Toy Story 4 (2019)

2019 #101
Josh Cooley | 100 mins | cinema | 2.39:1 | USA / English | U / G

Toy Story 4

Last weekend, with dull inevitability, Toy Story 4 won Best Animated Feature at the Oscars. Of course it did — in the last decade, the award has gone to a Disney or Pixar movie eight times out of ten. I’ve not seen any of the four other nominees, but I strongly suspect at least one of them deserved it more, because Toy Story 4 is… fine. Heck, it’s good, even. But when the three films that precede it are all-time classics that formed a perfectly complete trilogy, just being “good” is not enough.

Its first mistake is that it doesn’t need to exist. The filmmakers have self-mythologised that Woody’s story wasn’t complete and so needed this final chapter, or some such gumph, but anyone who’s actually seen Toy Story 3 knows that’s not true. No, this is someone at Disney or Pixar hoping they can mine one of their most popular franchises for more gold. Whether or not they also believed lightning could strike for a fourth time, or they didn’t care so long as it made bank, I’ll leave up to your own levels of cynicism.

So rather than feeling like an equal part of a four-film series, Toy Story 4 feels like an afterthought; an addendum; a “here’s another one because you liked the others”. And at times it delivers on that — we like these characters, so they’re fun to be with; some of their antics are amusing or exciting; there’s a positive moral message or two about acceptance and seeing worth in yourself. There are attempts at emotional resonance too, particularly when the film tries to feel like an ending and a farewell; but 3 already did that, and did it extremely well. 4 has an uphill climb trying to match that, and even if it did (which it doesn’t), why should we believe it? It’ll only last until someone decides there’s a narrative for Toy Story 5 that simply has to be told (see you for that c.2026, I guess).

In search of a new story

Of course, there’s no doubting the film is well made. It’s easy to disregard that as just Pixar being Pixar, but there’s an ever-impressive technical skill on display here. Maybe on that level it does deserve award wins — although, while Pixar are undoubtedly frontrunners in such a race, there are other animation houses who can and do produce work that’s just as beautiful. (Besides, the Best Animation category is a funny one in that regard — is it rewarding the artistic/technical accomplishment of the animation itself, or is it “best film that happens to be animated”? A debate for another time.)

Toy Story 4 is the kind of film I enjoyed well enough while it was on. Whenever I get round to rewatching the series, I’ll happily include it. But, while it doesn’t tarnish the series’ legacy, it does blight its unbroken record. If it had never existed, I’d’ve been fine with that.

4 out of 5

Toy Story 4 is available on Sky Cinema as of this weekend.

100 Films @ 10: Short Films

For the final in my series of ten top tens (yes, we’ve reached the end already / finally (delete as appropriate)), I’ve decided to take a look at one of the less-discussed aspects of the film world: shorts.

In the past ten years I’ve watched and reviewed just 51 short films, but as I’ve never ranked them before it seemed overdue that I create some kind of quality-sorted list. Here, then, are my ten favourite short films that I watched in the last decade.

10
Pixels

Don’t worry, there’s no Adam Sandler in sight — this Pixels is the three-minute short that went down so well online someone bought the rights and turned it into a feature. A fun idea, it works better as a narrative-less couple of minutes than it did forced into the shape of a blockbuster.

9
Marvel One-Shot: Agent Carter

Easily the best of Marvel’s now-defunct series of short films, Agent Carter was so good — exciting, characterful, funny — that it was later expanded into a two-season TV series (which I still haven’t watched. Oops.)

8
Telling Lies

A simple idea, very well executed: as we listen to a series of phone conversations, the speakers’ dialogue appears on screen… except instead of transcribing their exact words, it reveals their true thoughts. At only a few minutes long Telling Lies doesn’t outstay its welcome, instead maintaining the basic idea well and crafting a neat and amusing little story with it.

7
Toy Story of Terror!

Having managed to beat the odds and create three great Toy Story movies, Pixar seemed foolish trying to extend it further as a franchise. Toy Story of Terror justifies that decision, however, with a story, style, and message that would’ve been strong enough to be a whole feature (with some expansions, of course) but plays equally well in just 20 minutes.

6
Wallace and Gromit in A Matter of Loaf and Death

As with #7, this was a seasonal special for old animated favourites that would’ve worked just as well (perhaps even better) expanded out to a full feature. A Matter of Loaf and Death is the first Wallace & Gromit film since the very first not to win an Oscar, but it’s every bit as good as its forebears — I can’t think of much higher praise than that.

5
Presto

The Pixar short that accompanied WALL-E, Presto is a perfectly-executed piece of near-silent slapstick tomfoolery. Surprisingly, this also lost out on an Oscar. Its director went on to co-direct last year’s Storks, which… didn’t go down so well.

4
The Lunch Date

Winner of the short Palme d’Or and an Oscar, The Lunch Date is a clever little tale with a well-disguised twist. I imagine if it was made today people would talk about its social relevance, which is a little depressing nearly 30 years on, but there you go. The first work by director Adam Davidson, he’s since gone on to helm episodes of shows like Six Feet Under, Lost, Deadwood, Dexter, Rome, True Blood, Fringe, Fear the Walking Dead, and many, many more.

3
The Present

As with most of the best shorts, The Present presents a simple but effective idea quickly and with a strong emotional hit. A cute tale of a boy and his dog, it also has a message about positivity and overcoming adversity. No Oscar here, but its director has since worked for Disney on Zootropolis and Moana, as well as on The Secret Life of Pets and Revolting Rhymes.

2
Feast

Another lovely short, also told economically and without dialogue, about a friendly little dog who helps out his owner. Yeah, I’m a sucker for cute dogs. But Oscar-winner Feast is also beautifully animated: nicely stylised and executed as essentially one long montage, proving again that exceptional filmmaking can create an emotional experience in the briefest of times.

1
Commentary! The Musical

Unlike the previous films on this list, it’s the very opposite of silent — it is, in many ways, all about sound. There’s also no big emotional hit and no sniff of awards recognition either. So why does Commentary! The Musical top my list? Because it so impressively made. It’s the commentary track on Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, but rather than just the production team chatting about how they made the show, it’s sung through. And it’s not just a collection of new songs played over the original production — it’s frequently scene specific, sometimes even shot specific. It’s an incredible feat of writing and planning; not only that, but it’s hilariously funny too.

Tomorrow: birthday day.

Toy Story 2 (1999)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #93

The toys are back!

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 92 minutes
BBFC: U
MPAA: G

Original Release: 24th November 1999 (USA)
UK Release: 11th February 2000
First Seen: cinema, 2000

Stars
Tom Hanks (Apollo 13, The Da Vinci Code)
Tim Allen (Jungle 2 Jungle, Wild Hogs)
Joan Cusack (Addams Family Values, School of Rock)
Kelsey Grammer (Anastasia, X-Men: The Last Stand)

Director
John Lasseter (Toy Story, Cars 2)

Co-directors
Ash Brannon (Surf’s Up, Rock Dog)
Lee Unkrich (Finding Nemo, Toy Story 3)

Screenwriters
Andrew Stanton (Monsters, Inc., WALL·E)
Rita Hsiao (Mulan, My Little Pony: The Movie)
Doug Chamberlin (Bruno the Kid: The Animated Movie)
Chris Webb (Bruno the Kid: The Animated Movie)

Story by
John Lasseter (A Bug’s Life, Tinker Bell and the Pirate Fairy)
Pete Docter (Toy Story, Inside Out)
Ash Brannon (Surf’s Up, Rock Dog)
Andrew Stanton (Toy Story, Finding Dory)

The Story
After Woody is stolen by a nefarious toy collector, the rest of the toys set out to rescue him — but, tempted by the idea of spending eternity in a museum with friends from his TV show, does Woody want to be saved?

Our Heroes
Buzz and Woody are back, and now the best of friends. This time, Woody is confronted with his past when he meets a gang of other toys from the TV series he starred in, but will he stay with them or return to Andy? Meanwhile, Buzz sets out to rescue Woody, but has issues of his own to tackle when he comes face to face with his nemesis, Emperor Zurg.

Our Villain
Al McWhiggin, the owner of Al’s Toy Barn and serious toy collector, who steals Woody when he’s accidentally put in a yard sale box.

Best Supporting Character
Jessie, a cowgirl from Woody’s TV show. Fundamentally an excitable and chipper character, she was left distraught after being abandoned by her owner, and is now scared of being put back in storage — which will happen if Woody isn’t part of Al’s collection.

Memorable Quote
“You never forget kids like Emily, or Andy, but they forget you.” — Jessie

Memorable Scene
On their hunt for Woody, the other toys explore a giant toy emporium, in which Buzz comes across an aisle filled with fellow Buzzes. Spotting one with a new utility belt, he tries to acquire the accessory, only to awaken his double…

Making of
Toy Story 2 was originally commissioned by Disney as a direct-to-video sequel, because they did that a lot back then, and went into production without Pixar’s primary staff, who were already busy creating A Bug’s Life. When early work looked promising, Disney bumped the project’s status up to a full theatrical release. Conversely, Pixar were unhappy with the quality of what they were seeing. The main team took charge, redeveloping the film’s entire story in a single weekend, but still had to meet the release date Disney had already set. Although most Pixar films take years to produce, the production of Toy Story 2 was compressed into just nine months. The pressure got to people: at one point someone accidentally deleted 90% of the film’s files, representing two years work. Fortunately, another crew member working at home had back-ups of all but the last few days’ work.

Previously on…
The original Toy Story was the first computer-animated feature film.

Next time…
Toy Story 3 followed 11 years later, with Toy Story 4 set to come 9 years after that. Also shorts, TV specials, and the Buzz Lightyear spin-off (see last time).

Awards
1 Oscar nomination (Song)
7 Annie Awards (Animated Feature, Directing, Writing, Female Voice Acting (Joan Cusack), Male Voice Acting (Tim Allen), Music, Storyboarding)
2 Annie Awards nominations (Character Animation, Production Design)
2 Saturn nominations (Fantasy Film, Music)
1 Teen Choice Awards nomination (Choice Hissy Fit)

What the Critics Said
Toy Story 2 is a brilliant example of that rarest of Hollywood phenomena — a sequel to a major hit film that’s as good, if not better, than the original. This is mainly the result of a perfect mixture of two essential elements. First, there’s an excellent script by Andrew Stanton and his team of writers […] Second, there’s the remarkable technology developed by Pixar for the film A Bug’s Life. It’s this approach they’ve now taken to even greater heights […] These filmmakers have taken the 1995 characters and given them more depth, creating a new story that lets the toys interact in a larger world. It all comes down to amazing visuals and basic storytelling — and this is one heck of a good tale.” — Paul Clinton, CNN

Score: 100%

What the Public Say
Toy Story 2 is considered, by most, to be a perfect film. The characters are amazing. The stakes are higher than the first film. And the emotional beats hit harder than before. With two successes under their belt, it’s hard to believe that Pixar could not only be consistent with that quality, but somehow also manage to pull off something even more amazing than we thought possible. Expanding the mythology of this world and really making us feel for the toys that we forgot as children, Toy Story 2 is, in the words of Mary Poppins, practically perfect in every way.” — Jaysen Headley, Jaysen Headley Writes

Verdict

Sequels are notorious for not being as good as their progenitor. I feel like this is a trend that is increasingly being bucked — with everything Hollywood makes designed to be a franchise, Film 1 is often about setup and Film 2 is where the makers are allowed to do what they really wanted to do in the first place. But when you strike gold first time out, it’s still hard to do it justice second time round. Pixar do that and more here, with a sequel that is slicker, funnier, more exciting, and more emotional than its forebear. Even if it’s happening more often now, good sequels are still hard to do — trust Pixar to have got there ahead of the pack.

#94 will be… transportive.

Toy Story (1995)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #92

The toys are back in town.

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 81 minutes
BBFC: PG
MPAA: G

Original Release: 22nd November 1995 (USA)
UK Release: 22nd March 1996
First Seen: cinema, 1996

Stars
Tom Hanks (Sleepless in Seattle, Catch Me If You Can)
Tim Allen (Galaxy Quest, The Shaggy Dog)

Director
John Lasseter (A Bug’s Life, Cars)

Screenwriters
Joss Whedon (Alien Resurrection, Avengers: Age of Ultron)
Andrew Stanton (A Bug’s Life, John Carter)
Joel Cohen (Cheaper by the Dozen, Garfield)
Alec Sokolow (Cheaper by the Dozen, Garfield: A Tale of Two Kitties)

Story by
John Lasseter (Toy Story 2, Planes)
Pete Docter (Monsters, Inc., Up)
Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo, Toy Story 3)
Joe Ranft (Beauty and the Beast, Cars)

The Story
In a world where toys come to life when humans aren’t around, Woody is six-year-old Andy’s favourite doll… until he gets Buzz Lightyear, a space ranger action figure, for his birthday. An upset Woody clashes with Buzz, but when the bickering pair are left behind during a house move they must work together to get back to their kid.

Our Heroes
Woody is a cowboy doll, the favourite of his kid, Andy, and consequently the leader of all Andy’s toys. That is until Andy gets a shiny new Buzz Lightyear action figure, whose newness ingratiates him with all the other toys. Plus, to Woody’s continued annoyance, Buzz believes he really is a space ranger and has no idea he’s just a toy.

Our Villain
Sid, Andy’s nasty neighbour kid who does terrible, terrible things to toys…

Best Supporting Character
Mr Potato Head, whose various body parts are slotted on and therefore removable and interchangeable. Hilarity ensues. Also has a nice line in snarky comments.

Memorable Quote
“To infinity, and beyond!” — Buzz Lightyear

Quote Most Likely To Be Used in Everyday Conversation
“You are a sad, strange little man, and you have my pity.” — Buzz Lightyear

Memorable Scene
One of Buzz’s claims as a real space ranger is that he can fly, so Woody challenges him to prove it. Buzz closes his eyes, dives off the bed… and, through a series of flukes, bounces and coasts his way around the room, landing back on the bed. “That wasn’t flying,” cries Woody, “that was falling with style!”

Memorable Song
The film’s themes are perfectly reflected in Randy Newman’s Oscar-nominated and endlessly catchy song, You’ve Got a Friend in Me. Both Toy Story sequels have tried to emulate it, with… less success.

Technical Wizardry
Only the whole movie — it was the first feature-length wholly-computer-generated animated film. As such, we have it to thank/blame for the current entire state of popular Western animation.

Making of
The animators perfected the movement of the toy soldiers by nailing a pair of shoes to a wooden plank and trying to walk around in them.

Previously on…
Toy Story was the first feature-length computer-animated film — there is, in that sense, literally nothing before it.

Next time…
Two feature film sequels, both of which are at least as artistically successful as this first, with a fourth set to follow in 2018. Also, three short films and two TV specials to date, plus direct-to-video spin-off movie Buzz Lightyear of Star Command: The Adventure Begins and the TV series that follows it. You could also argue the entirety of Pixar’s highly-praised output is a follow-up to the success of Toy Story, as well as American feature animation’s almost entire conversion from traditional cel animation to 3D CGI.

Awards
1 Special Achievement Oscar to John Lasseter for “the development and inspired application of techniques that have made possible the first feature-length computer-animated film.”
3 Oscar nominations (Original Screenplay, Song, Musical or Comedy Score)
1 BAFTA nomination (Visual Effects)
8 Annie Awards (Animated Feature, Directing, Writing, Producing, Music, Production Design, Animation, Technical Achievement)
1 Annie Awards nomination (Voice Acting (Tom Hanks))
2 Saturn nominations (Fantasy Film, Writing)
Nominated for the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation

What the Critics Said
“Far from just a technological breakthrough, this hellzapoppin fairy tale […] is a magically witty and humane entertainment. It has the purity, the ecstatic freedom of imagination, that’s the hallmark of the greatest children’s films. It also has the kind of spring-loaded allusive prankishness that, at times, will tickle adults even more than it does kids. The moment Mr. Potato Head arranges his snap-on features into a Cubist mash and says, ”I’m Picasso,” it’s clear that director John Lasseter and his team of writer-technicians have taken their most anarchic impulses and run with them. […] In its techno-cool photo-realist way, though, this movie, too, invites you to gaze upon the textures of the physical world with new eyes. What Bambi and Snow White did for nature, Toy Story, amazingly, does for plastic — for the synthetic gizmo culture of the modern mall brat. The film’s wit (and resonance) is that it brings toys to life exactly the way children do in their heads. It molds plastic into pure imagination.” — Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly

Score: 100%

What the Public Say
“The Animation is superb. Given that this was one of the first ever feature length computer animated movies, those guys at Pixar really hit the nail on the head. The colours are vibrant and the characters are dynamic. An excellent use of Blues, Yellows and Reds really accentuate the ‘children’ and ‘toys’ feel. There are also beautiful realistic elements such as a scene where Woody and Buzz find themselves under a lorry in a petrol station. With this, I was simply amazed at the attention to detail with the stones, tarmac and oil stains on the textures. It really looks like you are close-up to the ground and I love it!” — Alexander Potter, Pottercraft’s Pictures

Verdict

Just because something’s the first to do something doesn’t necessarily mean it’s any good, but Pixar didn’t strike gold with Toy Story just because computer animation was New. It’s the likeable characters, how they develop and learn, the amusing situations they’re put in, plus some heartwarming messages about friendship. There’s more emotion and character development in these wooden-and-plastic toys generated with pixels in a computer than many a film can achieve with real human beings, and that’s why Pixar came to revolutionise and dominate the Western animation genre.

Some would say “the original is still the best”, and it is up there, but on Sunday I will beg to differ…

#93 will be… a superior sequel.

Toy Story That Time Forgot (2014)

2015 #26b
Steve Purcell | 21 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | U

Toy Story That Time ForgotThe second Toy Story TV special, and the fifth short adventure for the characters that perhaps should have had their last hurrah in the third feature film, is little more than a crushing disappointment.

When Woody, Buzz, and a selection of the now-extensive supporting cast are taken to a friend of Bonnie’s for a play date, they get lost in his toyroom and come across the Battlesaurs, a line of toys who — ignored by Bonnie’s friend, who does nought but play on a games console — have established a whole society, ignorant of the fact they’re plastic action figures.

Toy Story That Time Forgot manages the tricky feat of feeling both too rushed and too long. There’s no time for mystery or surprise as it hurtles through the plot — not that there’s too much of that, either. Half of it recycles Buzz’s arc from Toy Story 1 (he doesn’t know he’s a toy! Then he finds out, and he comes to love it!); the other half is a villain with what I think is an original idea (he’s delighted the kid doesn’t want to play with them because it means he can rule over the other toys), but isn’t given enough time to be developed.

It’s pretty obvious how all of this will play out, meaning that, even with a frantic pace, it feels like it takes too long to get through it. It doesn’t go anywhere much with the concept, so feels repetitive in the middle — Buzz and Woody are captured then set free three times. Three. If that time was spent building up the world or characters’ motivations, it’d be fine, but those elements are only seen in snatches, or raced past in single lines of exposition, with time instead devoted to adequate but uninspired action sequences.

Battlesaurs!The whole thing just feels undercooked. Apparently it took three years to make, with two of those dedicated to development. The Battlesaurs toy line was imagined in full, for example. There’s evidence of that on screen, but it’s just an impression that there’s a lot of background work we’re not getting to see. A TV special gives them limited time to explore the new world they’ve created, of course, but Toy Story of Terror used the time perfectly, almost feeling longer and more significant than it was. By contrast, Toy Story That Time Forgot feels short, wasteful, and insignificant.

3 out of 5

Tomorrow, Sky Movies Disney are airing the Toy Story trilogy and its two TV spin-offs on a loop from 6am until 2:40am.

Toy Story 3 (2010)

2010 #114
Lee Unkrich | 103 mins | Blu-ray | U / G

Didn’t get Toy Story 3 for Christmas? Pick it up in the sales, then, because it’s bloody good.

Look:

Much was written about Toy Story 3 when it was released this summer, so I’m not sure how much I have to add, but here we go. It’s no surprise either — that’s what happens when a preeminent and popular studio releases a sequel to a beloved and acclaimed film franchise 11 years after the last instalment. High expectations abounded. For once, they weren’t necessarily unrealistic: if anyone could pull off such a feat, it’s Pixar.

It was somewhat amazing when Toy Story 2 equalled — some (including me) would say bettered — the first film. We may be more used to quality sequels these days but, as major franchises like The Matrix and Pirates of the Caribbean readily prove, they’re still far from guaranteed. To even try again with a threequel seems madness (no one’s told Chris Nolan this either, it seems). But they tried, and they succeeded: Toy Story 3 is at least the equal of the first two, if not once again slightly better — something that is, as far as my memory can muster, unheard of.

Individual adjectives serve admirably: it’s hilarious, emotional, exciting, scary; a great comedy, a great action/adventure. And Ken’s fashion show sequence is worth the price of admission all by itself. It’s kid-friendly, of course, but it’s not just for kids — it’s for young adults, who’ve grown up with these films and these characters and, in a way, are letting them go along with Andy; and for adults, who may have left childish things behind but can hopefully still appreciate the thematic sentiment.

Darker sequences support this interpretation, I think — the furnace climax, for instance, which carries a palpable sense, even to a savvy adult viewer, of “will they really do that?” doom. With the intention being that this is the series’ closing instalment — and with Andy grown up and leaving so that, however things end for the toys, this is The End for viewers — there are times when one wonders just how dark Pixar may be willing to push it. The potential that some or all of the toys may be lost along the way is a genuine fear, a move of blue-moon rarity for modern Children’s Films. This is in addition to the usual Pixar style of including jokes and references to skim over the kids’ heads.

I suppose TS3 may not be quite as effective if the first two films weren’t part of your childhood. I feel they were on the edge of mine — I was certainly too old to actually have any of the toys, for instance; I imagine anyone who had their own Buzz or Woody will feel even more emotional seeing them go through what they do here. Similarly, it pays to be aware of events and jokes in the preceding films. You don’t need to know intricate plot details, but there are plenty of pleasing references to catchphrases and moments.

Is Toy Story 3 faultless? Probably not. But I can’t think of any right now. Sublime.

5 out of 5

Toy Story 3 placed 2nd on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2010, which can be read in full here.