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)

★★★★

Thor: Ragnarok (2017) review

A pretty common criticism of phase one of the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe for all you casuals) was that formulaic nature of each of the films. As they were all origin stories, it was a clear pattern: hero discovers/gains their power, love interest, friend who turns into an evil variation of the hero defeated, cue post credits Sam Jackson foreshadowing the hell out of the future team up; Boom, done. If there is anything that ‘Thor Ragnarok’ isn’t, it’s being bound by the common tropes of existing Marvel films. The third instalment of the ‘Thor’ franchises is so far removed from its decent first instalment and bland sequel, that it almost seems like a different IP altogether.

   In many ways, things are familiar; the core cast of characters has many familiar faces, with the addition of a one or two new ones including Cate Blanchett’s wonderfully hammy Goddess of death, Hera. It’s no secret that Mark Ruffalo returns as Bruce Banner also returning are Thor’s brother and father, Loki and Odin, played by British national treasures Tom Hiddleston and Anthony Hopkins respectively. However, the names of these characters are where the similarities with previous films end. Every single character here seems like a weird, alternate reality version of themselves. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s just an odd choice. Chris Hemsworth’s Thor for example is now silly, arrogant and partial cracking one liners, killing tension at the drop of a hammer. Bruce Banner, one of Marvel’s most tragic, complex and tortured characters is now a jittery, spaced out oddball more reminiscent of Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor from that terrible DC film we don’t talk about. I suppose the argument can be made that he’s shock and prolonged Hulk transformation have this effect, but the script seems to turn the two leads into a petty, arguing married couple rather than allow for the weight that a story like ‘Ragnarok’ should bring.

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   However, if there’s one thing that director Taika Waititi excels at, its pace. The film is nonstop excitement, which is often, it must be said, at the expense of the plot. While certainly not dull, the story being told here is quite frankly, a mess. The inclusion of the Hulk is welcome and there are certainly some excellent elements, but the lean on comedy makes it a disorganised and clustered collection of ideas, with only some of them landing. However, visually, it’s a Marvel. (See what I did there?). From an Asgard under attack to the new, dusty, junk planet of Sakaar, it’s a feast to the eyes. It’s also refreshing to see these heroes away from Earth for once for almost the entire run. As ‘Avengers: Infinity War’ looks to be centred around Earth, it was nice to get another cosmic adventure before everyone ends up back on our home turf. Speaking of space, I would be remiss to not mention the clear influence of James Gunn’s ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ movies present here. While a winning formula for the Guardians, a focus on humour doesn’t land quite as well here, probably because the focus on the funny means that we don’t recognise our leads from their appearances in previous Avenger based romps. Some jokes are indeed excellent and had me laughing out loud, but Marvel in general needs to learn when to take itself seriously and this film is a prime example of not doing that.

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   From everything I’ve said, you probably think I didn’t enjoy ‘Thor: Ragnarok’ but I was thoroughly entertained by it. Putting aside that we were clearly watching ‘Bizzzaro’ versions of Thor, Hulk and Loki, the film does work in its own weird, surreal world. The action, as you’d expect from Marvel, is sensational and it looks the closest to reality that the studio has yet come. The tone is all around fun and if you just take it at face value, it is a lot of fun.It’s clear that everyone involved clearly had a blast making this one and that comes through in the actors performances. Ruffalo and Hemsworth have excellent chemistry and the addition of Tessa Thompson to the cast is welcome and adds a nice new dynamic that boring old Natalie Portman never did. The film also succeeds in presenting a decent villain, another struggle that the studio has fought with for years. Hera has wonderful menace and is presented as a threat on a completely different level to anything we’ve seen yet. Hell, even a living planet wasn’t able to accomplish the things she did, so kudos to the writing staff for that. As said, she does come off pretty hammy and Blanchett is clearly loving the chance to channel her inner Saturday morning cartoon villain. la-et-hc-thor-ragnarok-trailer-20170722-970x545-1

   Finally a mention of the score. In a similar vein to that Netflix tv show I’ve been so obsessed with lately, the film takes an 80’s synth approach to the score. Channeling its cheesy influences, it works well, and the use of Led Zeppelin’s ‘Immigrant Song’ is awesome and succeeds at pumping up the audience even further for key action scenes.

   All in all, if there was a word to describe ‘Thor: Ragnarok’, it’d be unconventional. It’s a surreal, exhilarating and fast paced thrill ride with stunning visuals and mostly solid humour and action. While MCU purists might be disgruntled by the odd characterisations presented in these strange versions of beloved existing characters, the charming script, strong score and consistently good acting, is enough to keep you invested. Waititi clearly understands Thor and doesn’t fall into the trap of previous instalments of feeling the need to dislodge Thor from his cosmic roots and instead create a ‘fish out of water’ story on Earth. Instead, he allows his title character to fully embrace the goofy side of Marvel’s cosmic universe and without giving anything away, actually ends up changing quite a bit of the mythos ahead of ‘Avengers; Infinity War’ next year. With the Russo brothers directing, I’m sure that the third ‘Avengers’ film will take a grittier and more dramatic tone than this movie and it will be interesting to see if the Hulk and Thor keep the new personality traits introduced. All in all, ‘Thor: Ragnarok’ breaks the mold; the most entertaining Thor by far.

★★★★

The Definitive ranking of John Lewis Christmas ads

Ah, the John Lewis Christmas ads. Truly a sign that the festive season is upon us. JL, if I may be so bold as to call them, has managed to create such strong pieces of creative commercialism that they’ve firmly embedded themselves as part of British Christmas tradition. It’s pretty amazing actually, to have a department store’s annual advert become a well loved and anticipated ‘big moment’ for the year is quite an accomplishment. Of course, with films like ‘Home Alone’ and ‘A Miracle on 34th Street’, department stores have gone hand in hand with the jolly season for quite some time, but it’s still an impressive campaign. But the big question is, of the eleven often tearjerking shorts we’ve seen so far, which ones are the most endearing, well put together and best capture the spirit of the season? Well, I’m here to answer that with the definitive ranking of the John Lewis Christmas ads, as of 2017. Quite possibly the most controversial list I’ll ever write, so just remember; this is all opinion based! Let me know your favourite in the comments below. 

11. ‘Shadows’ (2007)

JL’s first festive themed advert is also sadly their weakest. There’s some nice imagery, creating the picture of a woman from potential gifts but the message is pretty commercial, without much Christmas spirit bar a mandatory sprinkling of fake snow. It also hasn’t yet adopted what would become standard for future instalments; an emotional cover of a popular song. All in all, pretty dull and forgettable.

10. ‘Buster the Boxer’ (2016)

Quite possibly the laziest and most disappointing of the bunch. While also the most light hearted and humorous, it doesn’t really hit any emotional beats and comes off a bit try-hard and overly silly. Despite a cute, endearing main character and a lovely cover of Randy Crawford’s ‘One day I’ll fly away’, something’s just a bit off here. Lovely dog, lovely idea pairing up with Wildlife Trusts, but without a doubt the weakest of the more more recent ads.

9. ‘From Me to You’ (2008)

Despite getting probably bias treatment from me for including a cover of a Beatles song, this one is again, pretty dull. It’s a stock ad with the cover song being the only thing that makes it feel even slightly reminiscent of its superior siblings. The concept of knowing the person’s ideal Christmas present is nice in theory but comes of cliché with some pretty stereotypical presents; oh the old people need a satnav because they’re old and useless, isn’t that lovely. Skip it if you haven’t seen it. 

8. ‘Man on the Moon’ (2015)

A great concept, with a lovely connection to incredibly worthy charity, Age Concern. It also features my favourite cover of all of the songs; rising star Aurora doing a beautiful reimagining of Oasis’ ‘Half the World Away.’ However, the execution this time is a little sloppy and nonsensical. I always thought they missed a trick by not making the ‘moon’ aspect all in the child’s head and have them visit the elderly relative in a retirement home, but ah well, I’m not a creative director.

7. ‘Moz the Monster’ (2017)

This years attempt to capture the hearts, minds and wallets of the British public is a bit marmite. I quite like the practical effects of Moz, evoking qualities of both Sully from Monsters Inc and the Gruffalo and owing a lot to 80’s and 90’s monster effects. The plot is sweet but the ending is pants. I don’t really see the relevance of the lamp being given as a gift as he wasn’t scared of the monster in the first place, rather, he actually got on with him pretty well! The song here is lovely though; Elbow seem like a band made for a John Lewis advert and their cover of yet another Beatles song, ‘Golden Slumbers’ is suitably magical.

6. ‘A Tribute to Givers’ (2010)

Using the massive hit of Ellie Goulding’s cover of ‘Your Song’ was a stroke of genius by the marketing team. This one gets points for being the most Christmasy yet. The image of the mum and dad trying to sneak a rocking horse upstairs without their kids realising is both hilarious and heart warming. The budget had clearly increased by this point as the use of a major artists song and much slicker editing paid off with a tight, if a bit basic, piece.

5. ‘Sweet Child Of Mine’ (2009)

Perhaps it will be a surprise that a relatively down to Earth entry comparative to the later anthropomorphic adventures we’d see from the company, ranks so high on my list. I find it utterly charming in its simplicity and its emphasis on the pure excitement that Christmas brings to children. The message of letting this live on to adulthood (admittedly via buying presents from John Lewis) is wonderful and it was the first Christmas ad from the company to seem less commercially focused and a little more heartfelt.

4. ‘Monty the Penguin’ (2014)

Oh, Monty. The first time that John Lewis had clearly transformed a sweet little ad into a full blown integrated marketing campaign. And it was met with rapturous praise when it launched; Monty plushies, a trending hashtag, the charity tie in; it was all there and it was everywhere. Putting this aside and looking at it critically, Monty is an utterly charming piece. The CGI looks surprisingly strong for a tv advert and Tom Odell’s masterful cover of John Lennon’s (I’m seeing a theme here) ‘Real Love’, fits the sweet tone perfectly.

3. ‘The Journey’ (2012)

Amazingly, this is the only advert from the entire eleven year long collection to actually use a Christmas song. Again, simplicity is key here. We don’t need a man on the moon, or a bouncing dog, just a genius idea of building the same snowman in different locations and editing it to make it seem like he’s moving. Basic? Yes. Effective? You betcha. It put Gabrielle Aplin on the map for her stunning cover of ‘The Power of Love’ and is a testament to the power of great editing and sound design; it warms the cockles of your grinch-like heart.

2. ‘The Bear and the Hare’ (2013)

Who says trying something new doesn’t pay off? John Lewis certainly didn’t think so as they followed ‘The Journey’ with an unconventional, entirely animated piece. ‘The Bear and the Hare’ channels a Disney fable with it’s story of a grumpy bear who nearly missed Christmas and it gets even more props for actually managing to work the John Lewis product into the story without seeming forced. Lily Allen’s cover of Keane’s ‘Somewhere only we know’ seems on paper, entirely inappropriate for a Christmas story, but is simply beautiful and is the perfect accompaniment to this delightful story.

  1. ‘The Long Wait’ (2011)

The only advert from John Lewis so far to legitimately make me cry; ‘The Long Wait’ is not only the best John Lewis Christmas ad, but may be one of the best adverts of all time. The subversion of expectations and the inspired use of the ‘child can’t wait for his presents’ cliché is so clever, it still gets me to this day. The moment where you realise this boy just can’t wait to give his mum a gift not only melts your heart, but makes you feel guilty for jumping to conclusions earlier. The score this time is the entirely appropriate Smith’s song ‘Please, Please, Please let me get what I want’, slowed down and covered perfectly by Slow Moving Mille amplifying all ‘the feels.’ If you don’t get even a little emotional while watching this one, you have no soul, I’m sorry.

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