Toy Story 4 (2019) review

Besides ‘we have no cheese’ and ‘live action remake‘ there are few words that fill me with such dread as ‘Toy Story 4.’ A trilogy that is unanimously agreed to be as close to animated cinematic perfection as possible really didn’t require a fourth entry, and the list of good third sequels could barely fit on a sentient spork. Alas, here we are. But, in a ray of optimism, Toy Story 4 is not bad. Far from it, in fact. Does it live up to the immense standards of its predecessors, though? Well, no.

There’s a lot to like in Toy Story 4 (it still feels weird to type that). From the fun new players like Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele as Ducky and Bunny, to the mercifully fresh narrative, we can all breathe a sigh of relief as the credibility of the franchise remains intact. In what will come as a surprise to nobody, leading man Tom Hanks is still likeable and compelling as Woody, a role he’s been played with affable joy for nearly thirty years. Let that one sink in. Everyone (except Bonnie’s) favourite Sheriff’s arc is undoubtedly intended as a metaphor for Fathers of children who’ve left home, as he struggles to find purpose in an Andy-light world, where he’s no longer the number one toy at play time. Hanks slips back into the role with ease, delivering on both the comedy and the mushy moments through the warm gravitas that only his voice can bring.

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Sadly, besides a near unrecognisable Bo Peep, Woody is the only member of the OG gang to get much of any focus. Fan favourites like Slinky, Jessie, Rex, and my beloved Bullseye are afforded almost no screen time, and are hastily left out of the action in favour of new players. Even once co lead Buzz Lightyear feels not only sidelined, but also dumbed down, to the point that he feels a shell of his former, heroic self. As a big fan of Buzz, this was a shame to see, especially as the initial draft of the script was reportedly Buzz-centric, an element that hasn’t reappeared since the first film.

Nostalgic gripes aside, the new players are mostly welcome. Christina Hendricks’ Gabby is a suitable evolution of the bitter-toy-villain stereotype, and despite her frankly horrific organ harvesting plan, she does garner a suitable level of audience empathy. A big shout out must also go to the ventriloquist dummies; a genius concept for henchman that are as hilarious as they are nightmare inducing.

So, about Bo. She’s great here, though entirely unrecognisable from her original appearance, even sporting a new voice. Her former damsel in distress / weirdly sexy voice persona has all but evaporated, as she (somehow) trades in her porcelain dress in favour of a badass cloak and bandage combo. She leads an underlying motif of girl power than runs throughout the film, as Jessie, Dolly, Gabby, and Bo all either lead the gang or take the reigns of power from the male leads. You could take an academic feminist reading and say they’re taking back power from the patriarchy. Hell, Woody even literally loses his voice to a woman. Perhaps I’m reading too deeply into it and they’re just better written characters.

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In terms of the technical stuff, this is Pixar working with all engines running. The visuals are fantastically realised, with smooth animation that reminds you how refined the medium has become since the gang first broke ground in 1995. The Antique store’s cat in particular looks amazingly lifelike, especially when compared to the very polygonic dog guarding Sid’s back garden in the original. The colour palette is equally lovely, with far less murky blacks and greens than its darker predecessor. The carnival setting allows for vibrant and varied technicolour machinations at every turn.

The traditional Randy Newman score also makes a somewhat triumphant return, with a wonderfully nostalgic montage song near the beginning, harkening back to the days of ‘Strange Things’ and ‘I Will Go Sailing No More.’ It would also be a lie to say that the reprise of ‘You’ve Got a Friend in Me’ didn’t put a big smile on my face. The orchestral score however, does seem entirely phoned in. Character leitmotif is one thing (and one thing I’m VERY passionate about), but entire musical cues are seemingly ripped in their entirety from previous entries, which is just lazy.

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It is the script that is ultimately the film’s greatest strength, yet its biggest weakness. In many ways the plot is a breath of fresh air, and many jokes and emotional moments do indeed stick (or rather crash – you’ll get it when you watch it), the landing. However, there’s just something absent, that makes the experience ring hollow. Perhaps it comes down to the MIA main cast, or the bittersweet ending that’ll undoubtedly be a divisive topic. Personally though, I feel the pacing drags, far more than in its predecessors. There was just more of a sense of urgency in those films, that left you genuinely tense. Here however, through the admirable exploration adult topics like life purpose and existential crisis (!), the film loses a bit of what made Toy Story so great. The camaraderie and simplistic storytelling is lost, but what replaces it isn’t bad, just different.

I ultimately feel warmer about Toy Story 4 the more I think about it. It remains in my mind, unnecessary in its existence, when the third and at the time, ‘final instalment’ had a sense of finality that will always be unmatched. However, Toy Story 4 justifies itself by taking the characters (well, two of them) in bold new directions, touching on important, difficult aspects of life in a sugar coated, comedic skin that stop things getting too real. If a Buzz focused Toy Story 5 is in the future, then so be it. If it’s this good, then we have little cause for concern.

★★★★

My series ranking, if you’re interested:

Toy Story 2 (1999)

★★★★★

Toy Story (1995)

★★★★★

Toy Story 3 (2010)

★★★★★

Toy Story 4 (2019)

★★★★

Incredibles 2 (2018) review

Nostalgia is a powerful thing, especially when it comes to beloved Pixar classics from our youth. The Incredibles returned this summer to bombastic 1950’s style fanfare, a whole fourteen years after the ‘incredible’ (ha) smash hit directed by Brad Bird, way back in 2004. The result is an altogether safe sequel that doesn’t take many risks, but satisfies with compelling action scenes, a relatively quick pace and some fun satire of gender roles and superhero media that make for an enjoyable, if run of the mill sequel.

One might assume that the introduction of a time gap of fourteen years would be a no brainer to incorporate into the narrative for a change of pace and a different approach story wise. One would, however, be wrong. The time jump is purely for our dimension only, as for the Parr family, mere seconds have passed since the thrilling cliffhanger conclusion of the first film. What follows however, is a decent progression of the narrative that does manage to successfully drive the story into new directions, but unfortunately, many of those directions are ‘incredibly’ (I’ll stop soon I promise) predictable. I don’t think anyone is going to have too many issues working out who the ‘surprise’ villain is, for example. However, as a member of the nostalgia infested horde, moaning orgasmically for the latest Pixar sequel like a walker craving brains, I must remind my ‘revertigo’ infested brethren that this is in fact, a film meant for children. As a film for the kids, it entirely works and will be satisfying. It may not succeed as a totally compelling follow up, but still provides enough meat for fans of the original to enjoy and more than enough for their spawn to sink their millennial teeth into.

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Director Brad Bird brings a trademark wit to the film and its humour is its greatest asset. Many of the jokes had me chuckling in self reference, particularly those that make a mockery of humanities greatest atrocity: maths.  Parents around me also audibly (to my extreme annoyance) voiced acknowledgment and approval of the stress of being a single house parent. This combined with the reintroduction of baby Jack Jack’s newfound powers, make for some truly hilarious scenes, so kudos for that. If the first ‘Incredibles’ is about a mid life crisis and escaping the mediocrity of the working world, then ‘The Incredibles 2’ is about acknowledging the difficulties of juggling work and family and how exhausting it can be. This is where the film truly shines; ironically, I found watching the ‘B storyline’ of the powered family just live their lives to be far more engaging (and admittedly, hilarious) than the antics of Elastigirl in the ‘A storyline’. The performances are all largely solid too, though Bob Odenkirk is largely just being Bob Odenkirk and I was surprisingly underwhelmed by Brad Bird himself as fan favourite, Edna Mode, who sadly seemed inappropriately shoehorned in for some disappointingly dull fan service.

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What isn’t disappointing though, is Michael Giacchino’s phenomenal score. Perfectly blending elements of Bond, Batman and hell, even a bit of Austin Powers, the score is sensational. Many themes are, naturally, reused from the first instalment, but this only cranked up my nostalgia dial up to eleven and had me beaming like a cheshire cat in some of the climactic fight scenes. Though what is good music without good animation? ‘The Incredibles 2’ need not concern itself with that question, as it has both. The CGI models of the original have only been slightly tweaked and still look recognisable and slick. The approach is clean but stylistic, with a strange but awesome kind of idealised American utopia vibe to it, where every building is pristine and huge, with sharp, jagged edges. This, in juxtaposition with the comparatively simple character models, gives the skylines their own personality and gives the film a unique and frankly, cool look. It was like walking into an simple, expressionist, 1950s painting with a New Orleans jazz band playing in the background; I loved it.

In review, ‘The Incredibles 2’ is a solid film, though not quite on ‘Parr’ (sorry) with the original. The story is basic, but still compelling and funny and the action is spot on (Bird does more with Elastigirl’s powers than any Fantastic 4 film has ever dared to with Mr. Fantastic.) While I find the lack of use of the time jump to be a misstep, what is produced instead is still wholly entertaining and enjoyable and I’m blogging about the movie I saw, not the movie I had planned out in my mind. While I won’t say it was absolutely worth the fourteen year wait, it is clear that the team behind this took their time to create a sequel worth seeing. The ending also leaves the door open for further adventures with a more expansive world, so perhaps the ‘Incredi-verse’ I was hoping for could be coming with a third instalment. If it keeps to this level of well written jokes and amazing, animated action, it would be most welcome.

★★★★

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