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

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

So you want me to be half-monk, half-hitman.

Casino Royale (2006)
(SPOILERS) Despite the doubts and trepidation from devotees (too blonde, uncouth etc.) that greeted Daniel Craig’s casting as Bond, and the highly cynical and low-inspiration route taken by Eon in looking to Jason Bourne's example to reboot a series that had reached a nadir with Die Another Day, Casino Royale ends up getting an enormous amount right. If anything, its failure is that it doesn’t push far enough, so successful is it in disarming itself of the overblown set pieces and perfunctory plotting that characterise the series (even at its best), elements that would resurge with unabated gusto in subsequent Craig excursions.

For the majority of its first two hours, Casino Royale is top-flight entertainment, with returning director Martin Campbell managing to exceed his excellent work reformatting Bond for the ‘90s. That the weakest sequence (still good, mind) prior to the finale is a traditional “big” (but not too big) action set piece involving an attempt to…

You killed my sandwich!

Birds of Prey (and the Fanatabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) (2020)
(SPOILERS) One has to wonder at Bird of Prey’s 79% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. I mean, such things are to be taken with a pinch of salt at the best of times, but it would be easy, given the disparity between such evident approval and the actually quality of the movie, to suspect insincere motives on the part of critics, that they’re actually responding to its nominally progressive credentials – female protagonists in a superhero flick! – rather than its content. Which I’m quite sure couldn’t possibly be the case. Birds of Prey (and the Fanatabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) isn’t very good. The trailers did not lie, even if the positive reviews might have misled you into thinking they were misleading.

Afraid, me? A man who’s licked his weight in wild caterpillars? You bet I’m afraid.

Monkey Business (1931)
(SPOILERS) The Marx Brothers’ first feature possessed of a wholly original screenplay, Monkey Business is almost brazenly dismissive towards notions of coherence, just as long as it loosely supports their trademark antics. And it does so in spades, depositing them as stowaways bound for America who fall in with a couple of mutually antagonistic racketeers/ gangsters while attempting to avoid being cast in irons. There’s no Margaret Dumont this time out, but Groucho is more than matched by flirtation-interest Thelma Todd.

Remember, you're fighting for this woman's honour – which is probably more than she ever did.

Duck Soup (1933)
(SPOILERS) Not for nothing is Duck Soup acclaimed as one of the greatest comedies ever, and while you’d never hold it against Marx Brothers movies for having little in the way of coherent plotting in – indeed, it’s pretty much essential to their approach – the presence of actual thematic content this time helps sharpen the edges of both their slapstick and their satire.

You’re a disgrace to the family name of Wagstaff, if such a thing is possible.

Horse Feathers (1932)
(SPOILERS) After a scenario that seemed feasible in Monkey Business – the brothers as stowaways – Horse Feathers opts for a massive stretch. Somehow, Groucho (Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff) has been appointed as the president of Huxley University, proceeding to offer the trustees and assembled throng a few suggestions on how he’ll run things (by way of anarchistic creed “Whatever it is, I’m against it”). There’s a reasonably coherent mission statement in this one, however, at least until inevitably it devolves into gleeful incoherence.

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

Bad luck to kill a seabird.

The Lighthouse (2019)
(SPOILERS) Robert Eggers’ acclaimed – and Oscar-nominated – second feature is, in some respects, a similar beast to his previous The Witch, whereby isolated individuals of bygone eras are subjected to the unsparing attentions of nature. In his scheme of things, nature becomes an active, embodied force, one that has no respect for the line between imaginings and reality and which proceeds to test its targets’ sanity by means of both elements and elementals. All helped along by unhealthy doses of superstition. But where The Witch sustained itself, and the gradual unravelling of the family unit led to a germane climax, The Lighthouse becomes, well, rather silly.

To defeat the darkness out there, you must defeat the darkness inside yourself.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010)
Easily the best of the Narnia films, which is maybe damning it with faint praise. 

Michael Apted does a competent job directing (certainly compared to his Bond film - maybe he talked to his second unit this time), Dante Spinotti's cinematography is stunning and the CGI mostly well-integrated with the action. 

Performance-wise, Will Poulter is a stand-out as a tremendously obnoxious little toff, so charismatic you're almost rooting for him. Simon Pegg replaces Eddie Izzard as the voice of Reepicheep and delivers a touching performance.
***