Monday, June 24, 2019

Review: Pixar defies the odds and goes 4 for 4 with "Toy Story 4"

Toy Story 4 Review
"Toy Story" must be Pixar's baby.

They certainly treat it as such.

It makes sense, the first "Toy Story" was 1995 and it really put Pixar on the map in a big way. "Toy Story 2" was the company's first sequel and soon after, they would be known as a company that didn't really play the sequel game. When Pixar finally decided to really start playing the sequel game, none of them measured up to the "Toy Story" sequels. Any of the three of them. The sequels to "Cars" are just mediocre, as is "Finding Dory." I am usually not a prequel person myself and sitting through "Monster's University" once was enough. When I rewatched "The Incredibles 2" to decide if I'd put it on my Best of 2018 list, I found myself impatient watching it a second time, and I am not sure it's a sequel built to last.

It seems like the "Toy Story" movies were destined to stand the test of time. It could just be my bias. I've had this little franchise of films ever since I was in Kindergarten. By the time I was in the middle of college, "Toy Story 3" came out, and I couldn't believe that the trilogy was still so profound all these years later. I figured they'd stop after three movies. What other stories could they possibly tell? What else needed to be said with these characters? It didn't seem like anything else, and the trilogy capped things off with an ending that was as close to perfect as it could get. Trilogies are hard to pull off in the first place, so knowing we had three great movies was a blessing.

There was no way a fourth film could work, right? My expectations have been really low ever since a fourth film was announced. I thought it would just be a cash grab, nothing to it but monetary profit. Even though Tom Hanks and Tim Allen talked it up, I still couldn't 100% give myself over to the idea of a fourth film we didn't need. Perhaps the low expectations made this experience a good one. I can't believe I am about to type these words but Pixar has gone four-for-four with their "Toy Story" movies. I can't believe I am saying that "Toy Story 4" is an excellent movie. Full of things I never would have guessed I'd see in a Pixar movie.

As the film begins, we learn what happened to Bo (Annie Potts), Woody's little girlfriend from the first two movies. We learned that she was given away sometime between 2 and 3, but we just didn't know how. We learn that she was given to a new family when Andy's little sister decided she didn't want her anymore. After the opening scene, we go back to Woody and the whole gang, adjusting to life as toys to Bonnie. The problem is Bonnie doesn't play with Woody much recently. Sure, she loves all of her toys, but she does have favorites, as all children do. Woody just isn't getting chosen as often as he was when he was with Andy. Woody being Woody, he sneaks into Bonnie's backpack when she goes to Kindergarten Orientation Day, just to be sure she has a good day.

She's pretty lonely at the start though, and Woody works behind the scenes to try and make Bonnie's day better. Which leads to the invention of Forky (Tony Hale). Forky is a spork with two googly eyes glued on it and paper for a mouth and a pipe cleaner for arms. Bonnie's creation makes her day so much better and she brings Forky home. She loves her new character. Thing is, when Woody introduces him to the rest of the toys, he runs straight to the trashcan. He is constantly trying to destroy himself. Because he knows he's not a toy, he wasn't created to be a play thing, he was created to be used then disposed of. Woody is constantly saving him, he knows the value Bonnie puts on Forky and he will do everything he can to show Forky how much he means to Bonnie.

Bonnie's family takes her on a surprise mini-vacation to celebrate how much of a good girl she was at Orientation and this leads to Woody and Forky getting lost due to all their bickering. They bond while trying to get back to Bonnie's family trailer and on the way back, Woody hears a voice from the past. The voice coming from an Antique store. Its Bo. The Bo we remember. When Buzz realizes Woody and Forky are missing, he goes out to look for them. All the while a doll named Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) is also at the Antique Store wanting Woody's voice box. This is the major crisis of the story, because it wouldn't be a "Toy Story" without a major crisis.

As we learn Bo is a toy free from any ownership, who helps other lost toys find kids, and while Forky brings everything back to being "Bonnie's trash" the metaphor that "Toy Story 4" is making comes quite clear. I've seen children's films challenge the zeitgeist. I've seen bold statements on social issues made in family films before. But one thing I didn't expect from a "Toy Story" movie was a metaphor for existentialism. And the way the film goes about discussing this topic, still wrapped in its happy-go-lucky, children's animation is rather remarkable.

I don't think I really need to tell you about the animation itself. Its Pixar for crying out loud, and they are once again at the top of their game. It was funny watching a special on the entire series before the films release over the weekend. Because even in high definition, you can still see the seams of mid-1990's computer generated animation watching the first "Toy Story." It really is amazing how far we've come in the animation field and the attention to detail in this fourth chapter is powerful on such a grand scale.

Now, is "Toy Story 4" as good as the other three? Honestly, I am not sure. Don't get me wrong, "Toy Story 4" is a great, great movie. Probably one of the very best you'll see all summer. I am just not sure it hit in the heart on the same level the past three films did. There is no scene that can even compare to the incinerator scene from "Toy Story 3." The reason why "Toy Story 3" felt like a perfect ending was how Andy gave away the toys as he went off the college, and that goodbye scene before the credits still hits hard almost a decade later. "Toy Story 4" will definitely give you all the feels by the end, but for completely different reasons. Also, for reasons I didn't find as emotional. By the end of "Toy Story 4" characters are saying goodbye all over again, and it feels like a stutter.

"Toy Story 4" also doesn't feel like a complete "Toy Story" movie. This is mainly a Woody and Bo adventure, with Buzz pretty much a supporting character. The other fan favorites like Jessie, Bullseye, the Potato Heads, Slinky Dog and the rest are pretty much regulated to cameos. I would be lying if I said that didn't bother me, and I would have preferred a story that featured all of Andy's ex-toys as big parts of the plot. I guess its a good thing that the new toys Woody encounters are so much fun. Keanu Reeves plays Duke Caboom; a Canadian Evel Kenival if you will. Who was abandoned and now doesn't have the confidence in himself that he once had. Oh my God is Reeves hilarious as a voice actor, breathing life into a character I didn't know he could. Reeves created my favorite character in the entire movie. I was also pleased as punch that Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele show up as Ducky and Bunny, two plush toys who help Buzz find Woody. 

I may not think "Toy Story 4" quite lands the emotional sledgehammer they are so graciously aiming for. But that doesn't matter. There were moments in this movie where I was laughing through tears, moments that made my heart jump for joy. This is a tremendous edition to the franchise, both harrowing and hilarious. The rich animation makes for an experience to get lost in. I may end up preferring the first three to this one, but that doesn't change the fact that "Toy Story 4" is still a great experience. I didn't know I needed a complete ending to Woody's character and emotional arc, and now that I have it, it all feels right in the end. I will always have a friend in all four of these movies, to infinity and beyond.

FINAL GRADE: A

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