Sunday, November 10, 2019

"Toy Story 4": review

"Toy Story 4" is a 2019 Pixar animated movie directed by Josh Cooley. The filmmakers have given mixed messages as to whether this movie will, at long last, be the final installment in the series. Actor Tom Hanks, who voices perennial protagonist Woody the cowboy, claims this is the final film in the series, but he has been contradicted by producer Mark Nielsen, who did not rule out the possibility of yet another film. Aside from Hanks, the film features the voice talents of Tim Allen (Buzz Lightyear), Annie Potts (Bo Peep), Tony Hale (Forky), Keegan-Michael Key (Ducky), Jordan Peele (Bunny), Madeleine McGraw (Bonnie), Christina Hendricks (Gabby Gabby), Keanu Reeves (Duke Caboom, a Canadian version of Evel Knievel), Ally Maki (Giggle McDimples, Bo Peep's plucky sidekick), Jay Hernandez (Bonnie's dad), Lori Alan (Bonnie's mom), and Joan Cusack (Jessie the cowgirl).

The story establishes that Woody, who used to be Andy's toy, gets donated along with the rest of the toys to Bonnie, a little girl who is more interested in playing with other toys than Woody. Woody tries to make the best of things, but he feels depressed by his diminished status, for every toy's dream is to be there for some child. Woody sneaks into Bonnie's backpack on the day she has to go to school for kindergarten orientation, and he helps Bonnie find some art supplies. Bonnie ends up cobbling together a makeshift toy that she names Forky, who is little more than a crudely assembled humanoid with a spork body, glued-on plastic googly-eyes, a rubber-band mouth, popsicle-stick feet, and a long pipe cleaner serving as hands and arms. Now officially a toy, Forky springs to life and becomes conscious, but because he is a toy made from garbage, he thinks of himself as essentially trash to be thrown away, so for him, the ultimate fulfillment isn't about making kids happy: it's about finding the nearest wastebasket and jumping into it. Woody understands that Forky is actually a toy, not trash, and that Forky's duty is now to keep Bonnie happy. Much of the movie is devoted to Woody's attempts to persuade Forky to remain with Bonnie; he eventually has a breakthrough moment in which Forky finally comes to understand where his true obligations lie.

But life is complicated. Woody also pines for Bo Peep, who was donated to another child years ago. Through a series of misadventures thanks to a family road trip in a rented RV, Woody finds himself in a town with an antique shop where, to his surprise and delight, Bo Peep's old lamp is shining. Woody and Forky sneak inside the shop. Instead of finding Bo Peep, though, the two encounter the creepy antique doll Gabby Gabby, whose voice box is broken, and who yearns to have a kid of her own. Gabby notices that Woody's voice box is perfectly good; she tells Woody she intends to take it. When Woody escapes the antique shop, Gabby kidnaps Forky in an attempt to lure Woody back in. Further complicating matters, Gabby has minions: a team of Howdy Doody-like puppets that are even creepier than Gabby is. The Howdys (at least one is named Benson) either stand guard or do Gabby's bidding.

While Woody is gone, Buzz Lightyear goes searching for his cowboy friend, but he ends up being intercepted at a nearby carnival and placed on the wall as a prize to be won at a target-shooting game. Also hanging on the wall are two plush dolls: Bunny and Ducky. Bunny is the smart one, and Ducky is something akin to the parrot on the pirate's shoulder. The three contrive to escape their situation and end up finding Woody, who has finally reunited with Bo Peep. Bo, it turns out, is a "lost toy" who drives a hollowed-out, skunk-shaped vehicle along with her sidekick Giggle McDimples and her three fused-together sheep—Billy, Goat, and Gruff. Bo, independent for several years now, revels in not having a kid to make happy. She cherishes her life of freedom and strongly hints that Woody might enjoy such a life, too. Woody manages to persuade Bo to help him rescue Forky from the clutches of Gabby, and Bunny and Ducky throw in with the group. Bo recruits the help of Duke Caboom, Canadian stuntman and motorcyclist, and a heist is hatched as the group prepares to lay siege to the antique shop to exfil Forky.

I won't spoil how this tangled mess all works out, except to say that the ending somehow manages to be fairly touching. And thanks to some smart writing, the story resolves one of the major conflicts in the film: Woody's deep conviction that a toy's duty is to make children happy, and Bo Peep's equally strong conviction that a life of freedom is a life worth living. The resolution of this seemingly intractable conflict is cleverly accomplished; if only all screenwriting were this smart. "Toy Story 4" is one long series of pleasant surprises for people who, like yours truly, were cynically expecting the fourth movie in what was supposed to be a trilogy to be little more than a cynical cash grab. The voice actors really do dig into their parts; the animators really do bring their "A" game; and as mentioned, the screenwriters really do give us a story that's full of humor, suspense, cleverness, and genuine heart.

Keanu Reeves, whom I've never associated with voice acting, does a hilarious job as Duke Caboom, a conflicted toy who got disowned by his kid when the kid discovered that the real Caboom toy couldn't perform the jumps shown in the TV commercials. Reeves also gets a moment, during an ending-credits scene, to utter his trademark "Whoa." Key and Peele, as Ducky and Bunny respectively, have the comic responsibility of playing plush animals who drop into Walter Mitty-esque fugues in which they fantasize about ultraviolence. Christina Hendricks turns out to be the perfect choice to voice Gabby Gabby, a mean doll who ultimately only wants what most toys want: a kid to be with.

"Toy Story 4" also contains the requisite humor and themes for adults. One toy remarks that "time is a flat circle," a line now made famous and meme-worthy* by Matthew McConaughey, who played the rebel-philosopher cop Rustin Cohle in the very adult Season 1 of "True Detective." The movie also takes a mature approach to conflict: Woody and Bo Peep have deep differences of opinion about what constitutes a good life, but the conflict isn't made out to be between characters who are obviously good and obviously bad. Woody and Bo Peep might love each other, but they're individuals who have spent a long time apart, and who have evolved, each according to his or her own experiences. One mature theme the movie ponders is whether two people who have grown so far apart can ever come back together again. It's the sort of question that might come up in the real world between two people who were married, then divorced, then reconciled. Can love bloom again in such circumstances?

But the movie also provides an even deeper philosophical wrinkle to ponder, something not covered in the three previous films: the idea that a toy might renounce its toy-ness and yearn for independence. Up to now, the mythology in the Toy Story movies has never seriously questioned the notion that toys feel the greatest fulfillment when they're making kids happy. Now along comes a much-more-self-empowered and very feminist Bo Peep (who was absent from "Toy Story 3"), and her message to the world is that it can actually be more fun not to be attached to a kid. Viewed through the lens of Eastern philosophy, the movie is talking about the shackles of dharma—one's nature, or one's role in the greater scheme of things. I wrote about dharma in my review of "Wreck-It Ralph" five years ago; it's strange and a bit spooky to see this cosmic theme coming up again, and in very similar circumstances. In "Wreck-It Ralph," it's video-game characters whose job is to serve humans by keeping to their assigned roles (bad guy, good guy) in arcade games; in "Toy Story 4," it's toys whose job is to serve humans by being a source of fun and comfort for children. Bo Peep is in rebellion against her socially mandated dharma, having discovered that her individual dharma transcends the child-pleasing demands normally placed on toys. By taking the mythology in this new direction, "Toy Story 4" leans more heavily into the magical-realism aspect of the franchise: toys have inner lives, minds of their own, and may even possess the will to break free of an assumed social contract. Does Bo Peep's departure from a traditional role signal the beginning of a wider rebellion among all of toydom? If so, the franchise's presumed fifth film might go in a very weird and sinister direction that, to be frank, I find hard to imagine.

But there I go again: overthinking. "Toy Story 4" is enjoyable on its own terms and without considering its more arcane implications. The story it tells is full of warmth and heart, and if it is, in fact, the actual end of this franchise, then I'd say the series will have ended on a good note, having avoided all the possible traps awaiting fourth movies that appear after solid trilogies. My hat is off to the director, the writers, and to all the voice actors, as well as to the hardworking animators who have brought yet another grandiose adventure to life. "Toy Story 4" is definitely worth a watch. Recommended.

*The absolute best example of the time/circle meme is here.

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