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Toy Story 4 (2019)

The Toy Story franchise has been the gold standard for Pixar with three excellent movies, the last of which was released back in 2010. When the Pixar bigwigs announced they were making a fourth entry, I felt some degree of concern. The hidden world of toys still felt like an interesting world with more stories to be told, but did we need to revisit Woody and Buzz and the gang? Everything ended so beautifully and perfectly with the third movie, with the toys getting their sendoff from their original owner and a new life in the possession of a new child, little Bonnie. I’ve been more wary about this movie than just about any other Pixar film because the audience had something that could be lost, namely closure. If they harmed that perfect ending in the crass desire to extend the franchise for an extra buck, it would have been aggravating and depressing to disturb something that felt so complete. It’s like when Michael Jordan came out of retirement (the second time) to be a shadow of himself for the Washington Wizards in order to sell tickets for the team he was part owner of. Nobody wanted that. I’m happy to report that Toy Story 4 is a treat of a movie and a worthy addition to the franchise.

Bonnie is gearing up for kindergarten and nervous about the change. She isn’t allowed to take toys with her to school, though that doesn’t stop Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks) from tagging along. In her desire for a friend, and with a little assist from a certain cowboy, Bonnie creates a fork-figure named Forky (Tony Hale), and amazingly it comes to life. Woody tries valiantly to convince Forky that being a toy to a child is the greatest gift but he’s also really reminding himself now that he sees his influence waning with Bonnie as he’s selected for play time less and less. During a family road trip, Forky escapes and Woody leaps to find him, both of them coming into the clutches of Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), an antique doll missing a functional voice box who has her sights set on Woody’s voice box.  It’s at this small-town pit stop for a carnival that Woody discovers Bo Peep (Annie Potts), an old flame he never thought he would see again. She’s assured, happy, and preaching a life of being independent from a kid. Woody has defined himself for so long by one identity, and now he must decide which to follow.

In many ways, Toy Story 4 takes themes and questions from the third movie and improves upon them, making what could have been a retread feel like a do-over you didn’t know you desired. It’s been many years since I saw the third film but I recall the major themes being the fear of change, reconciling one’s self-identity, and the courage of letting go and starting over. The toys had to recognize that their owner was growing up and their old place wasn’t going to be the same. This same issue finds new life in Toy Story 4 primarily through the lens of Woody, who finds himself on the decline with his kid’s interest. He’s not offended or upset by this but is still trying to provide what assistance he can as a beloved toy, even if that relationship becomes more and more one-sided. His identity is in selfless sacrifice for another, but with the re-emergence of Bo, he is now contemplating a life on his own, a life without a kid. This alternate path never seemed a possibility until his former flame stepped back into his life. It challenged Woody in a way that feels more personal and more relevant than it did with 3, especially with the removal of a larger external threat to occupy the attention of our main characters. This places a renewed focus on Woody’s internal dilemma beyond his role as leader and protector.

Toy Story 4 might also be the weirdest movie of the franchise, which really elevates the comedy into another realm. I thought the characters played by Jordan Peele (Us) and Keegan Michael-Key (Predator) were going to quickly wear out their welcome; they seemed to be a heavy part of pre-release teaser trailers. The filmmakers don’t overdo them and use them in clever ways, which is a compliment that can be applied to every new character in this sequel. The plushies by Key and Peele have a hilarious running gag of their increasingly absurd plans to attack a woman, and one instance deliciously prolongs the eventual punchline, becoming more bizarre and macabre to the point that I lost control from laughter. Keanu Reeves (John Wick 3) is fun as a very Canadian Evel Knievel motorcycle driver, and the weird references to the Canada-ness of it are played completely straight, making it even funnier (his laments with the French-Canadian boy’s name made me snicker every time). There’s a trio of action figures, Combat Carls, and one of the three is always left hanging for high-fives and he just leaves his arm up waiting, silently pleading, and then lowers it in defeat, and it’s hysterical even just as a background gag. The ventriloquist dummies are routinely played for creepy laughs and physical humor. There’s a running joke where Buttercup, the unicorn voiced by Jeff Garlin, is always suggesting getting Bonnie’s father sent to jail no matter the circumstances. It’s these touches of weirdness that make the movie stand out that much more from the three others.

The villain of Toy Story 4 is given a surprising sense of poignancy, enough that I genuinely sympathized with her plight. She’s a damaged doll used to being behind glass, isolated and separated from the children she wishes to be part of. She views her salvation in fixing in her damaged voice box, her perceived disability. She’s after what Woody has physically, the voice box, but it’s a means to an ends to have what Woody has had emotionally, the love of a child in need, the connection she yearns for. I won’t spoil what happens with her but even when there are setbacks the film and the characters don’t give up on Gabby Gabby. Her perspective and desires are still seen as valued, and the eventual resolution of her character put a lump in my throat. She wasn’t really the villain after all. She was just another toy in pain looking for acceptance and having to adjust her identity. I feel like there is a conscious disability empowerment message implanted in Toy Story 4, namely that those who are disfigured, disabled, or seen as “broken” can continue to be valuable and that their lives don’t end.

If this serves as the finale of the franchise, it will end on a fitting and resonant high-point. As much as Toy Story 3 was about change and acceptance, this sequel does a very respectable effort of personalizing that message even more to one central character’s dramatic arc. It also works wonderfully playing off of our collective investment in the character over the course of four movies and twenty-four years. There are some drawbacks to this approach. It makes the majority of the other toy characters feel like they have little to do on the sidelines, other than fret about retrieving Woody and Forky. Buzz is given a cute joke about listening to his inner voice but it doesn’t amount to much more than a cute joke. The inclusion of Forky feels like an exciting and even daring addition, tackling some existential questions and how and when toys are “made” and brought into being, and he presents these for a while. Once we get to our carnival setting and Forky is captured, he seems to be forgotten about. He’s more a motivation point for Woody than overtly anything else. I suppose you could make the analysis that Forky represents how Bonnie is moving on even with invented toys at the expense of Woody. However, these are minor quibbles considering the quality and emotional involvement of what Pixar has produced.

It goes without saying that the animation is beautiful but what amazed me is how expressive the faces of the characters could be, even when they were relatively inflexible toys. The relationship between Woody and Bo actually has a surprising amount of nonverbal dramatic acting to communicate nuance. As the years go by, I continue to be further and further amazed at the Pixar animators and their abilities.

As protective I was over Toy Story 3’s perfect ending, I am happy to say that Toy Story 4 more than justifies its own existence in this hallowed franchise and even improves from the third film. The themes are something of a repeat but the filmmakers have elected to focus almost entirely on Woody and his personal journey, and it makes the loss and possibility more robustly felt. In many ways the film is an exploration on relationships and the need to redefine ourselves, to move onward when the time is right, and to try something new even if things get scary. Between Woody and Gabby Gabby, ostensibly the hero and villain of the piece, they’re looking for meaningful connections where they can. They may be secondhand, they may be disabled, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t worthy of affection. This is a joyous movie that finds time to be wonderfully weird and often funny. It might not have the set pieces or ensemble showmanship of the prior Toy Story tales, but what it does have is a character-based emphasis on the most complex figure in this universe of toys. The conclusion is moving and satisfying and I don’t mind admitting that tears were shed. I even teared up at different other earlier points. Toy Story 4 could have gone a lot of different ways but I’m relieved and appreciative with this new sendoff we’ve been granted.

Nate’s Grade: A

Cars (2006)

While I’d never call Pixar’s latest animated film a disappointment, it is the company’s first speed bump in their unprecedented reign of unmatched quality. Cars is technically dazzling; it’s almost redundant to say a CGI film is the best-looking ever because the technology keeps improving with time but Cars is incredible to watch. The lushly painted vistas, the way light gleams on surfaces, the blurs of color, the near-photographic likeness of cars themselves, this is a beautifully animated film, obviously. What isn’t as beautiful is the lackluster storyline. I can feel Pixar’s heart in the right place but they don’t put enough effort to touch our own hearts. Cars lacks the depth of Pixar’s other features. The two Toy Story films managed to take a kiddy concept of the secret life of toys when no one’s watching and infuse it with serious moral dilemmas and a mature insight into mortality and community. In Cars, the main storyline involves a cocky hot rod Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) who lives in a glitzy world that revolves around him. He goes off the beaten path and finds himself trapped in Radiator Springs, a tiny town that’s all but been dried up since the interstate took folks away from them. There, Lightning learns there’s more to life than material riches from this eclectic mix of good, honest small-town folk. What I’ve just described to you could be the plot of hundreds of movies championing the likes of small town folk. They surprisingly never really go much deeper, though Paul Newman is terrific as an old time car that had a taste of the glory and arrogance way back.

This is the first Pixar movie to exist in a world without humans, which begs the question how living automobiles were able to construct their world minus opposable thumbs. Cars themselves are weirdly inexpressive creatures.

The climax to Cars is suitable and heartfelt but the movie, at two hours in length, sputters a while in the middle. This is the first film directed by Pixar’s big cheese, John Lasseter, since 1999’s Toy Story 2, so excuse me for expecting a little more. Still, the movie is certainly fun, exciting, more cute than funny, and it has a genuine sweetness to go with its visual prowess. I just wish the 8 credited screenwriters, including Lasseter himself, had revved up their imaginations a bit more beyond the conceptual stage. Cars isn’t a great movie, but coming from Pixar, it’s still very good. Hey, anyone that can make the voice of Larry the Cable Guy tolerable deserves my thanks.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Green Mile (1999)

A prison in the heart of the deep South during the era of the Great Depression is not usually the locale you’d find a somber tale of earnest discovery and passionate awareness to the follies of life. Yet here arrives the long anticipated The Green Mile, the second in tag-team efforts from director Frank Darabont and novelist Stephen King in their own genre creation of nostalgic feel-good prison flicks. All the swelling hype could manage to make the movie seem overbearing, but if you’ve got a free afternoon and a butt made of steel then try The Green Mile.

Darabont seems like the perfect visual interpreter to King’s epic narrative spinning of good, evil, and all that fall between. The movie moves at the pace of molasses and clocks in at over three hours in length. Not exactly audience friendly fodder but one and all will be grateful for the decisions taken to build character development and tension instead of blindly rushing through.

Tom Hanks plays a prison guard on the Death Row block of a Southern penitentiary. Despite the bleak and grim surroundings his humanity still shines through. He escorts and oversees the final moments of many men’s remaining breaths along the final walk of green linoleum tile to the electric chair. Enter one mysterious morn John Coffey (Michael Clark Duncan), a towering giant that seems to break all the rules each of the guards on cell block E has come to realize through their years. Coffey has been convicted of the rape and murder of two little girls, but as Hanks soon learns things aren’t always what they seem. The 7-foot miracle worker displays scenes of empathetic healing like to Christ himself. Hanks views are turned and his eyes open, and that’s just the beginning of the heartstrings being pulled. To release anymore of the plot would be a crime punishable by Ole’ Sparky himself in the Green Mile.

The pacing is smooth and wrings out every droplet of mystery and drama needed. The Green Mile‘s comprehensive fable quality transcends the period just like The Shawshank Redemption did as well prior. ‘Mile’ should be expected to be a front-runner for Oscars when balloting begins.

The ensemble acting is magnificently eclectic and truly inspiring. Hanks’ name is so synonymous with Oscar that he might as well shave his head and paint his body gold because come nomination time this man’s name is going straight to the ballot. Other stars give thoughtfully deep and refreshing performances guaranteed to turn a few heads. Duncan’s gentle child-like giant is serene and a benevolently touching figure of innocence and warmth. But one can not forget the presence of a very special rodent by the name of Mr. jingles that deserves billing above the credits itself for the quality performance it puts on.

The Green Mile is a sad, touching ,and rather powerful movie that speaks to the viewer’s emotions and gladly earns every one of them. In the end The Green Mile is nothing beyond a long yarn of a fairy tale; but one told so exceptionally, one performed so extraordinarily, and one directed so deftly that you’ll gladly journey down that mile with ease.

Nate’s Grade: B

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