminded us of our old friends who helped shape us into the people we are now. I highly recommend this for young and old, and particularly for kids who feel a little different.