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)

★★★★

Lord of the Rings: The TV show…?

Is this a good idea? New versions of existing IP’s tend to be pretty shocking, so why should one of the most beloved trilogies of books and films be treated any better? If you’re a need of a little more context as to what’s going on here, let me elaborate. After some reportedly intense negotiations with the Tolkien estate, Amazon Prime: the online streaming service rival to Netflix, have acquired the rights to create a ‘Lord of the Rings’ based television show for a multi season run. Very little is known about the project right now, but Amazon have released a statement saying that the writing team would be looking into ‘unexplored stories based on J.R.R Tolkien’s original writings.’ This is, in my mind, a more hopeful comment that hints at more than jus another reboot or remake. As a huge fan of Peter Jackson’s, in my opinion, flawless trilogy, it’s reassuring to know that the project won’t likely be retreading existing beats from a version that already tells that story in a pretty perfect way.

So what does this vague statement tell us and what could it mean? It sounds unlikely that it will touch on the works of ‘The Hobbit’ either, which, as a hugely unsatisfying and underwhelming trilogy, could’ve been a more forgiving option. The term ‘unexplored stories’ offers a myriad of potential options and allows for what could be the first onscreen incarnation of another Tolkien epic set in the same universe (though crucially not just Middle Earth); ‘The Silmarillion.’ As by no means an expert on the topic, please don’t take my word as law, but from what I understand, the works take on a larger scale story with a spiritual approach to the familiar lands of the ‘LOTR’ trilogy, focusing on the first age and the creation of many of the races from subsequent books; hobbits, men, elves etc.

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So as a largely unexplored work, ‘The Silmarillion’ could be the best option for a Middle Earth based television show. It’s a massive epic that is too large for a movie, or even three, despite the famous length of Peter Jackson’s fantasy repertoire. The entire purchase is reportedly to rival HBO’s absolute mammoth franchise, ‘Game of Thrones’ and Netflix’s hugely successful sci fi serial ‘Stranger Things.’ (Side note- I promise to get through a blog one day without mentioning ‘Stranger Things.’) If the intention is to make a huge, multiple character spanning and multi season product that also carries a familiar tone, then ‘The Silmarillion’ seems like the obvious choice. This is one use of the franchise that I would actually be quite happy to see as while it may have a familiar setting and tone, no doubt with references galore, it is still a new IP; something that we’ve never seen on screen before and a work that isn’t massively well known to the general public. If this is the direction they decide to go, I’m all for it.

What I am not all for however, is a ‘LOTR Origins: ARAGORN’ or ‘Bilbo Begins.’ A prequel series that is set shortly before either ‘LOTR’ or perhaps more sensibly ‘The Hobbit’ have no business being made. All this will accomplish is a demystification of characters already familiar with audiences, as well as feeble attempts to tie their ‘previous’ adventures into existing lore without creating a time paradox. Think back to the dismal failure that was the third ‘Hobbit’ film; what were the worst parts of that? It was the elements that attempted to ‘fill in the gaps’ to ‘Fellowship of the Ring.’ The inclusion of Sauron (yes, yes the Necromancer- whatever), the huge battles not present in the books and basically everything that happens after they defeat Smaug, were hugely uninteresting, because they hadn’t come from Tolkien’s brain and therefore, felt out of place and weird. It’s the same thing with ‘Game of Thrones’ going of course in later seasons as they strayed further from Martin’s works. Sure, you get to roughly the same place in the end, but if the journey was haphazard and worse than previous seasons; what was the point? What I’m saying here, is nobody really wants to see Mike from ‘Stranger Things’ (damn, there I go again) playing the youngest Bilbo we’ve seen yet, getting into made up adventures with characters we’ll never hear about in future instalments, while also shoving in references to things that he shouldn’t know about for another thirty years, just so the audience can declare ‘I understood that reference’ at the television set every thirty minutes. Please Amazon, for the love of God, do not turn this into another ‘Gotham.’ As another side note, if you think ‘Gotham’ is a good representation of the ‘Batman’ franchise, you’re wrong. But that’s a topic for another day.

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So, although nothing’s confirmed, we’ve established a few things: It probably won’t be a re-telling of ‘Lord of the Rings’ again, thank God. It also probably won’t be a re-telling of the Hobbit. Ok. It could disturbingly be some sort of contrived prequel focused on a main character from one of these works. Hm. It could be an adaption of ‘The Silmarillion’ giving us the first on screen adaption of this work and its characters. Ok, that actually sounds pretty good! Or, it could be something else entirely based on either relatively unknown or even unreleased material from Tolkien. Who knows. The final question posed is, assuming this does indeed take a brand new tangent, adapting either ‘The Silmarillion’ or another obscure Middle Earth work: will it take place in an all new ‘LOTR universe’ or the existing Peter Jackson universe? Many fans, myself included, see his trilogy as the definitive adaption and the new series is in conjunction with New Line Cinema, the distributors of the original trilogy. If they’re going to reboot the existing works, then obviously this wouldn’t be the case. However, if we are going down the favourable road of new source material, then why not have it set in the Jackson-verse? It wouldn’t change a whole lot in a narrative sense, but the inclusion of the familiar filming styles, sets, costumes and in particular, Howard Shore’s absolutely iconic score would be incredibly welcome. Seriously, can you imagine a Middle Earth story without the triumphant ‘Lord of the Rings’ action theme, the ‘Concerning Hobbits’ theme for the Shire, or ‘the one ring’ theme for anything to do with Sauron or the ring? I’m not saying all of those elements would be present, but whilst I struggled through the painfully average ‘Hobbit’ trilogy, the soundtrack, both new and re worked existing tracks, was one element that helped me find enjoyment in that mess.

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So, that’s my speculation on the new ‘Lord of the Rings’ based Amazon show. It’ll probably be average to crap, but hey, who knows; it could be absolutely fantastic and along with Disney’s ‘Star Wars’ television show, start a whole new trend of existing IP’s getting their own massive tv show universes instead of new film remakes. It seems like a logical progression with how much film and tv are blending into one medium at the moment with more and more huge budget shows like ‘Game of Thrones’ rivalling big Hollywood movies in terms of sets and stunts. Perhaps we’ll see a ‘Blade Runner’ tv series, or ‘Jurassic Park’, or even, dare I say; ‘Ghostbusters’? Oh, how the mind boggles. Let’s wait and see.

Ranking the MCU movies (November 2018)

Last time I did a big spiel here about the influence these movies have had on cinema, blockbusters, the way film universes are created blah blah blah. We just want to get to the ranking, right? So let’s get to it. Here’s March 2018 if you missed it.

20. Thor: The Dark World (2013)

Easily the weakest; incredibly dull and forgettable with the worst villain in the MCU (and that’s saying something!) Most people forget it exists and to be honest, I can’t blame most people. It adds nothing to the overall Infinity War storyline and doesn’t even work as its own movie so my advice is to skip it. More like ‘Thor: The Dark BORE’ am I right? Am I right? Sorry.

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19. The Incredible Hulk (2008)

A Mark Ruffalo-less Hulk film that was pretty standard for the representation of Hulk in film at the time- ie he is ‘big, dumb, green and runs away from tanks.’ Its run of the mill and doesn’t try anything hugely interesting, but it isn’t awful. Fairly decent villain, dull love interest and I’m not a huge fan of Edward Norton in this role. Again, pretty forgettable.

18. Iron Man 2 (2010)

This tends to be most people’s least favourite. It introduces War Machine which is cool, but suffers from terrible pacing and a seriously underdeveloped and under utilised villain. Consistent solid performances from the leads and the introduction of Black Widow to the MCU, push this one just slightly above the other two for me.

17. Thor (2011)

It was early days and these films were trying to find their feet, so I cut most of the phase one films some slack. Thor isn’t bad at all- the casting is spot on and the direction and depiction of Asgard is stunning. It also introduced us to the second best MCU villain, so props for that. Alas, it’s been eclipsed by a far, far greater sequel. No, not ‘The Dark Bore’, we’ll get to Ragnarok later…

16. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

Another film trying to find its feet and suffering by having to establish so much in one solo movie: Howard Stark, the Tesseract, Cap himself, Bucky, Peggy Carter, Red Skull, Vibranium, the list goes on. The point is, there’s a lot going on here that the film needs to juggle. To its credit, it does it pretty well but again, becomes largely eclipsed by two stunning sequels that just do everything better.

15. Dr Strange (2016)

I’m sure having this one this high up the list will be controversial. Don’t get me wrong, I liked this movie a lot, I just didn’t love it. Cumberbatch is a great Dr. Strange, but the villain is the weakest since Thor: The Dark World. Casting Mads Mikkelsen, one of the finest actors going as the villain and then writing a character so two dimensional he’s practically flat is unforgivable. For shame, Marvel.

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14. Ant Man and The Wasp (2018)

This pint sized flick had the insane challenge of following Infinity War and unfortunately, came across pretty mediocre as a result. I still love the casting of Hank, Scott and Hope and the size changing gimmicks are fun, but it just feels a little safe compared to the other more recent additions. The villain has no excuse to be this bland following Killmonger, The Grandmaster and Thanos showing that Marvel can actually make compelling villains. Watch the last five minutes on Youtube, otherwise skip it.

13. Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

Ah, the sequel that could just never live up to the hype. After The Avengers stunned audiences, Joss Whedon was under immense pressure to capture that same magic again. Alas, the result is more so-so than the original, but still a great blockbuster. The decision to make Ultron a more comedic presence is rather puzzling, but the voice acting chops of James Spader redeem it. The stunning team dynamic pulls this one forward for me, with the banter and chemistry between many now well established characters driving some of the more excellent scenes.

12. Ant Man (2015)

This used to be higher on my list, but sadly following a re watch, hasn’t aged too well. Still, it’s a fun ride despite being more than a little generic and Ant Man sets achieves more than it fails. It establishes a key cast of characters and makes them likeable and memorable from the get go. It provides a new genre for the MCU to take on with a heist premise and it uses the gimmick of the film (things getting smaller or bigger) in amusing and creative ways. All in all, its a pretty awesome flick. Oh, but the villain sucks. SHOCKER. Speaking of ‘The Shocker’…

11. Iron Man (2008)

The one that started it all, propelling both Robert Downey Jr and Tony Stark out of the depths of obscurity and into household names. Iron Man is still a solid movie with great pacing, excellent casting and a brilliant retelling of what could easily be a pretty clunky origin story. The standard of weak Marvel villains to come is somewhat set by Obadiah Stane, but as the first film in the series and an origin movie, that can be overlooked simply because the rest of the film is still so tight.

10. Spiderman: Homecoming (2017)

Another one that people seemed to love that I found just ok. I like Tom Holland in the role and loved Michael Keaton as The Vulture, but the rest of the film kind of dragged for me. Some great action scenes and a cool ‘breakfast club comedy’ kind of vibe aside, this one has grown on me over time. I didn’t fall in love with it straight away, but now appreciate the lighter tone, compelling villain and an actually young Spiderman. I dig this waaaaay more than the Amazing series travesty, but give me the original Sam Raimi trilogy any day. It’s all about Maguire, people.

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9. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

This was the turning point for Marvel: a risk that other studios would’ve never taken in a million years, no matter how successful their films were. But Kevin knew better and produced, alongside director James Gunn, one of the most fun films we’ve seen from the studio yet, whilst simultaneously expanding the universe quite literally into the stars. The spot on casting of the team, the seamlessly integrated retro soundtrack and the consistent tone make this film a favourite of mine. Can you guess the weak link? It starts with a v and ends with an -illain.

8. Iron Man 3 (2013)

I LOVE IRON MAN 3 AND I WILL NOT APOLOGISE. I know a lot of people hate this one and I used to be one of you people. But guys, it’s actually just plain fun. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, has great comic book action, a strong cast, and feels like its own story, rather than a retread.  Not to mention excellent character development for Tony Stark that makes sense in a post-‘Avengers’ world and a really upbeat and memorable score, which is more than most MCU movies can claim. Putting aside the weak pull of the rug twist and an even weaker villain, it’s a really great time. And who can forget the Christmas setting and Dora the Explorer watch? Come on. Those are some banging writing choices.

7. Captain America: Civil War (2016)

Essentially ‘Avengers 2.5’, Civil War takes its namesake and basic gist from the widely successful comic book of the same name. Obviously the only thing it really takes is the concept of ‘Team Cap’ and ‘Team Iron Man’ as the conflict is based on events from previous movies rather than secret identities. The juggling of characters is insanely well handled and the film does a good job in making both sides of the argument compelling to really illustrate the tragedy by the time you get to the final fight. The movie handles previous continuity of The Winter Soldier perfectly and introduces new fan favourite Black Panther nicely. It also marks the triumphant return of Spiderman to the MCU, with perhaps the best casting for the wall crawler ever in actually teenaged, Tom Holland.

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6. Black Panther (2018)

There isn’t much to say that hasn’t already said as the box office and critical reception has been insane. The use of a mainly black cast is so appropriate and such a big step forward for Hollywood that Black Panther gains props outside of the movie as much as it does with its excellent content. The film itself owes a lot to the James Bond series and again tackles an expanding world for Marvel by introducing us formally to Wakanda. It also contains the second greatest MCU villain we’ve seen yet, perfectly captured in the angry and determined weight of Michael B Jordan’s stunning performance.

5. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

If Ant Man is a heist movie, then The Winter Soldier is a 70s spy flick. Everyone was blown away that a movie about Captain America, the boy-scout of the Avengers could be this good. Sebastian Stan brings a terrific performance as the titular Winter Soldier, being genuinely intimidating at times as well as sympathetic. Robert Redford also makes for a great un super powered antagonist. Throw in Nick Fury, Black Widow and sadly lame newcomer, Falcon and you’ve got one of the slickest solo movies we’ve seen yet.

4. The Avengers (2012)

The first culmination of the MCU also remains the tightest team up so far. Despite a fairly generic plot, the juggling of characters, organic relationships and excellent antagonist make this one of the best and most exciting adventures the studio has put out yet. It laid the groundwork for every film to come since and has become the gold standard for how to combine your solo films into one truly epic team up. Justice League take note. It also ties in nicely to the Infinity War storyline, giving us our first glimpse of Thanos in the end credits, even if 90% of the audience at the time had no idea who he was, its still hype as hell.

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3. Thor Ragnarok (2017)

The biggest surprise on the list yet, Thor: Ragnarok can only be described as a breath of fresh air. After a pretty good origin movie followed by the dullest MCU movie yet, Thor needed a big break. Thank Odin, he got one, with this weird comedy/buddy cop/road trip/gladiator/space opera epic. Completely flipping our perceptions of these characters on their head, director Taika Waititi showed us the first glimpse that the MCU would need to adapt and evolve in order to stay fresh and exciting, not being able to just repeat the same movie every time. Taking more from Planet Hulk than the actual Ragnarok storyline, the inclusion of fan favourite Hulk, also made this particularly special. Throw in Loki, the amazingly camp and hilarious Grandmaster and a semi-good villain in Cate Blanchett’s Hela and you have one ‘Hela’ fun ride. See what I did there?

2. Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 (2017)

Damn, 2017 was a good year for the MCU. There is no denying that this is a stunning sequel. It manages to capture the spirit of the first film without feeling like a retread. It moves the story forward and further develops every single one of the team. Rocket and Star Lord must overcome their ego (little Marvel joke for you there), Gamora must settle differences with adopted sister Nebula, Drax befriends a new alien and Groot is reborn as a tiny baby twig. The show stealers are the two ‘fathers’ of Peter Quill though; EGO, the living planet who gets third place in the MCU villain rankings and Yondu, a previously one note character who provides one of the few tearjerkers in the series. Add to that another stunning retro soundtrack and some epic visuals, with a slightly darker, Empire Strikes Back esque tone and you have, in my opinion, the finest film that the MCU has produced to date. OR, I would’ve said that, bar one little thing…

1. Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

You know it is. Almost unanimously hailed as the finest entry in the series, the Russo Brothers did the impossible, combining a cast of over twenty characters into one engaging film that is completely compelling. Everyone has at least a moment to shine (even Falcon, who everyone hates) and unbelievably very few characters are missing. It has the bleakest tone yet, but somehow still manages to seem fun, memorable and enjoyable. The ending is one of the most daring moves ever taken, even if it’ll almost certainly be completely undone. And Thanos, oh Thanos. Josh Brolin is simply perfect and is by far the most compelling MCU villain yet. I even forget that he’s CGI sometimes as the rendering is so lifelike, which is such a rarity in itself. All in all, this is it. The tenth anniversary of the MCU could not have been more perfect. Now let’s see if it can be topped in 2019…

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