Thursday, June 27, 2019

Toymetheus unbound


TOY STORY 4

It's a disappointment, of course.  It's a Toy Story that isn't a masterpiece.  It isn't even great.  But as far as Pixar in the Tens has gone, you know, it is probably above average—and that'll do.

2019
Directed by Josh Cooley
Written by many, so very many, but I'm happy leaving it at "screenplay by Andrew Stanton and Stephanie Folsom"

Spoiler alert: moderate


I've mentioned before that Pixar is good at sequels.  By which I mean, Pixar is almost unbelievably good at sequels, and, discounting the Cars films, which I understand all good folk do, every time Pixar's extended one of their industry-defining hits into a franchise, it's turned out to be essential viewing.  More often than not, the Pixar sequel was even better than the Pixar original, and if it wasn't, it was at the very least on an equal footing with it—and the only reason that latter category needs to be mentioned is because Incredibles 2 probably isn't actually a better movie than The Incredibles, even if it is better cinema.  Meanwhile, the former category previously included everything else to date: Finding Dory; the depressingly underrated Monsters University; and, obviously, each new Toy Story.  But nothing can last forever, and the release of Toy Story 4 means that, after years of using more-or-less the exact same opening paragraph, I finally have to find a new way to start my reviews of Pixar sequels.

On the plus side, it's not in any sense a disaster—though we might've been braced for one.  Of course, a zillion writers struggling over multiple scrapped or repurposed story ideas is kinda par for the course in major animated films.  It's just that, usually, those writers don't wind up very publicly pushed out of the door for unrelated reasons, nor walking off in anger from a process that had no use for them.  And—yeah—it's usually not as obvious from the final product, either, not even in Pixar's actual disaster, The Good Dinosaur.  The Toy Stories have all had their churning development cycles; yet in the end, they each wound up with their strong central concepts, always driven by an adventure-thriller backbone that required our toy heroes to travel to [insert place that has toys lying around] to save [insert main character] from [insert peril].  Or perhaps it's more like they all had a strong central theme (variations upon existential wherefores, with a religious bent), and they combined that theme with loveable and flawlessly-cast characters, while an easy-to-fiddle-with formula for putting them into emotionally powerful situations simply dovetailed nicely with each film's goals.

Well, Toy Story 4 has its own strong central concept, too; hell, it has at least two, maybe even three.  And if it seems like they can't be "central" while sharing 100 minutes of screentime with each other, then you're right—the best that can be said is that the film has a central arc, the story of Toy Story 4 being any given Bon Jovi song from the 1990s (oddly, whether about cowboys or not) as applied to Woody the living cowboy doll (Tom Hanks). But while it doesn't really have a core idea driving it, it sure feels like it does while you're watching it, as you arrive upon each new thing the movie's decided to be about, bolted onto the fronts and backs of all the others.

So we begin, anyway, with Woody and the gang—Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), Jessie (Joan Cusack), and others whom the film also just has no time for—about a year after the close of the Toy Story Trilogy as we knew it in Toy Story 3, which saw Andy go off to college and bequeath his toys (and also, unwittingly, the priceless antique Woody doll he could have paid for all four years of college with, a never-mentioned-again plot point from Toy Story 2 that never fails to amuse/bother me) to young Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw).  Bonnie's integrated this windfall into her toy collection, but as the months pass, Woody's been given less and less rotation during playtime.  Still, this has barely dented his indefatigable zeal for being there for whichever child has written their name on his foot.  And thus does Woody stow away in Bonnie's backpack for a stressful first day at kindergarten, which allows him to surreptitiously instigate Bonnie's creation of a new toy from craft supplies and, also, garbage: a spork with mismatched googly eyes, pipe cleaner arms, and broken popsicle stick feet, which Bonnie arbitrarily genders male and then, somewhat counterintuitively, christens "Forky."


For his service during that terrible kindergarten orientation, Forky becomes Bonnie's very favorite toy, which conflicts with Forky's new and unasked-for consciousness, because he steadfastly remains self-identified as trash.  As such, he would very much prefer to be thrown away.  Woody spends a lot of screentime stopping him from going home, but, during a family road trip, the wily spork finally manages to jump out the window of a moving RV, whereupon Woody jumps out after him, and a little bit after that, another movie, about Woody's reunion with his long-lost lamp love Bo Peep (Annie Potts), can finally begin.

I'm sure it sounds meaner than I intend it, unless you follow the link and realize I'm a defender of the film, but there's a real Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull thing going on with Toy Story 4, and not just because it's a distant third sequel that nobody asked for, though that obviously helps.  It's because I mostly still like it, and I (contra the Internet) have no hard objections to it, but, yes, it's not quite the same, not nearly as good, and, for the first time in the franchise, feels like it's stretching itself just to exist.  That feeling's especially salient with Forky, who serves as a deuteragonist alongside Woody for what initially appears to be the long haul, and is more-or-less disappeared by the film by the half hour mark, calling into question why, if he's not going to be the movie's focus (or even something it takes a particular interest in), he takes on such an attention-grabbing and thematically-laden form.

Hence our first act more akin to one of those Toy Story shorts, ala Toy Story of Terror. It's not even the best of them (it might be the worst of them), and it's armed with no apparent ambition beyond introducing a cute new character whose existence is founded upon a single joke, which is that he's suicidal, but, you know, cutely so.  (And who also seems to be a calculated move by Pixar's artists to deny Disney the ability to market a real-life toy based on him—oh, how adorably naive.)  Well, one's pretty sure there was at least one treatment of Toy Story 4 that tacked a lot harder toward Forky's tale, and one assumes that whoever came up with the idea had at least somewhat grander plans.  He is, after all, an abomination against God that, nonetheless, was made by God.  Forky means that the Toy Story 4 we got still does everything to raise the Problem of Suffering and the Right to Die, embodying both in the very same character; but, presumably because asking these questions in a kid's film in the first place, even in a Toy Story, was a bad idea, it grapples with them in the form of a hugely extended repetition gag that doesn't do much of anything to explore Forky's vaguely-sketched quest for annihilation, and, in fact, it's a quest that gets happily resolved before the damn first act's even done.  Nevertheless, it does manage to go on for twenty minutes straight, accomplishing neither more nor less than a monotonous re-do of Buzz from Toy Story 1.  I suppose I expected more out of a character who breaks Toy Story's already-dubious metaphysics even further, and who was pushed hard by the film's marketing campaign as this installment's bid for novelty; I suppose, then, that I'm the idiot.

Toy Story 4 is on much solider footing when it comes to the tale of Woody and Bo Peep, though I could be drawing that Indy 4 comparison simply because their plots mirror each other in such remarkable ways, both films boiling down to the synopsis, "An old man in a broad-brimmed hat finds himself responsible for a truculent son-like figure who drags him into one more adventure, which brings him unexpectedly back into the life of his one great love. They subsequently team up against a redhead villainess who desperately wants to commune with her gods, and needs the Hat Man's help to do it."  Probably the biggest difference there is that Mutt was a better-rounded and more organic character.  The redhead villainess this time around is Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), the baby doll warlord of the antique store Woody and Forky just kind of happen upon, and which turns out to be Bo Peep's last stop on her journey of liberation from the oppressive world of child worship that Woody's spent the past seventy years of his life embracing.  (Y'know, it's a trivial thing, but what did Woody do in between the date of his manufacture in the late 1950s and his arrival in Andy's toybox in 199X?)

Anyway, this part of Toy Story 4 is by far the best thing it's got going for it, even if it still feels superfluous: while Toy Story 3 closed off the life of a toy (and hence, metaphorically, a childhood) with an act of kindness, by essentially going backwards and letting the cycle begin again with a new generation, Toy Story 4 commits instead to being this weird posthuman fairy tale about a bunch of literal immortals who just happen to be made of plastic.  It still fits into the series formula, of course, and finds itself powered by the drama of [Forky's] kidnapping and [Woody and Bo Peep's] rescue mission, set against Woody's newest dark mirror, [Gabby,] who insists that the cowboy turn over his mint condition voicebox to her so she can finally fix her broken one, thereby at last becoming worthy of a child's attention.

And this, along with the allies they meet in Gabby's antique store (notably Keanu Reeves' psychologically-shattered stuntman toy), is genuinely fun, exciting, and (when it comes to the monk who's denied himself the pleasures of the crypto-flesh, and who's realizing that maybe he's made a mistake) even deeply emotionally satisfying stuff.  That's not nothing for a sequel numbered "4."  And this remains true, even if Toy Story 4 wastes virtually every opportunity it has for any particularly interesting Pixar-style setpiece, most potently in what winds up being just the first twenty seconds of a huge start-and-stop brawl between Woody and our new, Fury Road-inflected Bo Peep* and Gabby's creepy ventriloquist dummy minions, founded on the idea that, of course, their battle has to pause any time a human ventures into the frame.  (It could have reminded me of more Bad Lucas, though in this case in a good way, namely The Phantom Menace's "Duel of the Fates" sequence, except now driven by a vastly more acceptable story mechanic.)  I half-wonder if the typical setpieces fell by the wayside because so much damn time was spent establishing Forky, and on that third story, which the screenplay doesn't spend much effort even pretending to care about.

That third story, anyway, is what a hundred story meetings managed to come up with for Buzz this time around, which has always been a challenge for the series since basically finishing the character back in 2 (at the latest), though the idea, "retrogressing back into total blithe stupidity," doesn't even live up to the low-grade reductive charms of "being stuck in Spanish mode" they trotted out back in 3.  That was patently a move of desperation, but at least did work, even setting him up in an amusing relationship wherein he got with the lady version of his best friend.  In this movie, incidentally, cowgirl Jessie has, like, three lines, and that's still more than everybody else; Bonnie's aboriginal toys remain so anonymous I genuinely don't know their names, nor care to learn them.

The third story at least has the decency to interface with the second, even if it's mostly just secondary characters being zany.  It also delivers Toy Story 4's most concerted attempt at a setpiece, too, which takes too many cues from Finding Dory and takes the idea, "toys humorously intefering with the human world," way, way too far—and rounds itself off with more characterization for Bonnie than is useful, as a spoiled brat, and with the kind of inept dad comedy that requires Bonnie's father to spend three hours changing a tire.

Toy Story 4 is the biggest Toy Story, regardless, and while it doesn't really benefit as a story from the wider scope, I suspect it might have more discrete locations than the rest of the franchise combined, giving Pixar's designers and animators and ascended AIs the chance to really bust their moves.  The challenge seems to have been to remake the world of Toy Story as an impossibly-photorealistic, utterly-convincing physical place, the equivalent of The Good Dinosaur's eye-watering natural vistas as applied to human exurbia, and as seen from the perspective of this franchise's tiny golems.  The file size of the finished film beggared belief, and rendering times ran up to 160 hours a frame, and—hell, it pays off.  As a tech demo alone, it's absolutely fucking amazing: an opening flashback takes place in the rain, and as much as you might've thought "man, they've got CG rain down already," they didn't until right now.  (The mud!)  But the most impressive thing is the gloomy atmosphere of Gabby's antique emporium, doing wonders to sell the horror movie vibe of Gabby's frankly grotesque plot (I mean, it amounts to organ-thievery), and it turns out the realistic toy's-eye-view is full of rank filth, dust and cobwebs everywhere.  You can clearly discern a hair stuck to a thin film of oil on a cash register.  It lets you feel the dead skin cells they're walking in.  It's actually really gross, but I love it.

In contrast, there are sights that are just as beautiful as the rest is yucky, driving key emotions in key scenes even if they're probably beautiful just for their own sake, an exercise in allowing Pixar's computers to take their binary joy in the physics of light.  Even the characters themselves—and the Toy Story series pretty much exists because Pixar tailored its premiere feature to the limits of their technology 24 years ago—are more plastic, or ceramic, or whatever, than ever before, and it's an uncanny but gratifying effect.  (Well, except that one bit where Bo Peep's climbing a rope and the lack of anything resembling musculature in her redesign makes it look like she's using telekinesis to do it.  But even Pixar is allowed to make one animation mistake.)

Being Pixar, it's of course put together with a clear flow and fine storytelling (and, being a Toy Story, it has absurdly good vocal performances), and this helps even when the story it's telling maybe isn't the best story it could.  I've dwelled on its misses as a comedy, but it's certainly funny enough to get by, sometimes very funny indeed (especially when it's just Hanks and Potts playing off one another in their walled-off seriocomic romance).  It has exactly the right payoff.  Even if it derails the weepy parts slightly by way of more perfunctory zaniness, it's just about the only climax that could've justified a Toy Story 4, and it does justify it, in part by hopefully preempting a Toy Story 5 for all time.  It's a disappointment, of course.  It's a Toy Story that isn't a masterpiece.  It isn't even great.  But as far as Pixar in the Tens has gone, you know, it is probably above average—and that'll do.

Score: 7/10

*The Fury Road homage is a subtle one, and even in the moment it becomes overt it's still pretty sly, while also being the very funniest joke in the movie.

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