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.

Popular posts from this blog

Doctors make the worst patients.

Coma (1978) (SPOILERS) Michael Crichton’s sophomore big-screen feature, and by some distance his best. Perhaps it’s simply that this a milieu known to him, or perhaps it’s that it’s very much aligned to the there-and-now and present, but Coma , despite the occasional lapse in this adaptation of colleague Robin Cook’s novel, is an effective, creepy, resonant thriller and then some. Crichton knows his subject, and it shows – the picture is confident and verisimilitudinous in a way none of his other directorial efforts are – and his low-key – some might say clinical – approach pays dividends. You might also call it prescient, but that would be to suggest its subject matter wasn’t immediately relevant then too.

Abandon selective targeting. Shoot everything.

28 Weeks Later (2007) (SPOILERS) The first five minutes of 28 Weeks Later are far and away the best part of this sequel, offering in quick succession a devastating moral quandary and a waking nightmare, immortalised on the screen. After that, while significantly more polished, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo reveals his concept to be altogether inferior to Danny Boyle and Alex Garland’s, falling back on the crutches of gore, nihilism, and disengaging and limiting shifts of focus between characters in whom one has little investment in the first place.

I said I had no family. I didn’t say I had an empty apartment.

The Apartment (1960) (SPOILERS) Billy Wilder’s romcom delivered the genre that rare Best Picture Oscar winner. Albeit, The Apartment amounts to a rather grim (now) PG-rated scenario, one rife with adultery, attempted suicide, prostitution of the soul and subjective thereof of the body. And yet, it’s also, finally, rather sweet, so salving the darker passages and evidencing the director’s expertly judged balancing act. Time Out ’s Tom Milne suggested the ending was a cop out (“ boy forgives girl and all’s well ”). But really, what other ending did the audience or central characters deserve?

The Bible never said anything about amphetamines.

The Color of Money (1986) (SPOILERS) I tend to think it’s evident when Scorsese isn’t truly exercised by material. He can still invest every ounce of the technical acumen at his fingertips, and the results can dazzle on that level, but you don’t really feel the filmmaker in the film. Which, for one of his pictures to truly carry a wallop, you need to do. We’ve seen quite a few in such deficit in recent years, most often teaming with Leo. The Color of Money , however, is the first where it was out-and-out evident the subject matter wasn’t Marty’s bag. He needed it, desperately, to come off, but in the manner a tradesman who wants to keep getting jobs. This sequel to The Hustler doesn’t linger in the mind, however good it may be, moment by moment.

Your desecration of reality will not go unpunished.

2021-22 Best-of, Worst-of and Everything Else Besides The movies might be the most visible example of attempts to cling onto cultural remnants as the previous societal template clatters down the drain. It takes something people really want – unlike a Bond movie where he kicks the can – to suggest the model of yesteryear, one where a billion-dollar grosser was like sneezing. You can argue Spider-Man: No Way Home is replete with agendas of one sort or another, and that’s undoubtedly the case (that’s Hollywood), but crowding out any such extraneous elements (and they often are) is simply a consummate crowd-pleaser that taps into tangible nostalgia through its multiverse take. Of course, nostalgia for a mere seven years ago, for something you didn’t like anyway, is a symptom of how fraught these times have become.

You just threw a donut in the hot zone!

Den of Thieves (2018) (SPOILERS) I'd heard this was a shameless  Heat  rip-off, and the presence of Gerard Butler seemed to confirm it would be passable-at-best B-heist hokum, so maybe it was just middling expectations, even having heard how enthused certain pockets of the Internet were, but  Den of Thieves  is a surprisingly very satisfying entry in the genre. I can't even fault it for attempting to Keyser Soze the whole shebang at the last moment – add a head in a box and you have three 1995 classics in one movie – even if that particular conceit doesn’t quite come together.

This guy’s armed with a hairdryer.

An Innocent Man (1989) (SPOILERS) Was it a chicken-and-egg thing with Tom Selleck and movies? Did he consistently end up in ropey pictures because other, bigger big-screen stars had first dibs on the good stuff? Or was it because he was a resolutely small-screen guy with limited range and zero good taste? Selleck had about half-a-dozen cinema outings during the 1980s, one of which, the very TV, very Touchstone Three Men and a Baby was a hit, but couldn’t be put wholly down to him. The final one was An Innocent Man , where he attempted to show some grit and mettle, as nice-guy Tom is framed and has to get tough to survive. Unfortunately, it’s another big-screen TV movie.

Listen to the goddamn qualified scientists!

Don’t Look Up (2021) (SPOILERS) It’s testament to Don’t Look Up ’s “quality” that critics who would normally lap up this kind of liberal-causes messaging couldn’t find it within themselves to grant it a free pass. Adam McKay has attempted to refashion himself as a satirist since jettisoning former collaborator Will Ferrell, but as a Hollywood player and an inevitably socio-politically partisan one, he simply falls in line with the most obvious, fatuous propagandising.

Captain, he who walks in fire will burn his feet.

The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973) (SPOILERS) Ray Harryhausen returns to the kind of unadulterated fantasy material that made Jason and the Argonauts such a success – swords & stop motion, if you like. In between, there were a couple of less successful efforts, HG Wells adaptation First Men in the Moon and The Valley of the Gwangi (which I considered the best thing ever as a kid: dinosaur walks into a cowboy movie). Harryhausen’s special-effects supremacy – in a for-hire capacity – had also been consummately eclipsed by Raquel Welch’s fur bikini in One Million Years B.C . The Golden Voyage of Sinbad follows the expected Dynamation template – blank-slate hero, memorable creatures, McGuffin quest – but in its considerable favour, it also boasts a villainous performance by nobody-at-the-time, on-the-cusp-of-greatness Tom Baker.

Archimedes would split himself with envy.

Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977) (SPOILERS) Generally, this seems to be the Ray Harryhausen Sinbad outing that gets the short straw in the appreciation stakes. Which is rather unfair. True, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger lacks Tom Baker and his rich brown voice personifying evil incarnate – although Margaret Whiting more than holds her own in the wickedness stakes – and the structure follows the Harryhausen template perhaps over scrupulously (Beverly Cross previously collaborated with the stop-motion auteur on Jason and the Argonauts , and would again subsequently with Clash of the Titans ). But the storytelling is swift and sprightly, and the animation itself scores, achieving a degree of interaction frequently more proficient than its more lavishly praised peer group.