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Toy Story 4


toy-story-4 poster

Toy Story 4 (2019)

Is there a better tetralogy of films than the recently completed (?) Toy Story franchise? It’s a question I didn’t immediately ponder upon viewing Toy Story 4, but in the days that followed it’s something I’ve started to consider. I’m not sure what the most famous tetralogy is, but my mind first went to the Indiana Jones franchise. While that one is quite good, I think most would agree the fourth film is okay at best. After that, and it gets murky for me. There’s a lot of trilogy franchises that were turned into four films like The Hunger Games and Twilight. I’ve seen The Hunger Games, I’ve never bothered with Twilight, but I don’t think many would argue for either as being great. There’s also Avengers, but that feels like another beast entirely given how interconnected it is with other Marvel films. And then there are a bunch of former trilogies turned into long-running franchises like Star Wars that took themselves beyond four films.

I’m surely missing out on some and there’s probably a good tetralogy or two I’m spacing on, but I’m having a hard time finding a worthy contender to what Pixar has done with its Toy Story franchise. It’s surprising how successful it has been considering Pixar never even envisioned doing a sequel. Disney all but mandated Toy Story 2 be a thing because of how successful the original was. It even started as a direct-to-video feature that earned a theatrical release and, for many, is the most beloved entry in the series. Toy Story 3 surprised and delighted movie-goers in 2010 and seemed to put a bow on the franchise as it dealt with the toys moving on from their beloved owner, Andy. A few TV specials have emerged since and it seemed like that’s where Toy Story was destined to reside. Then the world was surprised in 2014 when Toy Story 4 was officially confirmed as in development.

Toy Story 4 had probably the most treacherous development cycle (though most treacherous moment still belongs to Toy Story 2 when that film was accidentally deleted) of any of the films in the series thus far. A lot of writers came and went and the picture was delayed a year not once, but twice. John Lasseter was unceremoniously dumped by Disney and Pixar following some allegations of inappropriate conduct which was made worse when actress/writer Rashida Jones left the picture citing a disagreement on where the story was heading and renewing concerns that Pixar was not a great place for women creators. Given the turmoil behind the scenes, and the already high bar set by the previous films, it would not have been at all surprising if Toy Story 4 turned out to be a bust in the end. Pixar has a tremendous track record, but a similarly troubled picture like The Good Dinosaur wasn’t able to overcome development hell.

bo peeps outlook

Bo Peep is back and she has a whole new outlook on what it means to be a toy that Woody has to come to grips with.

Unlike The Good Dinosaur, this is Toy Story. This is the franchise that essentially made Pixar was it is today and it’s these characters that the company will be most identified by for as long as humans are around and talking about movies. There was likely a different kind of focus behind the scenes and a determination by those involved to make sure that this movie did not harm the reputation of the studio and the franchise as a whole. A lot of credit seems to be going to Andrew Stanton who has helmed several Pixar projects and director Josh Cooley, who was selected by Lasseter to helm his first feature-length project. Further credit should also go to these wonderful characters created by Pixar who quite simply refuse to stop being so damn charming and interesting despite appearing in now four films where the plot is nearly the same in all four with just slight variations on the setup.

Several years ago I ranked Pixar’s 10 best features and selected Toy Story 3 as my favorite in the Toy Story trilogy. It’s still my favorite, but following it I also had no idea how the franchise could go on. Well, that’s not entirely true. Pixar could have easily just stitched together another adventure only now instead of Andy in the background it’s Bonnie. After all, at their core all four films are just the toys getting lost and having to find their way back. That, however, isn’t really Pixar’s philosophy. Their features have purpose, and for Toy Story 4 the concept of self-identity and self worth are its purpose and main story. And the vehicle for that story is Woody (Tom Hanks), who was once the favorite toy of Andy but is now a cast-off in the eyes of Bonnie. He’s going to be paired up with newcomer Forky (Tony Hale), a spork turned into a toy via Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw) who has a hard time coming to grips with the fact that he’s no longer a discarded utensil but an actual toy.

Bonnie takes an immediate liking to Forky, and at least for the duration of the film, Forky is her new favorite toy. Forky though considers himself trash and all he wants is to be thrown away. It’s up to Woody to make sure that doesn’t happen. It’s a task Woody gives himself because he has no other purpose at the moment and he’s not even willing to share the responsibility of safeguarding Forky, which becomes quite a problem when the family hits the road for a good old fashioned RV vacation.

woody introduces forky

Woody introducing Forky to the rest of the gang.

The film opens with a flashback revealing what happened to Woody’s old flame Bo Peep (Annie Potts), the porcelain doll who adorned a lamp belonging to Andy’s sister Molly. She disappeared between Toy Story 2 and 3, and in Toy Story 4 she is reintroduced as a lost toy. During an attempted escape from the RV by Forky, Woody and he end up on their own in search of the RV. During that time they happen across an antiques store where Woody recognizes Bo Peep’s lamp in the window, but without Bo Peep. He’ll eventually find her, and the film turns into a story about Woody and Bo Peep that’s essentially a G-rated rom-com.

Along the way, new toys will be introduced like Keanu Reeves’ Duke Caboom, a dare devil motorcycle toy with confidence issues, and the comedic duo of Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele voice Ducky and Bunny, a pair of carnival prizes looking for an owner of their own. Old favorites like Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) and Jessie (Joan Cusack) are here as well, but they play very minor roles compared with past films. Really, only Buzz has a substantial role as the others are mostly left waiting on the RV absent from the adventure being experienced by Woody. It’s something that does not read well in a review, or at least it wouldn’t had I read any reviews going into seeing this film, but I honestly did not miss those characters even if I mostly adored them in the prior films. That’s a testament to the engrossing nature of the film’s main plot, the questions it asks, and the stakes it creates.

clucky and bunny

Your old favorites are here, but there’s also new characters to introduce and, more importantly, merchandize.

Those stakes are partially created by outside forces. There’s a sense of finality going into this film, as there was with Toy Story 3, which makes it feel like almost anything could happen. And then there was also the impossible to avoid press on the film (even by someone like me who does his best to avoid such) in which Tim Allen and Tom Hanks openly talked about the emotional ending to the film. That had people speculating wildly on what could happen, and it was in the back of my mind while viewing the film. Even so, probably around the one-hour mark in the movie I could see where the picture was headed. That did not diminish my enjoyment of the film, though it probably contributed to my finding of the film’s resolution less emotional than its predecessor.

Toy Story 3 is a film that hit me right in the feels, so Toy Story 4 not matching that level of emotion is hardly a negative. It would have been hard to pull that off, but what Toy Story 4 did manage to do in terms of topping the prior films is up the comedy. This is, especially in the first half of the film, the funniest Toy Story movie yet. A lot of that comes from Forky who is basically suicidal, in a sense. I was quite skeptical of the character going into this one, but he absolutely won me over and he basically steals every scene he’s involved with. Ducky and Bunny also lend a certain level ludicrousness to this one that wasn’t found in past installments, or really in any Pixar film I can think of. I’m curious how much, if any, ad-libbing Key and Peel were allowed to do for their characters as it feels like their brand of humor certainly had an influence on their parts. Reeves is more charming than truly funny as Duke Caboom and Kristen Schaal’s Trixie is also good for a chuckle when she’s around.

toy story 4 scary

Your little ones may find some of the scenes in this picture a bit intense.

Toy Story 4 is not only the funniest film in the series, it might also be the scariest. While there is no moment where all of the toys look like they’re going to perish in a fire as there was in Toy Story 3, there’s some pretty scary imagery that may freak out the younger members of the audience. In particular is the army of old school ventriloquist dummies which occupy space in the antiques store. Those puppets, like clowns, are never not scary so when they’re trying to be terrifying it works. The film’s villain, Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), is quietly unsettling as well and I always felt a feeling of discomfort when she was around, similar to Lotso from Toy Story 3.

The scary and the funny moments are just entertainment beats along the way to telling the story of Woody and Bo Peep. They have quite the adventure in this picture not unlike the past ones and everything looks quite spectacular along the way. The leap in terms of visuals from Toy Story 3 to 4 isn’t as impressive as what we saw in going from 2 to 3, but it’s still noticeable and this is a high point for Pixar. Whether it’s the toys or the few humans on display, this picture is marvelous to look at. The action pieces are thrilling and the novelty of viewing a world through the eyes of a toy has yet to grow stale. While I do think some liberties were taken in this picture in terms of the actions of the toys going unseen by the humans they share space with, it never diminished my enjoyment of the film.

I have heard there’s some disappointment amongst the fanbase in how this film resolves itself and some of the plot points it took to get there, but I can’t say I share them. Is this the story I would have told had I been given the keys to the franchise? Probably not, but I also would never be put in that position, and with good reason. I never desired to find out what happened to Bo Peep, just as I don’t really care what happened to Weezy or that shark who momentarily wore Woody’s hat in the first film, but Pixar created a story and a film centered on Bo Peep and it works. She is everything Woody fears as she’s a lost toy who is beholden to no owner, and Woody has to struggle to understand that world view. I get a sense some are disappointed to see that Bonnie has also essentially discarded the cowboy she appeared to love in Toy Story 3. To those I say how many of you continued to love every toy you received as a four-year-old? It would be more improbable for that four-year-old girl to continue to adore an old cowboy as opposed to finding something new (and in this it’s clearly established that she prefers Jessie to Woody). And while it’s unlikely any child would continue to love and adore a plastic spork turned into a toy, it’s totally probable in the short-term. I know my own kids have professed to love a Happy Meal toy or something similar for a few days or a week at most only for it to wind up under a bed or in a toy box for months on end (and then when I go to get rid of it they suddenly love it all over again).

woody bo rooftop

I never would have expected a rom-com from Toy Story, and yet that’s what we got and it works.

As it is, I find nothing improbable about the film’s overall plot, aside from it being about sentient toys. I accept the story for what it is, and found the film delightfully entertaining for its entire duration. There are parts that made me a touch uncomfortable with where these characters were going, but good films and stories should do that. They should challenge the viewer and take them out of their comfort zone at times, otherwise what’s the point?

Naturally, folks will debate what is the best movie in this franchise. It’s perhaps too soon to tell, but I do think Toy Story 4 is probably going to be the least liked film in the series, and yet it’s still going to be held up as another Pixar masterpiece. That says less about the movie than it does about the franchise as a whole, which has been remarkably consistent. It brings me back to my original question when I started this review:  what is the best tetralogy in film history? I’m not qualified to answer that definitively, but I’m having a hard time coming up with a series of four films better than what Pixar has given us with Toy Story. These are four delightful films populated by interesting and wondrous characters who have already managed to stand the test of time for nearly 25 years. Toy Story 4 is probably the end for these characters, though if you asked me I would have said the same after Toy Story 3. It’s always possible another movie comes along, and additional shorts will probably happen, but I wouldn’t hold my breath on Toy Story 5. If this is indeed the end then it’s a wonderful way to go out. Maybe it didn’t answer all of the questions fans had been asking (Who was Andy’s dad? Did Andy’s mom once own Jessie?),  but it kept the focus on the toys and it gave us a pretty full look at what it means to be a toy. It made us laugh and it made us cry and it probably also caused more than a few viewers to feel a little guilty about all of those toys we left behind ourselves, but mostly it captivated us and showed us a new way to enjoy animation. Toy Story is a franchise with an amazing and unforgettable legacy attached to it, and Toy Story 4 adds to it and is yet another film that will be enjoyed by kids and adults alike to infinity and beyond.

The Best of Pixar

DownloadedFile-22In honor of the recently released to theaters Monsters University, I thought it would be fun to look back on the feature-length films put out by Pixar Animation Studios (in conjunction with Disney) and come up with a top 10.  This proved to be a pretty difficult task and I consider this list, especially the top 5, to be quite fluid.  Pixar has really eclipsed Disney as the premier creator of animated films.  It could be argued that before it, Japan’s Studio Ghibli had knocked Disney off the top of the mountain but Pixar now stands tall over all.  And while their output has dwindled in quality just a tad bit lately, it seems like the studio is likely to maintain that status for at least a few more years.  This list is not going to give each film the space it deserves, or else it would run into the tens of thousands of words.  I also want to add that I do not think Pixar has made a bad film yet, though I also have not seen Cars 2 which has been the worst reviewed film put out by the studio.  I didn’t see it because I didn’t really care for the original, though I didn’t hate it or anything.  I also did see Monsters University this weekend, and while I don’t think it makes their top 10, it was enjoyable entertainment.

10. Brave

Brave is hindered by that fact that it’s one of the more recent films put out by Pixar so it hasn’t had as long of a time to leave a lasting impression (and as you can imagine, nostalgia points count).  Brave is a refreshing take on the princess genre and Merida is a very likable and easy to root for character.  The visuals are splendid and the conflict unique, though the setting and style is perhaps a bit too similar to the previously released Dreamworks film How to Train Your Dragon.  This is a film I plan to revisit and I expect my appreciation for it will only grow from here.

9. The Incredibles

Perhaps a controversial selection as I know The Incredibles is a favorite for many.  For me, I absolutely love the concept of a super hero family and this was probably my most eagerly anticipated work from Pixar.  Perhaps it was the weight of expectations that resulted in my initial disappointment.  It just didn’t resonate with me the way I thought it would.  I very much enjoyed the Mr. Incredible character, but the rest of the family didn’t appeal to me as much.  The film is also a little overstuffed and could have used some trimming.  Every time I re-watch it I wonder if this is the viewing that will make me fall in love with it, but so far that hasn’t happened.  Despite that, I still look forward to the eventual sequel and will continue to enjoy the in-jokes thrown at comic book fans.

8. Toy Story 2

Toy Story was such a smashing success that it made sense for a sequel to follow.  Because these films take so long, Pixar first released A Bug’s Life before getting to Toy Story 2.  Serving as director for all three feature-length films was John Lasseter, who wisely realized he couldn’t expect to continue to direct everything put out by the studio.  Toy Story 2 is an excellent sequel that contains enough of what made the original so memorable without feeling like a re-tread.  Visually, it is far superior to the first.  Some people seem to prefer it to the original, but for me I enjoyed the plot from the first one more and found the end chase more thrilling than the sequence that closes out this one.  This one is still great though, and Jessie’s song is really well done, making Toy Story one of the best franchises in recent memory.

7.  Ratatouille

Remy is one of Pixar's best creations.

Remy is one of Pixar’s best creations.

This where the list starts getting hard for me.  I didn’t have much trouble ranking the first three, but now we’re getting into the films I truly love.  Ratatouille is a clever tale about a rat named Remy, who is one of the most well-crafted of any of Pixar’s leads.  He’s interesting, flawed, likable, and well-acted by the animators and voice actor Patton Oswalt.  This one isn’t as emotionally heavy as some of Pixar’s other films, but it is so much fun and it’s still a treat to experience all of Remy’s highs and lows.  I feel like I could watch this film every day and not get sick of it.

6.  Toy Story

The one that started it all.  Toy Story was a marvel when it was first released in 1995.  At that time, no one really thought computer generated images could captivate in the same way as hand-drawn animation and we were all proved wrong.  While I will always prefer more traditional animation, I both love and appreciate what today’s artists are capable of with CGi.  Toy Story doesn’t look as good now as it did back then (especially the dog and human characters), but that doesn’t detract from the wonderful and clever story about what goes on in the toy box when kids aren’t around.  It’s an easy to grasp concept and one that offers so many possibilities for visual gags and story potential.  The Woody (Tom Hanks) and Buzz (Tim Allen) rivalry is played up so well that it’s a shame it’s not as heated in the sequels.  Toy Story is a modern classic that is sure to delight and captivate audiences for generations to come.

5.  Wall-E

Wall-E is a rather bold film when one considers its audience.  The first act is absent of any dialogue as we explore a ruined earth with only a mute little robot to guide us.  It’s thru director Andrew Stanton and the supremely talented animators at Pixar that we’re able to connect and care about this little robot.  Wall-E, despite being a robot, is able to convey so many human emotions thru just the movement of his telescope-like eyes and limited vocalizations.  The film’s only weakness is how effective these early scenes are in comparison to the easier to follow scenes in space where humans dwell.  Some thumb their noses at the conservationist tone taken by the film, but I found it to be good satire and consider Wall-E a true treasure amongst american animation.

4.  Toy Story 3

I can’t say I was all that excited for another sequel for Toy Story, even though I very much enjoyed the first two.  I was so wrong when I finally sat down and watched Toy Story 3 and found myself completely blown away.  I didn’t realize how much I wanted to see the world of these toys explored with better technology over what was available for the first two.  The world popped and is an absolute feast for the eyes.  That wasn’t exactly a surprise, but the fact that the film had a plot that appealed to me even more than the first two is what truly shocked me.  I fell in love on the first viewing, and the additions of Michael Keaton and Ned Beatty to the all ready stellar cast was the cherry on top.

3.  Monsters Inc.

We have officially entered the splitting hairs section of my list.  1-7 was hard, 1-5 was harder still, and 1-3 feels almost pointless.  On any given day, any of these next three could be cited as my favorite from Pixar, but I’ve settled on this order for today.  Monsters Inc. was the first of the Pixar feature-length films to not be directed by Lasseter.  Pete Docter oversaw this one and would establish an ability to really make an emotional connection with the audience.  Monsters Inc. is kind of like a buddy comedy with leads Mike and Sully (portrayed by Billy Crystal and John Goodman), only in a fantastic setting.  The world of the monsters is fully realized and more than just a little clever.  This is the first CGi film I can recall where so much hair, or fur, was included and the results are spectacular.  It’s the addition of the Boo character though, that puts it over the top and gives it the weight I mentioned earlier.  This film’s ending is so perfect, it gets me every time.  I’m not sure if it’s not my favorite ending to any movie ever.  I love it!

2.  Finding Nemo

A lot of these films were all conceived around the same time.  I get the sense that the powers that be at Pixar decided on a bunch of worlds they wanted to see animated and went off of that.  Finding Nemo is Pixar’s undersea adventure and the results are breathtaking.  The world is so simple yet so complex, it is probably the film that benefitted most in the switch from DVD to Blu Ray of any other I’ve seen.  All of Pixar’s films are incredible looking, but Finding Nemo contains one of the more heart-warming father-son stories contained in any piece of entertainment.  And outside of that plot, the characters encountered along the way are amongst Pixar’s most memorable.  Whether it’s the possessive seagulls, laid-back Crush, or the unforgettable Dory, there’s something amazing in every scene.  I’m so glad that Pixar has chosen to revisit this world, even if it has no chance of matching up to the original.  Though Pixar has proved me wrong before.

1.  Up

The odd paring of the aged Carl with the youthful Russell paid off for Pixar.

The odd paring of the aged Carl with the youthful Russell paid off for Pixar.

If Wall-E was considered a bold move for a family movie, then what does that make Up with its octogenarian for a lead?  I suppose the marketing and merchandising department was disappointed when it found out that Carl Fredricksen (Ed Asner) action figures weren’t likely to generate the kind of revenue Disney is used to, but I like to think they were okay with that once they saw the film.  Up is a wonderful piece of animation, and if Pete Doctor’s previous directorial effort Monsters Inc. is considered weighty, Up is a virtual anvil.  The montage that takes place at the beginning of the film which sums up the life of Carl and Ellie is wonderfully moving, and like Wall-E, done so without any dialogue.  The sequence is masterfully done, and if viewers found it a bit too sad then I hope the rest of the film makes up for it.  The main plot pairs up Carl with the youthfully exuberant Russell.  This odd-couple pairing can be forgiven for being too obvious because it’s executed so well. The emotional response generated by this film seems so authentic, and it’s the rare animated film I can honestly recommend to viewers of all tastes.  And then there’s Dug.  Dug, who resembles no dog from the real world and yet makes me think of every dog I’ve ever met (any nice dog, anyways).  His mannerisms and thoughts are so spot-on it makes it seem like an easy thing to so faithfully convey a dog’s emotions, but it’s really not.  Up is absolutely wonderful, and not just among my favorites put out by Pixar or Disney, but one of my favorite movies of any I’ve seen.  It will take a lot from Pixar to top it, but I hope they like a good challenge.

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