Movie Review: Toy Story 4

Movie Review: Toy Story 4

Joyfulness is all but gone from Pixar’s Toy Story series. The third sequel to the original 1995 Toy Story with voices of Tim Allen and Tom Hanks minimizes humans this time, trivializing previous themes and ditching, downsizing or upsizing characters to suit politically correct dogma. 

I wanted to like Toy Story 4. I enjoyed the 1995 movie and its sequel. I also enjoyed 2010’s animated summer action comedy, Toy Story 3. This is not a bad movie. It contains many elements of the previous pictures’ success, from clever, concise lines to brisk comedy, action and integration. Plot lines make sense, move along and entertain.

For example, toy talking cowboy Woody (Hanks) braves venturing into nature again for the sake of his owner, the child Bonnie. This leads to interesting, humorous and realistic situations in which he’s able to help Bonnie be her best on her first day of kindergarten. The girl gets to make her own new toy out of trash thanks to Woody, leading to a new character, Forky, perfectly voiced by Tony Hale. Cute and irreverent subplots about throwing yourself away ensue. 

Then comes the repurposing of a recurring character named Bo Peep, nicely voiced by Annie Potts. Predictably, amid Hollywood’s Me, Too directive(s), the set-piece toy and her sheep, which accompany a piece of furniture intended for a child’s room, transform into superheroes. Toy Story 4 turns the piece of porcelain into a butt-kicking action figurine worthy of the same studio’s Captain Marvel. Only she’s more efficient. By the third time she saves Woody, you may be falling asleep from boredom. The newly butch Bo Peep gussies the franchise with feminism while new toys voiced by Jordan Peele (Get Out) and Keanu Reeves (Speed) serve as other tokens.

Old toys are relegated to cameos. All of this might be fine if Toy Story 4 had a better point. But its theme, which is hard to explore without disclosing key details, runs counter to the series premise. Suffice it to say that commercialism, Toy Story‘s best aspect, is purged. Woody doesn’t get “woke” exactly, so much as toys qua toys get neutered.

Toy Story 4 is as cute and jaunty as the previous movies. At an hour and forty minutes, it’s mercifully shorter than most Pixar fare (Up, Inside/Out, Ratatouille). But it’s driven by messaging, not by imagination. By jettisoning its main cast of characters and their connection to the individual child, the fourth Toy Story loses its capacity to indulge in play.

Movie Review: Aladdin (2019)

Disney’s 2019 version of Aladdin is a rehash of the 1992 animated original, which was an enjoyably light romantic musical adventure. This one, an extravagant affair loaded with distracting, screaming effects, is arguably worse or no better. It can’t seriously be called live action because the action by live actors, which is noticeably manipulated and distorted by computers or some sort of digital doctoring, is not exactly realistic.

For instance, an opening chase sequence and Bollywood style dancing show the title character (and animals and humans) in jerky, almost robotic, movements. These are not likely to have been created to be noticed as digitized effects. But effects are easily detectable. The sound, too, is blaring. Add hip hop by Will Smith (Concussion, Collateral Beauty) as the genie and, as a cinematic experience, it’s exhausting.

This might be fine if the story was interesting. With the classic tale’s Sword in the Stone type coming of age theme, Aladdin — despite an anti-Western smear campaign against the movie by an Islamic pressure group — is interesting as light fare (if strictly as light fare).

The leading character is fine, though as a skinny youngster he’s not completely convincing as the romantic leading male. The female love interest is updated with a predictably post-Me, Too subplot. Princess Jasmine now yearns to be an authoritarian ruler, though of course she presumably intends to be a benign ruler of people’s lives (as if this is possible). In any case, Jasmine comes off as disproportionately more mature than Aladdin. Again, as with Marvel-under-Disney’s Black Panther, “inclusion” excludes gays from the monarchy.

Whether this represents submission to Islamic or Middle Eastern pressure groups — Disney changed its 1992 movie script to appease Arab pressure group campaigns — is unknown but the movie’s a mashup of styles that’s so widely disparate that such omissions are glaring. When the picture’s a carefully contrived, kitchen sink mix of feminism and multiculturalism it’s hard not to notice what’s left out. The film’s only Western character is portrayed as an effeminate, white imbecile.

In case you’re wondering, the original’s Alan Menken music, with lyrics by Tim Rice and the late Howard Ashman, are all here. New music by Justin Paul and Benj Pasek (The Greatest Showman, Dear Evan Hansen, La La Land) is very good in service of the new subplot. Overall, everything gets tidily if superficially tied together. The monkey, the bird, the magic carpet — they’re all here — adding a framing device which blends an interracial romance. More subplotting about power lust and poverty comes in, gets short exposition and fades away without a second thought. The villain, Jafar, is sufficiently evil.

Aladdin’s smartest part, which pertains to the two leads being born into a kind of pre-conceived notion based on class, is reduced to a line in John August’s script. It is promptly abandoned.

Besides hip hop, rapping and loud, obnoxious effects, Aladdin’s most distracting aspect is its titular hero. The thin actor, Mena Massoud, is overgroomed. His look is distinctive — his acting skills are fine — so the perfectly curled long strands of black hair resembling a black Aladdin Disneyland character wig are just so. I felt like I was being transported to a Disney theme park a few times during the movie, as if I was watching a scheduled parade, show or “cast member” appearance. Such explicitly self-conscious filmmaking — the director is Guy Ritchie — costs Aladdin. The main character is so visually distracting that he takes the audience out of the movie.

Forgettable Aladdin is better than horrendous Dumbo. And, while Will Smith as the genie is minimized and plot resolution hinges on a technicality, Aladdin puts a new, if formulaic, rub on its appealing box office hit.

Movie Review: Dumbo (2019)

For a good time, skip this week’s remake of Walt Disney’s animated classic Dumbo and watch the 1941 original instead. It’s more concise, enjoyable and full of wonder.

The new version is awful. For full disclosure, this is probably one of the most anticipated movies this year by yours truly, both because I’m an admirer of classic Disney pictures, and occasionally enjoy the Burbank studio’s run of remakes. I also tend to find something good about movies directed by Burbank native Tim Burton, who directed Disney’s 2019 Dumbo.

Not this picture. Unlike his best movies, such as Big Fish, The Nightmare Before Christmas or Edward Scissorhands, 2019’s Dumbo lacks Mr. Burton’s stylized visual imprint. The nearly two-hour film, which goes from Florida to Missouri to a fantastical New York City theme park, is devoid of flourish. From the beginning, Dumbo is generic.

Taking place in 1919, most of the original plot points are included by reference only. Look instead for refashioned motifs, symbols and gestures. Do not look for the spirit of the baby elephant with big ears that masters how to fly. He’s been turned into a science experiment for a bland girl character that seems written from some sort of STEM feminist propaganda leaflet, stripped of all friendship with the entrepreneurial mouse and sanitized into a poster animal for PETA and other animal rights and intimidation-based pressure groups.

Seriously. The cast is miscast, though it’s always good to see Colin Farrell (The Killing of a Sacred DeerAlexander, Total Recall), the best actor in the film as a wounded war veteran. Danny De Vito (Other People’s Money) has never been worse. Michael Keaton (The Founder, Birdman), an outstanding actor, barely registers. Eva Green (The Golden Compass) gives one of the screen’s worst performances. The child actors as cast and directed are blank and would have Walt Disney turning over in his grave with their lifelessness. Unfortunately, they dominate the film, which replaces the original’s bullying with cartoonish white male villains with anti-capitalist overtones.

Scenes just happen without pretext, context or reason. Crowds magically show up overnight for circus attractions that were assembled with hardly any practice or training. Adam Arkin is wasted as a banker. Danny Elfman’s moody oohing and aahing musical accompaniment highlights Dumbo‘s deficiencies. The dialogue ranges from “we think your ears are great” passing for childlike wonder to “Hey! Get those kids!” This reminded of Disney’s hilariously atrocious Witch Mountain pictures of the 1970s. But Dumbo never gains any momentum to lose so I was never really invested.

I wanted Tim Burton’s movie to be his best. I’ve been looking forward to seeing this picture since last year. This is one of a string of disappointing movies from Hollywood’s biggest studio. But, with the most uninteresting children characters on screen in decades, this picture is Mr. Burton’s worst since his 2001 Planet of the Apes remake. Given Disney’s movies-by-generic-formula direction I’m not convinced it’s Tim Burton’s handiwork that’s the problem.

No black crows (which means no black feather), no real musicality (“Baby Mine” is reduced to next to nothing) and considerably less Dumbo on screen leaves this 21st century Dumbo as a joyless, politicized paste imposing miserable little doll-children onto what ought to be a fond fable about finding one’s way in the world. Oh, what Bob Iger’s let be done to Dumbo is a fiasco.

Movie Review: The Nutcracker and the Four Realms

Any movie directed by two of Hollywood’s most able directors, Lasse Hallstrom (The Hundred-Foot Journey, CasanovaAn Unfinished Life, Chocolat, A Dog’s Purpose) and Joe Johnston (Captain AmericaJumanji, The Wolfman), is bound to be good, right? Disney’s The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, based on the famous Christmas ballet, isn’t a bad movie at all. Parts of it are wonderfully isolated and restrained. Parts of it are breathtaking and beautiful. Johnston’s arresting visuals and Hallstrom’s gilded storytelling and sense of musical-pictorial grace seamlessly blend at times into a magical movie.

And a movie which begins with a reference to Isaac Newton’s third law of physics promises to be distinctive. With Keira Knightley (Collateral Beauty, a magical Christmas movie in itself) looking like Faye Dunaway and evoking Marilyn Monroe as the Sugar Plum Fairy, The Nutcracker adds an eccentric streak. Indeed, this 90-minute movie tucks in everything from a theme to “trust yourself”, a leading girl (Mackenzie Foy, Interstellar) who’s a budding mechanical engineer, men wearing makeup and Morgan Freeman (Feast of Love) as an eye-patched wise man.

All that and more is stuffed into yet another Disney picture in which the mother has died. Stuffing these parts into the movie somehow puts this otherwise enchanting film into the category of overproduced fantasy (though not nearly as dull as John Carter, The Golden Compass or those godawful Narnia films). The Nutcracker is predictable and strangely chaste. For example, the girl, when she enters this other world at a Christmas party, meets a handsome captain (Jayden Fowora-Knight). Their relationship, which serves as a major plot point, curiously goes flat.

As a story partly depicted in ballet, which comes about in The Nutcracker‘s most striking visual scenes, the storybook style can be both inviting and marvelous. Early scenes of the girl in the new fantasy land depict long, magnificent icicles in a Christmas tree forest where the mystery of a gift from the girl’s late mother deepens and is stolen away. If you know The Nutcracker ballet, and it’s hard to imagine that there’s anyone left who’s never been exposed to this classic score, characters and tale in some way, you know the characters and essential story.

But screenwriter Ashleigh Powell adds an engine, mice attacks, battle scenes, and the grieving father (Matthew Macfadyen). There’s frankly too much of everything and not enough character development for the girl, who climbs rocks in a skirt and never gets the depth to seem anything but distant, detached and really intelligent. The kitchen sink quality creeps in, making the climax and resolution less effective.

“Discipline, order, control” prominently turn out to be the cues for The Nutcracker‘s child-friendly warning against authoritarianism. But the public service announcement-like sensibility in which the STEM-ready girl’s intelligence is sewn into The Nutcracker and the Four Realms undercuts the sense that she’s really present and invested in solving the puzzle. It’s not that Foy makes the girl’s voyage look too easy. The problem is that she looks too often like she doesn’t learn or gain life-changing insights, as Alice purposefully does in Alice in Wonderland or breathless Dorothy does when going home in The Wizard of Oz. There’s music and a mirror but this girl seems to be biding her time.

Still, you get to see Helen Mirren (The Hundred-Foot Journey, White Nights, Collateral Beauty, The Queen, Hitchcock) brandishing a whip amid parts of a beloved ballet remade with the stylized panache of two masterful filmmakers.

Three Summer Movies

Buy the Movie

One of my favorite summer movie experiences was seeing Grease when I was a kid in 1978. I think the Paramount film was my first major theatrical motion picture musical. I’d seen movie musicals on television. But Grease, which cast two major 1970s stars, a pop star whose songs I enjoyed on radio and a TV sitcom star, unleashed its sexual energy in a lush, bright but somewhat raunchy, colorful movie musical. It was extremely entertaining and not merely in a frivolous or mindless way. I write about why in a new, in-depth analysis of the 40-year-old film (read the article here).

Besides spring’s Love, Simon, which is still the year’s best movie I’ve seen, documentary filmmaker Morgan Neville’s Won’t You Be My Neighbor? merits 2018’s best movie consideration. The film impresses with an intelligent and poignant approach to its subject, the late Pittsburgh children’s television host Fred Rogers. His family and associates grant the moviemaker unprecedented access in what amounts to a timely, relevant and important, not flawless, non-fictional movie. Read my extensive new review of Won’t You Be My Neighbor? here.

Pixar’s satisfactory sequel, The Incredibles 2, also entertains, if by a lower standard than the forementioned movie. With a brief appearance by the designer character Edna Mode, who’s a kind of Q from the James Bond pictures in terms of gearing up the superhero, a role reversal and a subtle dig at Hollywood’s dogma du jour, this mostly manic, action-packed followup to a hit movie released 14 years ago fits the bill. Read my thoughts on The Incredibles 2, which opens this weekend, here.

Movie Review: Coco

Disney/Pixar’s Coco is a flawed but colorful and entertaining movie. The title’s a misnomer. The songs are fine, if forgettable. The conflict’s resolved without morality and the theme that one should put others first or, at best, shoehorn one’s goals for the sake of others is atrocious. Coco has too many characters. It’s also too long (like most of Pixar’s movies). Certain plot points are confusing. But Pixar’s animators have outdone themselves with a mythical depiction of Mexico’s Day of the Dead.

With multiple writers and an apparently all-Latino vocal cast, except apparently for a token non-Latino left over from Pixar’s early days, Coco takes its Day of the Dead theme seriously with an elaborate afterlife world exclusively for Hispanics (or Mexicans or Chicanos), leaving room for interpretation that the dead hang out in a festive afterlife before what’s deemed “final death”, which I suppose could encompass a notion of Heaven. As it is, Coco‘s not all caught up in Purgatory exactly but the afterlife rules are convoluted and I did hear children at the screening asking questions that went unanswered. At one point, I thought a character was dead that later came back alive. I still haven’t figured that one out.

But this is a movie which begins with wax dripping off candles being lighted for the souls of the dead to return to existence, so superstition comes with the territory. After a clever storybook exposition fans out one family’s possibly cursed legacy, centering upon a conflict between art and commerce or music and manufacturing, the basic plot takes shape. At Coco‘s core is an extremely creative, intelligent and diligent boy named Miguel (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez).

Miguel’s shoemaker family’s marred by an abandonment of a descendant who ditched la familia for his work, passion and art; a career in music, which the matriarchal family in turn bans from all generations for all of eternity. If this seems harsh, it is, and one of the problems with Coco is its refusal to reckon with the tyranny of a family run by a monster of a grandmother (Abuelita), a horrifying woman who physically assaults strangers and abuses her family with such cruelty that you question how she procreated in the first place. (If, under today’s onslaught of accusations against men, you wonder why men go bad, think about this character and how she pulverizes those around her).

A mangy dog comes along to ease Miguel’s bleak, deprived life (Abuelita hates dogs, too) and there’s plenty of laughter as Miguel works around the oppression with a terrific secret hiding place, where he’s erected a shrine to his deceased musical hero (Benjamin Bratt, Miss Congeniality, Modern Family), whom he admires courtesy of a VCR and videocassette. Despite the maternal order not to play music, Miguel goes one better: he makes his own guitar to play in festival competition. He even dares to pronounce what he’s made perfecto.

The miserable faces of Miguel’s unhappy dead relatives in pictures — photographs are key to Coco — do not lie. Before you can genuflect (and Coco rightly connects religion to hatred of the good with the sign of the cross), an evil woman crushes Miguel’s dreams, causing him to flee with the street dog, borrow, not steal, and slip into the pre-afterlife/post-life state of being not quite dead. Miguel meets dead relatives, and others, of course, and both questions and learns what it means to be dead or alive.

What this has to do with music and family, the main (and false) dichotomy in Coco, becomes clear. The night of the living dead Miguel encounters includes clever if disturbing real-life equivalents such as the Department of Family Reunions, tracing family footsteps with shoes and, of course, a goofy guide named Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal, Letters to Juliet). Audiences can judge whether Coco stereotypes Latino culture — Coco credits no less than 24 “cultural advisors”, all with Hispanic surnames, and entire Mexican families, cathedrals and agencies — and it’s loaded with sacrifice, martyrdom and death. The afterlife place is like an idealized Mexico City (it could easily be Havana) with retro style homes, arenas and mass transit.

“You don’t have to forgive but don’t forget,” someone says in Coco, written and directed by Lee Unkrich (Toy Story 3). This is a good line which both suggests a kind of righting of Miguel’s family’s twisted logic and lost legacy and hints at a moral reckoning to come (which wrongfully never comes). Coco sanctions the view that family comes first. This is Coco‘s unequivocal theme and the movie explicitly endorses the idea that the individual must submit to the family. Even on the film’s terms, this estimate is both unearned and unfortunate. But in its voices, animation — especially in faces both young and old — and Michael Giacchino‘s melodic, guitar-driven score (if not the movie’s mediocre songs) — many though not all of Coco‘s points and pictures fit like pieces of a puzzle.