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)

★★★★

Avengers: Infinity War (2018) review

To quote a great fictional man, ‘there was an idea.’ Never has a movie quote been so appropriate in the context of an idea within its universe and the production of said universe in real life. The idea of establishing four lesser known comic book characters in their own movies that would be largely alien to a mainstream blockbuster audience only to bring them together in one singular event seemed to beg for disaster. But, in hindsight, what almost feels like projecting, the watchful one working eye of Nick Fury in universe and Kevin Feige in our reality both knew that this was a winning idea. As we know 2012’s ‘The Avengers’ was a sensational hit and quickly rose to become the third highest grossing film of all time. So what’s more mad than trying to set up a superhero film that juggles six protagonists, a functioning narrative and an effective villain? Well, how about throwing twenty plus main characters, a narrative that follows three different groups across the galaxy and a totally fresh villain that has no prior film establishment (I’m not counting three minutes in ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ as extensive character building). If ‘The Avengers’ was a gamble, then ‘Avengers: Infinity War’ is Marvel throwing everything, quite literally, onto the table. With the exception of one shrinking Paul Rudd and a confused normal man who wondered onto set with a bow and arrow for some reason, literally everyone is present here. 

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So, big question: is it any good? Quite amazingly, by some alignment of the stars and the moons (we probably have Thanos to thank for that), this movie somehow manages to live up to the hype and also pay appropriate respect and homage to its previous ten year long legacy. Feige makes a decision worthy of the intellects of Bruce Banner, Shrui and Tony Stark combined by giving directing reigns over to the Russo Brothers, whose previous work for Marvel includes ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’ and ‘Captain America: Civil War’, otherwise known as two movies that are in literally everybody’s ‘Top five MCU films’ lists. The meandering pace, bizarre villain choices and tangents to set up for solo films from Whedon’s underwhelming ‘Age of Ultron’ are firmly abolished here, with the focus being where it should be: Josh Brolin’s Thanos. It has been an excellent year for Marvel villains, as they once again learn from past mistakes and give the ‘Mad Titan’ exactly the right amount of screen time and backstory necessary to make him thoroughly compelling and simultaneously hateable. The true mark of a great villain relies on two things; An understanding (not to be confused with agreement) of their motivations and an incredible on screen presence. The combination of the writing and Josh Brolin’s breath-taking performance achieve this in spades; I genuinely feared for the lives of my favourite characters whenever they came into contact with him.

Though the story is firmly told from the viewpoint of Thanos, the obvious appeal of the movie for any fanboy such as myself comes from the sheer number of heroes in one flick. In the hands of less competent directors, combining the Guardians of the Galaxy, the Avengers and the numerous subsequent heroes and side characters could’ve been more of a disaster than the DC movie universe (cheap shot, sorry.) Thankfully, all of your fAvengersInfinityWaravourite heroes are represented and almost all of them have witty lines and adequate roles to play to drive the story forward. That said, not all heroes are created equally and if I had one criticism, it would be a little too much reliance on the Guardians of the Galaxy and not quite enough love for the likes of core Avengers ‘Black Widow’ and ‘Captain America.’ This is of course a super minor nit-pick and with the state of the universe at the end of the film, I’m sure they’ll have much more prevalence in next years as of yet untitled ‘Avengers 4.’ But we’ll get to that ending later. My other nit-pick regards the generic evil henchmen- ‘The Black Order’ As you might expect, they don’t receive a huge amount of development and despite being pretty tough, are killed off without much consequence. As I say, another minor point as the main villain is so engaging and there is so, so much going on, but I feel that a bit more personality wouldn’t have gone amiss. 

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So if those are my two tiny problems, what did I like about the film? Honestly, nearly everything else. The now well established cast bring their ‘A game’ here, with everyone (except Elizabeth Olsen’s ‘Sokovian’ accent) being on point. Stand outs include Chris Hemsworth as Thor, who honestly just gets better in every movie he’s in. He not only nails the dramatic moments, but his comedic timing rivals even the greatest stand up artists at this point. ‘Sweet Rabbit’ is my new favourite thing and his interactions with the Guardians in general made the Marvel fan boy in my squeal with excitement as well as laugh. Tom Holland’s Peter Parker is also amazing here. I was one of the few not actually sold by ‘Spiderman: Homecoming’, but I’m totally on board following a soul destroyingly real death scene. Move over Toby; I have a new favourite Spidey. As I said, there are too many other characters to give individual praise to, but the interactions between our favourite characters weaved in with that trademark Marvel wit, make this a surprisingly humorous affair to begin with, that slowly sits you down and rips out your heart as it brutally murders your childhood heroes… 

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…we best start talking about that ending then. Despite a few early deaths, things seemed all good in the hood for most of the cast and I thought we’d wrap things up with Thanos in some intergalactic prison, with the emotional weight coming from the (very well done and suitably respectful and brutal) deaths of Loki, Gamora and Vision. Not so. After Thor stabs Thanos and he smirks with a reply of ‘you should’ve aimed for the head’, I knew this wasn’t going to be a happy ending. Thanos savagely rips the mind stone from Vision’s head and achieves his goal of wiping out half of the population of the universe. Yep; an MCU movie where the villain wins, without question. The death toll is more akin to the kind of body count Jason Vorehees or Michael Myers (not Austin Powers) tend to rack up; Star Lord, Groot, Drax, Mantis, Black Panther, Falcon, The Winter Soldier, Dr. Strange and even poor Spiderman are all kaput. The movie then ends on a dour note of hopelessness with a cliff-hanger more enticing than ‘Empire Strikes Back.’ It punches you in the gut and is the only Marvel movie to end with a solemn, quiet credits soundtrack to signify the severity of the situation. Now while that is all bleak, it is slightly undercut by the fact that the Marvel diary has already confirmed: ‘Guardians 3’, ‘Spiderman 2’, and ‘Black Panther 2’ post ‘Avengers 4.’ So while I’m sure no one seriously think these flagship characters were dead for good, it does slightly undercut the emotional weight of the scene. While Spidey’s death genuinely nearly got a tear out of me, I was at the same time relieved as I knew that meant this is likely to be undone. It leaves us in an interesting place though, as the remaining Avengers (by no accident) are the core members from phase one with the addition of Rhodey, a few Wakandans and one angry ‘Sweet Rabbit.’ The focus will undoubtedly be on the original team in the follow up and I for one, can’t wait for next summer to see the real conclusion.

 

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It should also be noted that this movie doesn’t waste time introducing newbies to the franchise; quite frankly it doesn’t have the time. It fully expects its audience to be up to date and have knowledge of all previous 18 (!) movies. This also applies to character development as the key dynamics between Tony Stark and Peter Parker for instance are far more compelling with the established relationship from previous flicks. I realise I’ve spent a lot of time talking about plot and not much else in this review, but its such an overwhelming experience that I feel a splurge of information from my brain is the best approach. Taking my fanboy hat off for a second though, it is worth noting the phenomenal production values and stylistic choices. The visuals are more ambitious than any film prior; even the insane, ‘Inception’ style visuals of ‘Dr. Strange’ are dwarfed by one cosmic set piece after another, with the effects highlight being an entire moon being lobbed at Iron Man. I was also very pleased to see the return of Alan Silverstri as composer, who has been absent from the MCU since ‘The Avengers.’ As the composer of easily the most iconic tune in the franchise, it was great to hear his bold, heroic, hype inducing score make a triumphant return here to signal strong character moments. This, balanced with the ominous drone composed as the theme for Thanos really added a lot of weight to the film. One minor (very nerdy) nit-pick, is that I would’ve loved to have heard a reprise of Tyler Bates’ equally excellent motif for the Guardians of the Galaxy when they made their appearance. Motifs are severely lacking in the MCU and it would’ve been equally good to have heard the familiar fanfares for Iron Man and Captain America established previously.

So in conclusion, ‘Avengers: Infinity War’ is about as amazing a comic book movie that you could ask for. It felt like a true crossover ‘event comic’ come to life. While I still feel that ‘The Dark Knight’, with its compelling themes, complex characters and Oscar worthy acting will always reign supreme as the greatest comic book movie, this movie achieves the seemingly impossible task of juggling so many characters, bringing the pages of a comic book to life and, perhaps most impressively of all, being a satisfying first part of a conclusion to ten years of hype. While it won’t make any great shakes in the Oscars or as a piece of high brow cinema, it isn’t trying to. It knows what it is; a smart action blockbuster and a reward for comic book fans everywhere who have followed and supported Marvel eagerly for the past ten years. Now they have the equally daunting task of finding a satisfying way to conclude this monster of a story. But with Feige, the Russo brothers and the rest of Marvel Studios at the helm, I have every faith that it will just as exhilarating, hilarious and satisfying as this was.

★★★★★

Also pleeeeease, please can this film beat ‘Titanic’ and ‘Avatar’ at the box office? I’d kill to see the look on James Cameron’s pretentious, smug, comic book hating face.

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