Toy Story 4

The most unasked for movie of a series becomes the most essential film of the year.

You know that when this film was announced, everybody said “whaaat? We already have the perfect conclusion to the Toy Story Series, we don’t need a return visit to screw it all up.” Then the teaser spots were weird, and the new main character is a plastic fork? You gotta be kidding, right? Well leave it up to Pixar to get it right in the end. They usually know what they are doing and this film might give you the confidence to even feel a Toy Story 5 could be justified.

Many of the same themes that were covered in the first films are raised here as well. All of us have a need to be needed. Maslow seems to be right in this regard, even when it comes to the toys. From early on, Woody has been the key character in the adventures of the Toys. He is a fussbudget with a need for control and a strong desire to be at the top of the toy pile heap. He is so likable that we overlook his selfishness and jealousy. In the end he seems to over come these faults for the greater good. He has been a leader mostly by example in the most recent films, although his need for control does put him in conflict with other characters from time to time. “Toy Story 4” shows us a Woody who has become less relevant than he would prefer. It’s not that Bonnie, his new kid dislikes him, it’s as simple as her needs are different and he becomes a side character in her play. Even so, Woody feels the drive to protect Bonnie and make sure she is happy, because that’s what a toy’s purpose is. Protecting Bonnie’s emotional state however may not be in the best interests of anybody, including Bonnie.

Woody has become a surrogate Helicopter parent. Striving to placate Bonnie by restraining “Forky” and hovering over every little tear that Bonnie sheds, regardless of the cost to others. The theme of the “Lost” toys and what happens to them becomes a threat and a wish fulfillment simultaneously. When Woody and Forky encounter some other toys that have been rejected, we are obliged to ask ourselves some hard questions. Is it better to persevere in the face of permanent failure or should we choose a new path covered with uncertainty and the potential for happiness or disaster?  Toys choose both routes in this film and we generally see satisfying results although there is sadness in those choices.

After encountering a benevolent character who turns into an evil antagonist in the previous film, our hero Woody faces almost the reverse situation in this film. Gaby Gabby is a doll that seems malevolent from the beginning. Let’s face it, her team consists of ventriloquist dummies without a voice, maybe the most terrifying thing this side of clowns. She wants something from Woody that he does not want to give up, and she uses some extreme techniques to get it. In a twist that only a group as talented as those at Pixar could achieve, we feel differently about this character toward the end of the story. She and Woody share the same need, but Woody has had more than his portion of that need while Gaby never has. There are two big emotional turns that almost certainly will moisten your eyes, and they involve a character that we have been suspicious of from the get go.

It’s not a spoiler to mention that Bo Peep returns to the story and her character is a lot more essential to the plot than when she was nervously biting her lip and hoping for Woody to succeed in the first film. Although you can never free yourself from the need to be wanted, you can control the level of need and satisfy it in different ways, and that is the path that Bo offers to us and to Woody. We have already learned that the Toys have different personalities, I suppose if we dwell too long on some of the existential issues raised in these movies, we will need a lot more pot. Let’s just say that the existence of a character and then it’s non-existence are pretty deep concepts for a movie that is aimed at children first. Forky asks the question, “Why am I alive?” and the movie tries to make a case for the answer. Even a character as feckless as Forky, can grow in emotional needs, and so can the other toys as well.

Of the new character introduced, the most fun are Duke Kaboom, Ducky and Bunny. There is not really an arc for their stories, those characters exist to enrich the environment of the main conflict and they manage to do so in the most amusing of ways. If there is a future to the Toy Story franchise, it should be in new characters like these, invested in new problems rather than recycling old ones. That’s not a knock on the current film, it’s just a pragmatic suggestion.

Without undermining the close of the original trilogy of “Toy Story” films, “Toy Story 4” manages to entertain us and move us in the right ways. Once again our expectations have been subverted, thankfully is a manner that should leave most fans happy that Disney/Pixar went to this well one more time.

Coco

I’m ashamed to say I waited to see this film until now. “Coco” opened a month ago and I wanted to see it but I was not in a rush. Usually a Pixar film would be a top priority, an opening weekend must. Something about the film put me off. I just didn’t feel the same urgency I usually feel about these movies. I ultimately skipped “The Good Dinosaur” a couple of years ago for the same reason. Boy am I glad I didn’t repeat that decision this time. “Coco” is a spectacular film and will certainly be among my favorites of the year.

It might have been the Dia de Muertos subject matter. Although the animation looked spectacular for The Book of Life” a couple of years ago, I have still never seen it. The controversy over the inclusion of the “Frozen” short may also have played a part in keeping me away. Well, there was no 25 minute Olaf short in front of the show we went to, and that is good because it keeps all the focus on this really terrific film.

The idea of the Land of the Dead being a place that could be visited by a living person is a little disturbing. And as Miguel, our hero stays longer, he begins to resemble “Jack” from “An American Werewolf in London”, Maybe not that gruesome but in spirit at least. Creepy stuff for a kids film but the cultural roots of the story rescue it from being morbid and actually turn the setting and theme into a sentimental piece that people of a variety of cultures can appreciate. The skeleton images that are associated with Dia de Muertos, are not really designed to be frightening but rather a depiction of what an afterlife might resemble. The main characters in the story turn out to be relatives of Miguel who now reside in the land of the dead and are key to his accomplishing his goal of playing music.

There is a lot of humor in the film, much of it based on the displacement of skulls, bones and assorted body parts. There is also some appropriately themed Mexican style music composed by Michael Giacchino (who is not a Mexican but was assisted by musicians who do know the music) that sets a tone that is mysterious but also culturally familiar. People seeing this movie will have a much greater understanding of some of the Mexican traditions that they may only have a passing knowledge of to begin with.

Although there are twists in the story that you can see coming, and the structure is familiar to anyone who has seen a Pixar movie in the last twenty years, the film still manages to be surprising. It is also sentimental and very moving. Parents might want to be warned that there is a subplot that deals with murder, and that may be hard for the young ones to work around. The vividy realized world and the rules under which it operates however are creative as heck and you may be stunned by how beautiful the film can be at times.

Especially memorable is the role that an elderly woman plays in the story. While this might be reminiscent of last year’s “Moana”, the way it plays out is very different and it does offer children something to value. All of us live on because we are remembered. Heck, that’s one of the reasons I started writing this blog, so my kids and grand-kids (if I ever have any) will be able to know me better. This movie is hanging around the box office long enough for all of us to be able to remember it. The theme song is special and ties into the principle behind the movie especially well. I suspect that the tune written by Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, will be recalled by the Academy Members as well. I really loved this movie and I hope to see it again and maybe write some more about it’s ideas, but for now I just want people to know how I feel.

Finding Dory

“Finding Dory” is the seventeenth Pixar/Disney film. A couple of weeks ago,  while we sitting at home one night, we decided to play a game and rank the films in three groups. We had a ranking of the James Bond films and one for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and we also ranked all the Pixar films. The three of us participating had very similar rankings for the most part, but we averaged them together to come up with a list that represented our families opinion of the films. The only one we had not seen is “The Good Dinosaur”, and we still had it ranked higher than “Cars 2“.  I feel pretty save with that because Pixar has only disappointed us the one time, and although “the Good Dinosaur” was not the usual box office bonanza, I did not read any disparaging reviews on line like I’d seen for the Mater Movie.  “Finding Nemo” ranked number ten on our list of films, not because it is inadequate but because of films like “Wall-e”, “Ratatouille” and “The Toy Story Trilogy”.

That said, there was reasonable hope but also a certain trepidation about another sequel. “Monster’s University” did not besmirch the reputation of it’s predecessor,  but it was for the most part well made but unnecessary. The same can be said for today’s film. It is beautiful to look at, there are charming characters and the story expands the universe we saw in the original in some inventive ways, it just is not as compelling, coming after the first film. The plot is basically the same as “Nemo” but with some role reversals and retrograde backstory. “Dory” it turns out is not a mature fish per se, but more like an adolescent. This feels like a slight alteration of the tone established in the first film and might cause me to have to look at Nemo from a new perspective. I don’t think that was the intention of the film makers her.

 

The strongest element in the movie was choosing to set a majority of the action in a Marine Aquarium, [More like Monterey Bay than Sea World]. The movement of the action to this location results in a greater variation in the characters and plot line than we start out with. There are some clever visualizations of the layout of the Aquarium and the creatures that reside there. “Dory” was clearly the breakout character in the original, if there is a third film in this series it will certainly be “Finding Hank”. He is the octopus who engages with Dory at the Aquarium and  his character design and the gags they provide for him are the highlights of the film. Ed O’Neill provides the voice and his sonorous dead pan is a good match for the characters somewhat morose view of the world. As an isolate he is matched with Dory, who has such a high need for affiliation that it is sometimes a little irritating. I don’t know if he will be an appealing plush toy, but he certainly worked as a comedic character in today’s film.

Marlin and Nemo are back as part of Dory’s circle of friends and they are the ones who are trying to find Dory. Albert Brooks neurotic Dad is still effective but we know he has grown as a character in the first film so it comes as no surprise that he willingly pursues this quest in spite of his misgivings. Nemo is a spark plug igniting his dad to action but also helping him figure out their next moves. It was an interesting change in their dynamic and it worked for the most part. Dory herself  is a character that must change in both films to avoid being a complete irritation, but those changes are more clearly explained and processed in this story. Sometimes the writers use some shortcuts to get us to the next point, and those usually involve a sudden increase in Dory’s ability to recall certain details. I can say that little Dory, appearing in the opening sections and in occasional flashbacks, may be the cutest thing in a Pixar film since “Boo”. She is definitely going to be on the shopping lists for the Christmas toys this year. The “Mine”, “Mine” caterwaul of seagulls is replaced by a new catch word delivered by characters that are a lot more fun, and they steal several parts of the movie from the main characters. Otter cuddling will be a thing after kids see this movie, so there is another chance for some toy sales.

I don’t mean to imply that the film is just a cash grab, using familiar characters to recharge toy product marketing. There are some good themes about family and loyalty that are presented in the movie. We have to learn to trust what works and we need to question what we are sometimes settling for. Those are good points but they are not the main reasons the movie works. This film is a solid family entertainment, with a couple of surprises but mostly a comforting familiarity that kids and parents seem to crave. Do I want new and creative characters and stories? Of course I do. That doesn’t mean that I don’t occasionally want the comfort of recurring characters. As long as it is a cranky septuapus with Ed O’Neills voice and not Larry the Cable Guys naive and somewhat dim Mater.