Movie Review ~ Toy Story 4


The Facts
:

Synopsis: When a new toy called “Forky” joins Woody and the gang, a road trip alongside old and new friends reveals how big the world can be for a toy.

Stars: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Annie Potts, Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves, Joan Cusack, Lori Alan, Blake Clark, Estelle Harris

Director: Josh Cooley

Rated: G

Running Length: 100 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: I’m pretty sure most audiences, like me, thought this toy box was closed for good. After changing the face of computer animation with the release of Toy Story in 1995, Pixar followed their original story up with two sequels that managed to improve exponentially on their predecessors. Culminating in 2010 with the beloved, three-hanky Toy Story 3, favorite toys Woody and Buzz Lightyear had a fantastic send-off that was just about the most perfect ending to a story you could ask for. At the time, everyone involved said three films was the limit and they were done with the Toy Story franchise…but a few box office duds and less successful sequels to other popular titles ‘inspired’ the animators at Pixar to come up Toy Story 4.

Usually, in these seemingly desperate situations no good can come of the product that’s created and I braced myself going into Toy Story 4 for a sequel that didn’t measure up. The news at the outset is that no, Toy Story 4 is not as winning as the previous film nor does it have the same complexities that made that last chapter mean so much to adults as well as kids. However, the moment I stopped trying to compare this film to the one that came before I sort of released any tension I had going in and was easily won over. This relatively uncomplicated, but very entertaining, entry gives audiences everything they want. From the characters major and minor we love, to the dizzying hijinks that have become a staple of the prime Pixar pictures, Toy Story 4 works like gangbusters when the gang is all together.

At the end of Toy Story 3, Andy left his prized toys with toddler Bonnie when he went off to college and as this film opens the toys are enjoying their rebooted life with a new child. True, not all of them get the same play time as others, namely Woody (Tom Hanks, Sully) who nicely abdicates his sheriff duties to Jessie (Joan Cusack, Working Girl) because Bonnie prefers her. With Bonnie set to begin Kindergarten, Woody steals away in her backpack to keep an eye on her should she need any comfort and bears witness to the creation of a new toy, Forky (Tony Hale, American Ultra). A crude construction from a spork, pipe cleaners, and popsicle sticks, he becomes Bonnie’s new favorite though the recently born toy keeps trying to pitch himself into any available waste paper bin because he only thinks of himself as “trash”.

With Woody busy trying to keep Forky from going out with the garbage, the rest of the toys take a minor backseat to the action until Bonnie and her parents take a small road trip before school officially begins. It’s here the movie really begins after a half hour of funny, if a tad bit staid, sequences with Woody and the group. Though I’m sure Forky will become a popular toy with fans and the deeper meaning to his metaphysical questioning of life will inspire numerous think pieces, I found this first act of the movie a wee bit ungainly.  To me, Forky and his desperate attemps to run away became an annoyance…and I wondered why all the toys just didn’t let him be on his merry way.  Again, while on the early stages of the road trip, Forky makes a run for it and Woody follows, eventually winding up in an second-hand antique store lorded over by a Gabby Gabby doll (Christina Hendricks, The Neon Demon) and her ventriloquist dummy minions (scary!) with designs on Woody’s voicebox.

The antique shop and the traveling carnival that sits right outside the store provides Pixar people ample space to let their imaginations run wild and they have a ball creating a host of new toys and gadgets for our stalwarts to interact with. I had forgotten that Bo Peep (Annie Potts, Ghostbusters) hadn’t been in the last film and it was nice to see her move into a leading role as the female foil to Woody. Having been given away by her previous owner, Bo Peep (and her sheep) have been living as lost toys for seven years and show Woody the ways of the wild and help him break into the antique shop to look for Forky. These movies have always been quite targeted to boys and though the introduction of Jessie in the second film was meant to balance things out it never truly felt like an equal distribution of material. That error seems to have been nicely righted here by fleshing out Bo Peep as an independent toy capable of more than just tending sheep.

In addition to Gabby Gabby who is perhaps more than just merely a villain but a toy aching for feeling the same love and belonging the others have felt, there’s a Canadian stunt toy (Keanu Reeves, Parenthood) with an inferiority complex, and a set of plush animals (voiced by Keegan-Michael Key, Tomorrowland and Jordan Peele, Us) stitched together at the hand to provide some fine comedic support. The plush toys especially get in some howlingly funny bits, as much as the film made kids in my screening laugh I don’t think I’ve heard adults laugh louder or longer in a movie in quite some time. If there’s one toy that gets short shrift, it’s Buzz (Tim Allen) who has some late-breaking action but is sidelined in the memorable moments field for much of the film.

Watching the movie, I was reminded again at just how incredible the advancements Pixar has made. The animation here is photo-realistic at times and quite stunning to behold. Some animals look real and most vistas appear as if they have been snapped right from a postcard. If you look at the original Toy Story now you can see where the animation has room to grow but comparing that to this is showing how a company has evolved fantastically over the years.  Couple that with action sequences crafted with clockwork precision that best any number of live-action summer blockbusters and you have a movie that has laser eye for detail down to the most minuscule of properties.

I’m hearing again this will be the last Toy Story film and the creators have definitely given us another ending that feels like it…but never count out another adventure if the story is right. It took nine years for this fourth film to be made and the release date comes almost five years after it was originally announced. So, it’s obvious the studio took its time in creating the film and releasing it only when it was perfected. Let’s hope if there is another tale to be told, the same care is taken when Woody, Buzz, and Bo Peep ride again.

Movie Review ~ Coco

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Aspiring musician Miguel, confronted with his family’s ancestral ban on music, enters the Land of the Dead to work out the mystery.

Stars: Anthony Gonzalez, Benjamin Bratt, Gael García Bernal, Ana Ofelia Murguía, Renee Victor, Jaime Camil

Director: Lee Unkrich

Rated: PG

Running Length: 109 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: There was time when Disney/Pixar had the market cornered on movies that hit you with enough emotional force that tears were inevitable.  Often they were happy tears but every now and then they’d find a way to trigger the kind of ugly cry that made audiences glad the lights didn’t come on right when the credits rolled. With the advent of 3D technology being used in their films, we then had another way to hide our red eyes as we shuffled toward the exit and our cars.

Over the past decade Pixar has lost a little bit of that luster producing not fully satisfying sequels to proven franchises.  They looked great and were amusing, sure, but something was missing…there wasn’t the magnitude of honest heart and soul the studio was known for.  Add to that live-action movies and rival animation studios locking into that coveted emotional sweet spot and Pixar started to become one of the gang instead of their leader.

Now along comes Coco.

I didn’t know what to expect from Pixar’s latest release, an original tale of a boy in Mexico struggling with accepting his family and having them understand him too.  Early previews didn’t give much in the way of plot but they sure got tongues wagging with its spectacular animation and the promise of something inventive. not just another rehashed sequel (Monsters University).  Could this be the spark that re-ignited the Pixar fire?  And would audiences make time for something that might be out of their cultural comfort zone?

Young Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez, who also has a sweet singing voice) narrates our tale and through a creative prologue catches us up on his family history.  His great great grandmother was abandoned by her musician husband, leaving her to raise their daughter alone.  Banishing all forms of music from her descendants, she starts a successful shoe business that is passed down from generation to generation.  In present day, though he knows its forbidden, Miguel dreams of becoming a famous musician like his idol, matinee star Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt, Doctor Strange).  Though de la Cruz perished onstage in an unfortunate scenery malfunction, his memory lives on in movie appearances Miguel replays in a secret hiding place where he can play his guitar along with his hero.

When a talent contest is announced to take place in conjunction with Dia de los Muertos (the three-day celebration in October that’s a staple of Mexican culture), Miguel chooses to emulate de la Cruz and ‘seize the moment’, but when his family gets wind of his plot his dreams are crushed.  It’s when he breaks into the mausoleum of de la Cruz and strums his famed guitar that Miguel becomes enmeshed in a family curse he’ll need de la Cruz’s help to break.  Meeting up with his relatives that have long since passed and teaming up with a fast-talking hobo (Gael García Bernal, Rosewater) to find de la Cruz, Miguel embarks on a journey of discovery to get back to the Land of the Living before the sun rises.

The story, co-written by director Lee Unkrich (Inside Out) is full of colorful characters and creative endeavors.  There’s a bit of a mystery to solve and it gets more interesting as the film goes along and Miguel learns more about his family.  Parents should heed the PG rating because there are some images/ideas that may frighten younger children but kids that can sit through its rather long running time should be quite enthralled.  I was pretty mesmerized from the word go and marveled at how intricate the plot becomes, especially when it threw in Frida Kahlo and other references to Mexican history.

Speaking of detail, the animation here is just outstanding.  The background designs are super and the fine details on each of the skeletal faces of the inhabitants of the Land of the Dead are unique and serve to soften what could be a scary sight.  There’s wonderful music pulsating through the film (some from the team behind Frozen) and a recurring musical theme is put to good use, especially in the final 1/3 when Unkrich amps up the emotion and carefully (if shamelessly) goes for the jugular.

For a film that takes place mostly in the Land of the Dead, there’s an abundance of life and joy on display.  It signals that Pixar is listening to audiences and critics that wanted the studio to get back to what made them so special in the first place: telling original stories that touched us on more than a simply entertaining level.  Coco represents a high-water mark for the studio, arguably one of their best films so far.  In addition to its dazzling animation that uses every color known to the human eye it has a strong story about family and finding one’s place in your lineage.  It pulls very few punches and will likely inspire some discussion afterward for parents to have with their children. Make sure to stay until the end, the final image that serves as a thank you from the filmmakers is the cherry on top of an already personal-feeling experience.  Also…major props for directing audiences to their local libraries to study up on the cultural events depicted in the film.