Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Film Review: Toy Story 4

Sexuality/Nudity No Objection
Violence Acceptable
Vulgarity No Objection
Anti-Catholic Philosophy No Objection

Francis Ford Coppola stated that his Godfather trilogy is misunderstood because it actually isn't a trilogy.  The first two are one complete story.  The third Godfather movie is an epilogue.  It is not meant to be the final act of the main journey.  It is there to explain the fate of the main character.

And that is how you should watch Toy Story 4.

The movie begins with a flashback to nine years earlier.  Woody (Tom Hanks) is in the midst of rescuing a struggling toy when his love, Bo Peep (Annie Potts), is sold to someone else.  This moment explains her complete absence from Toy Story 3 (which I always thought was the only thing missing from that film).  Back in the present, Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw) is getting ready for kindergarten.  She finds consolation playing with her toys: Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), Jessie (Joan Cusak), and the rest of the gang from the previous film, except for Woody.  In kindergarten, Bonnie decides to make a little makeshift toy out of a spork, glue, popsickle sticks, pipe cleaner, and silly eyes.  She names him Forky (Tony Hale).  Because he is made of trash, he constantly tries to throw himself away and it is up to Woody to make sure Forky is saved for Bonnie.  While on a road trip, Forky gets himself lost and Woody must leave the group to help him.  If that plot point feels very similar to other Toy Story movies, you would be right.  But the movie wisely only uses this as one of its plot points.  Their adventures lead to a dangerous antique story and carnival where Woody must look into his soul and find his life's meaning.

If that last part sounds deep and heavy, that's because it is.  But PIXAR has always masterfully been able to create stories that plum the depths of the human heart while creating a magical adventure that is accessible to all the children who watch it.  Toy Story 4 really is a movie for all ages to enjoy.

I constantly marveled at how beautiful the movie is.  Computer animated movies are a dime a dozen now.  And while the textures and the motion of most of them are top notch, technology is not a substitute for artistry.  You have to know how to use the colors and the lighting to give the movie its maximum emotional appeal.  This is the feature directorial debut for Josh Cooley, and his style fits in perfectly with all that has come before him.  And Randy Newman's score is as powerful as ever, full of adventure, joy, and sadness.

The new characters that have been added are just as wonderful as any in the franchise.  Hale's Forky is so odd and vulnerable.  He is like an alien being terrified of his own surroundings.  Ducky and Bunny (Keegan-Micahel Key and Jordan Peele) and some wonderfully aggressive humor to the adventure.  The main villain of the piece is a doll named Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) who appears to be in the mold of Lotso from Toy Story 3, but whose story takes a few surprising turns.  But the best addition is Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves), a stunt-cycle toy who has never been able to live up to the action ability promised in the commercials that advertised him.  Reeves' roles in the last few years have been so serious that I forgot that he can deliver his lines with such wonderful comedic timing.

In fact, the movie is incredibly funny.  Caboom brings a number of jokes, but the film constantly hits you jokes both spoken and visual.  My absolute favorite is a running gag about Combat Carl (Carl Weathers) in a snow suit seeking a high-five.  The film is a delight that will make you laugh, or at the very least make you smile throughout.  And as with most Toy Story films, the humor is balanced nicely against the heartache that this movie evokes.  I found myself getting excessively emotional during the film's finale as some characters said goodbye to each other, perhaps forever.

The biggest flaw in the film is a problem of focus.  This is not so much a Toy Story movie as it is a Woody movie.  While Woody and Buzz have been the main characters for the entire series, all of the other characters were incredibly important and had their own particular story arcs.  Here, everyone is used as supporting players to Woody's journey.  This is especially noticeable with Buzz.  Even though he has more screen time than most of the other toys, he really doesn't go on any journey of incredible depth.  Of course, the running gag of him listening to his "inner voice" is a great one.  But overall, I had a mild sense of disappointment that I didn't also get to spend more time with these characters I've come to love.

This is why I stated that the film should be taken like an epilogue.  Its purpose is to focus on what happens to Woody now that Andy is gone.  Woody's whole arc in Toy Story 2 was to be there for Andy until he grew up.  But that ended with Toy Story 3.  With Bonnie, Woody isn't needed.  So what does he do?

The relationship between Woody and Forky is a fantastic place of growth to explore.  Essentially, Woody becomes a dad.  Forky is like a child who is innocent but self-destructive.  Woody has to constantly pluck Forky from the jaws of death in the way that dads have to use their "dad-reflexes" to stop their children from injuring themselves.  You can see the constant wear and frustration that this has on Woody who now has to be responsible in a way that he has never had to before.

But the question lingers: what is Woody's purpose?  And even more importantly, what is his reward?  It is said that virtue is its own reward and the same can be seen in Woody's vocation to make Andy happy.  I love the way the film explores why toys are just frivolities but are actual important.  Toys are the means of bringing joy, exciting the imagination, and giving comfort and courage in times of darkness.  Woody has done all of that and he treasures those times.  But Andy is gone and Woody is still here.  Thankfully, the movie isn't simply ponderous, naval-gazing.  Woody is a toy of action and it is through he deeds that he discovers what he should do and who he should be.

The only other flaw I see in the film is the fact that Bo is constantly emasculating Woody.  Their relationship has turned more antagonistic than ever.  She has been living "in the wild" for years and has become jaded and aggressive.  She constantly berates Woody for his naivete and she consistently lectures him when he screws up.  This would be a bigger problem if Woody simply rolled over.  While he does acknowledge her leadership and value, he stays true to his optimistic attitude and challenges Bo to find the joy she has since lost.

This is not the best of the series.  But do not let that dissuade you.  If you love this world and love these characters, then this is the Toy Story four you.

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