It’s one thing for Finding Dory to have been fine during Pixar’s decade-long definition of itself as, more or less, a so-so sequel-factory. Or Monsters University. (Yes, that’s a prequel, but the shoe fits.) But doesn’t a Toy Story sequel that’s certainly energetic and entertaining but nothing more than merely satisfying feel a bit like a comedown after three films that were all either perfect or just shy of it?

Nothing in Toy Story 4 deepens, improves or tweaks the existential ideas of purpose, absence and obsolescence that propelled the first three films. This one certainly tries, with questions of loyalty and destiny, but it feels more like a mandated epilogue rather than an organic conclusion. There is also no transcendent, sophisticated narrative moment to match Buzz’s actualization, Jessie’s trauma or the gang reconciling itself to impending death as long as they were together. There is no memorable villain a la Sid, Stinky Pete or Lotso.

On that last point, there is at least something commendable and gentle about Toy Story 4’s refusal to demonize yet another toy whose bad breaks have imposed a sour outlook. The franchise has gone that route before and instead finds something a little more merciful and melancholy here; if any animated film series can take the risk of that break from convention, it’s this one. But it also renders disingenuous a lot of the alleged danger / action during a flabby middle act.

That can likely be chalked up to the shocking sight of eight people given credit for the film’s screenplay and story, the most of any of Pixar’s 21 efforts to date. You feel the Frankensteining well beyond the sudden consciousness bestowed upon Forky, a spork who has mismatched googly eyes, gangly pipe-cleaner arms and a countenance caught between Mr. Bill and Buster Bluth.

That latter comparison is an easy one, as Tony Hale (who played Buster on Arrested Development) provides the voice of Forky — easily the best of too many new characters introduced in a presumably final installment that generally ditches over a dozen old friends you know and like. Even Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) feels oddly crammed into the story here, saddled with obtusely regressive self-awareness and a running joke in which he presses his own buttons to follow his inner voice.

As Duke Caboom, a Canadian daredevil derailed by disappointment that his jumps were never as cool as advertised on TV, Keanu Reeves delights at either extreme of exuberance and ennui. Had the internet not already memed it, you could envision Reeves excitedly gesticulating around the recording booth uttering these lines. Christina Hendricks also excels as Gabby Gabby, a pull-string doll whose pre-existing condition has pushed her to a place of last-ditch desperation.

Carl Weathers gets a stew going during a brief scene that offers one of the film’s loudest laughs. However, as Bunny and Ducky, a surly pair of carnival-game toys stitched together at the hands, Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key too often settle for just plain loud. Their running joke of elaborate, aggressive suggestions to complete simple tasks isn’t funny the first or sixth time, and their credit cookie seems like a capitulation to the sort of mindless cacophony Toy Story 4 otherwise avoids.

Even though Forky disappears as early and often as Buster Bluth during that fourth Arrested season, he prompts the plot of Toy Story 4. But first, a prologue reveals how Bo Peep (Annie Potts) went missing before the events of Toy Story 3. It was a dark and stormy night … sorry, a photorealistic dark and stormy night, on which Sheriff Woody (Tom Hanks) made an impossible choice that retroactively reinforces his resolve to rally everyone in the 2010 film.

Bequeathed by Andy, the gang’s initial kid, to young Bonnie in that installment, Woody, Buzz, Slinky, the Potato Heads, Rex, Hamm, Jessie, Bullseye and the Aliens now live alongside Bonnie’s own toys (Mr. Pricklepants, Trixie, Buttercup and Dolly). But Woody’s been getting left behind in the closet more often lately, with Bonnie preferring to bestow sheriff duties on Jessie during her imaginative reveries.

Woody has been in this spot before but remains determined to prove his usefulness to Bonnie, namely as she starts kindergarten. That transition was tough for Andy and he knows it will be for Bonnie, too. So Woody sneakily stows away in her backpack for orientation day to help comfort her. Little does he know he’ll become an ersatz parent to Forky, whom Bonnie creates during craft time and who comes to life when she writes her name on his awkwardly angled feet.

In Toy Story, Buzz didn’t believe he was a toy because he thought he was a real spaceman. Forky doesn’t believe he’s a toy because he believes he’s trash. Much to Woody’s chagrin, Forky is forever trying to hurtle himself into garbage cans. Big credit to whomever from the screenwriting cabal conceived of Forky; it’s a stroke of true inspiration to choose the form of a spork — something inherently in-between — to inevitably head toward an indecisive identity crisis. Forky’s thrown-together look also is as close to the abstractions of Inside Out as a Happy Meal-friendly tie-in toy is apt to get.

Trash calms Forky, but he calms Bonnie. Woody figures that if he once converted Buzz, he can bring Forky around to accepting that he’s a toy. That insistence on protecting Forky, no matter how much he’d rather rot among the refuse, sends Woody on his latest wild adventure beyond the safety of shelves and slatted closets. But he discovers an unexpected path back to Bo Peep, now a fiercely independent Imperator Furiosa on the lost-toy scene, and, in a pivot from Woody’s usual panic at the idea of becoming lost himself, considers the potential perks of that lifestyle.

During these moments, which alternate between an antique shop and adjacent carnival, director Josh Cooley coaxes yet more stunning animation from the Pixar team. If we are to believe Woody is truly weighing his options, these settings must feel both perilous and promising. The animators nail that allure with noirish pegboard alleys, toy speakeasies and a moment in which Woody comes to understand that sometimes a sliver of light changes how you see the world. Washed through with sunsets and illumination that feels like a beacon, Toy Story 4 has a softer, more filmic quality than its predecessors. Even as Pixar might slip in consistent creative acuity, it has retained its reign over ravishing, regal visuals.

All of this builds to a conclusion in which, for once, Woody seems truly lost for words and must rely upon the kindness of his friends to close emotional loops on his behalf. And yet the film’s (franchise’s?) final moments feel more pleasant than profound. Indeed, in ways that prop up the film’s narrative while embracing Pixar’s generally gun-shy creativity of late, Toy Story 4 endorses the eventual recalibration of expectations, that it’s OK to just be who you are rather than what others have built you up to be.

These aren’t bad messages — in some ways, they’re not unlike Thor’s arc in Avengers: Endgame — nor do they make for a bad movie. But they do suggest that Toy Story 4’s own inner voice is on autopilot; ultimately this installment feels as superfluous as it sounded when the project was announced. Enjoyable and energetic but hardly essential, this is a piece you could pluck from the Toy Story canon and truly never notice was gone — a third Godfather, a fourth Indiana Jones. That’s a long way from the baseline of a franchise that always challenged itself to reach for the sky.