Skip to main content

The spoon is safer.

Toy Story 4
(2019)

(SPOILERS) Do you want a Toy Story that’s just entirely serviceable? I mean, that’s what they all are, but Toy Story 4 appears to set out to be precisely that, a collection of already over-familiar series elements dusted down, spruced up and rolled off the conveyer belt with the necessary sheen (and then some), but rarely truly inspired. As such, while there have been occasional longueurs during previous instalments – usually involving a Randy Newman song – this is the first time I’ve felt a certain listlessness coming on.

Obviously, ever since the first one, I’ve been coming at these movies in an ever-so-slightly glass-half-empty capacity, in that while they’re enjoyable, the feeling that they aren’t altogether satisfying in basic premise sticks with me. Toy Story 4 does, I suppose, have some interesting thematic content, if only because it bizarrely turns on its head – betrays even – the very essence of existence these characters have been espousing all this time.

Even in this film, the insurmountable importance and meaning of being a wanted toy is emphasised and emphasised again, this time with the inevitable rejected toy (see Toy Story 2 and 3, this time the Gabby Gabby doll, voiced by Christina Hendricks) turned villain – and her Morrisey-like vents-doll minions – complete with flashback, only on this occasion screenwriters Stephany Folsom and Andrew Stanton bottle it as far as punishment is concerned and allow the character a happy ending, via one of the movie’s frequent mawkish interludes (the quotient of upset cute kids is much higher here than previously, I suspect more so than the other three films put together).

It seems odd then, that Woody, the ultimate espouser of toys’ essential existential meaning as vassals for their owners’ fantasies, should reject it all for a life of bliss with Bo Peep, because how can that give him the same sense of fulfilment? We’ve repeatedly been shown it’s not possible for a toy; the metaphor seems to be one of “earthly delights” supplanting religious calling, if you like, albeit Woody devoting himself to finding owners for toys at the carnival doesn’t really support the movie’s confused themes, since he’s still ultimately in service of toys finding their own personal “gods”.

Elsewhere, the picture offers a slightly spin on previous perspectives, whereby the toys (mainly Woody), instead of merely devoting themselves to preserving the status quo, indulge themselves nostalgically, looking back on their past achievements with owners in the manner of proud parents. In his Guardian review, Peter Bradshaw suggested of the previous Toy Storys that, rather than being about the fear of obsolescence, they’re about “the parents who fear the moment when their child doesn’t want to play with them anymore” (surely that should be a blessed relief?) Whether or not that’s his projection, it certainly fits with the attitude playing out here.

The spectre of existential purpose also inhabits the supporting characters. While Woody unlearns his life meaning, the owner-fashioned spork learns his, considering himself worthless (trash) until he is taught the value of service to creator Bonnie. The character of Forky is undoubtedly the movie’s highlight, marvellously and eccentrically voiced by the inimitable Tony Hale. He’s consistently the funniest element, albeit possibly not as hilarious as Disney being able to sell Forky toys for tens of pounds/dollars in respect of something composed, as he repeatedly puts it, from trash.

Key and Peele’s inseparable cuddly toys Ducky and Bunny also get big laughs, particularly as a consequence of their Edgar Wright/ Ant-Man what-if scenarios not to come to pass (usually involving revealing their animated inanimate object status to humans). Keanu Reeves occupies the Michael “Ken” Keaton guest spot as Canadian daredevil crap toy Duke Caboom, and like Ken, the character’s amenable and mildly amusing, but possibly not entirely worthy of the time devoted to him.

Generally then, director Josh Cooley (graduating to features) does a good job with the new faces, but the old very definitely suffer, many of them barely getting a look in. Buzz has his own subplot about listening to his inner voice, but he’s relegated to the side-lines while Woody and his new companions, and romantic subplot, take centre stage.

Of which, the returning Bo Peep (Annie Potts), formerly of limited autonomy and with such little interest devoted to her that she was entirely absent last time, is retconned as a kickass shepherdess driving around in a skunk. It may just be coincidence that the series has, right at the end, become overtly progressive – Woody willingly takes orders from Bo, and her influence is such that she persuades him to forsake his entire raison d’être (earlier too, Woody is seen to be subordinated, as Bonnie Hunt’s Dolly effectively calls the shots amongst Bonnie’s toys). While this arguably reflects appropriately on Woody’s always rather pompous status, it’s also perhaps indicative of Pixar, in the absence of John Lasseter’s unwanted hugs, attempting to redress the series’ (and studio’s) gender balance in perhaps not the most seamless of ways; it’s always better to finesse the story beats rather than crowbar them in generically.

the presence of Forky only slightly offsets certain familiar plot mechanisms, since a family road trip rapidly leads to Woody encountering the usual hellish realm – an antique store this time, rather than a day-care centre or a toy collector’s abode or a psycho kid’s room. And it may in part be that familiarity, but it isn’t all that compelling this time, the odd breathless chase aside; Woody’s lost voice box isn’t disturbing the way it might have been in an earlier instalment; Cooley merely goes through the motions of a frightening sequence, and Woody isn’t shown to have lost anything vital through the extraction (even if itisequivalent, functionally, to organ trafficking). The manner of parcelling out the plot is also less lucid than before. On the one hand, this means you aren’t entirely sure which direction the movie might be heading, on the other, it makes it seem slightly piecemeal and uncoordinated. You could legitimately argue that the formula – the same elements rearranged in slightly different but still engaging ways – is exactly what makes these movies work, in the manner of Bond or the MCU, but I was never entirely convinced in this case for the need of any repeat go-arounds. In Toy Story 4, it definitely begins to run thin. 



Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

I should have mailed it to the Marx Brothers.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
When your hero(es) ride off into the sunset at the end of a film, it’s usually a pretty clear indication that a line is being drawn under their adventures. Sure, rumours surfaced during the ‘90s of various prospective screenplays for a fourth outing for the whip-cracking archeologist. But I’m dubious anyone really expected it to happen. There seemed to be a natural finality to Last Crusade that made the announcement of his 2007 return nostalgically welcome but otherwise unwarranted. That it turned out so tepid merely seemed like confirmation of what we already knew; Indy’s time was past.

You want to investigate me, roll the dice and take your chances.

A Few Good Men (1992)
(SPOILERS) Aaron Sorkin has penned a few good manuscripts in his time, but A Few Good Men, despite being inspired by an actual incident (one related to him by his sister, an army lawyer on a case at the time), falls squarely into the realm of watchable but formulaic. I’m not sure I’d revisited the entire movie since seeing it at the cinema, but my reaction is largely the same: that it’s about as impressively mounted and star-studded as Hollywood gets, but it’s ultimately a rather empty courtroom drama.

Do you read Sutter Cane?

In the Mouth of Madness (1994)
(SPOILERS) The concluding chapter of John Carpenter’s unofficial Apocalypse Trilogy (preceded by The Thing and Prince of Darkness) is also, sadly, his last great movie. Indeed, it stands apart in the qualitative wilderness that beset him during the ‘90s (not for want of output). Michael De Luca’s screenplay had been doing the rounds since the ‘80s, even turned down by Carpenter at one point, and it proves ideal fodder for the director, bringing out the best in him. Even cinematographer Gary K Kibbe seems inspired enough to rise to the occasion. It could do without the chugging rawk soundtrack, perhaps, but then, that was increasingly where Carpenter’s interests resided (as opposed to making decent movies).

If you never do anything, you never become anyone.

An Education (2009)
Carey Mulligan deserves all the attention she received for her central performance, and the depiction of the ‘60s is commendably subdued. I worried there was going to be a full-blown music montage sequence at the climax that undid all the good work, but thankfully it was fairly low key. 

Alfred Molina and Olivia Williams are especially strong in the supporting roles, and it's fortunate for credibility’s sake that that Orlando Bloom had to drop out and Dominic Cooper replaced him.
***1/2

Everyone who had a talent for it lived happily ever after.

Empire 30:  Favourite Films of the Last 30 Years
Empire’s readers’ poll to celebrate its thirtieth birthday – a request for the ultimate thirty films of the last thirty years, one per year from 1989 – required a bit of thought, particularly since they weren’t just limiting it to your annual favourite (“These can be the films that impressed you the most, the ones that stuck with you, that brought you joy, or came to you at just the right time”). Also – since the question was asked on Twitter, although I don’t know how rigorous they’re being; does it apply to general release, or does it include first film festival showings? – they’re talking UK release dates, rather than US, calling for that extra modicum of mulling. To provide more variety, I opted to limit myself to just one film per director; otherwise, my thirty would have been top heavy with, at very least, Coen Brothers movies. So here’s they are, with runners-up and reasoning:

What happens at 72?

Midsommar (2019)
(SPOILERS) Ari Aster, by rights, ought already to be buckling under the weight of all those accolades amassing around him, pronouncing him a horror wunderkind a mere two films in. But while both Midsommar and Hereditary have both received broadly similar critical acclaim, his second feature will lag behind the first by some distance in box office, unless something significant happens in a hitherto neglected territory. That isn’t such a surprise on seeing it. While Hereditary keeps its hand firmly on the tiller of shock value and incident, so as to sustain it’s already more than adequate running time, Midsommar runs a full twenty minutes longer, which is positively – or rather, negatively – over-indulgent for what we have here, content-wise, and suggests a director whose crowned auteurishness has instantly gone to his head.

You're always sorry, Charles, and there's always a speech, but nobody cares anymore.

X-Men: Dark Phoenix (2019)
(SPOILERS) To credit its Rotten Tomatoes score (22%), you’d think X-Men: Dark Phoenix was a travesty that besmirched the name of all good and decent (read: MCU proper) superhero movies, or even last week’s underwhelming creature feature (Godzilla: King of Monsters has somehow reached 40%, despite being a lesser beast in every respect). Is the movie’s fate a self-fulfilling prophecy, what with delayed release dates and extensively reported reshoots? Were critics castigating a fait accompli turkey without giving it a chance? That would be presupposing they’re all sheep, though, and in fairness, other supposed write-offs havecome back from such a brink in the past (World War Z). Whatever the feelings of the majority, Dark Phoenix is actually a mostly okay (twelfth) instalment in the X-franchise – it’s exactly what you’d expect from an X-Men movie at this point, one without any real mojo left and a variable cast struggling to pull its weight. The third act is a bi…

Can you float through the air when you smell a delicious pie?

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
(SPOILERS) Ironically, given the source material, think I probably fell into the category of many who weren't overly disposed to give this big screen Spider-Man a go on the grounds that it was an animation. After all, if it wasn’t "good enough" for live-action, why should I give it my time? Not even Phil Lord and Christopher Miller's pedigree wholly persuaded me; they'd had their stumble of late, although admittedly in that live-action arena. As such, it was only the near-unanimous critics' approval that swayed me, suggesting I'd have been missing out. They – not always the most reliable arbiters of such populist fare, which made the vote of confidence all the more notable – were right. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is not only a first-rate Spider-Man movie, it's a fresh, playful and (perhaps) surprisingly heartfelt origins story.

Why would I turn into a filing cabinet?

Captain Marvel (2019)
(SPOILERS) All superhero movies are formulaic to a greater or lesser degree. Mostly greater. The key to an actually great one – or just a pretty good one – is making that a virtue, rather than something you’re conscious of limiting the whole exercise. The irony of the last two stand-alone MCU pictures is that, while attempting to bring somewhat down-the-line progressive cachet to the series, they’ve delivered rather pedestrian results. Of course, that didn’t dim Black Panther’s cultural cachet (and what do I know, swathes of people also profess to loving it), and Captain Marvel has hit half a billion in its first few days – it seems that, unless you’re poor unloved Ant-Man, an easy $1bn is the new $700m for the MCU – but neither’s protagonist really made that all-important iconic impact.