Toy Story 4

Cast: (voiced by) Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Annie Potts, Tony Hale, Keegan-Michael Key, Jordan Peele, Madeleine McGraw, Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves, Ally Maki, Jay Hernandez, Lori Alan, Joan Cusack

Director: Josh Cooley

Writers: Stephany Folsom, Andrew Stanton


In the three films that made up its near-perfect trilogy, Toy Story told what was more or less a complete story about the life cycle of a sentient toy. What started off as a pretty cute idea (what if your toys came to life whenever you left the room?) grew into something richer and more compelling by virtue of having so many characters just teeming with personality, thoughts and feelings. Over the course of the years-long span of these three movies we’ve seen Woody and the gang confront such weighty themes as growth, identity, parenthood, trauma, abandonment, mortality and transient love. It concluded with a grown-up Andy passing the toys on to another child so that their calling in life, to belong to a child and be played with, may never come to an end. It is as moving and powerful an ending as any Pixar could have dreamed up and to say that it left me satisfied would be an understatement. Thus, when I heard that a fourth movie was on its way, my reaction was apprehension and dread. Why mess with something that already ended perfectly? Why not leave well enough alone? Where else can they even possibly go with the story? Perhaps it’s the desperate move of a once fresh and dynamic company that’s struggling to offer its audience something new (of the ten films Pixar has released since Toy Story 3, six have been sequels and prequels). If there is indeed some anxiety within Pixar about the fear of becoming obsolete, irrelevant and forgotten, they’ve baked it into the very DNA of this film.

After having spent three movies exploring the emotional challenges and harsh realities of life as a toy, an immortal life of child-like dependence and parent-like nurturing that inevitably ends in relinquishment, the fourth instalment takes things a step further by delving into the theme of their very existence. What does it actually mean to be a toy? Enter Forky, a plastic spork with googly eyes, pipe cleaner arms and popsicle stick feet brought to life by Bonnie’s imagination and desire for a friend at her new school. Forky’s defining trait as a character is his existential crisis. He was created for the sole purpose of becoming trash and keeps trying to break away from Bonnie and make for the nearest bin so that his purpose might be fulfilled. Woody however thwarts him at every turn. Forky is a toy now; he has been endowed with a consciousness and a soul by a five-year-old girl’s desperate need for a companion during a scary time in her life and Woody tries his darndest to press onto the panicky spork that it is now his duty to be there for her. Throughout this whole series all the toys we have met, both good and bad, have shared a single motivation compelling their actions at every point, the desire for a child’s love. Through Forky we are given the greatest illustration yet of how that love isn’t just what these toys yearn and strive for, it is essentially what gives them life.

That desire to be loved carries with it a desire to be needed and since being given away by Andy to Bonnie, Woody has found himself relegated to the sidelines. He clearly cares for the kid and is as determined as ever to look out for his friends, but his heroics and leadership aren’t really called for in this safe, cushy gig that they’ve landed and he’s no longer the playtime favourite. Jessie is now Bonnie’s sheriff of choice; the old cowboy tends to be left stranded in the closet most days. When Woody elects himself to join the shy, nervous Bonnie on her first day at kindergarten, it’s like he’s a grandparent intervening in his granddaughter’s life in some minor, nominal way because he misses having a small child depend on him. He means well, but it’s still more about making himself feel useful than it is about helping Bonnie. Woody is essentially a weathered old hand on the verge of retirement and he’s simply not ready to be discarded and forgotten (a fate that befalls every toy sooner or later). For an immortal being, this is as close to death as it gets short of being incinerated (as they all very nearly were in Toy Story 3). Thus, with Forky’s creation, Woody finds some purpose for himself as the self-appointed guardian of Bonnie’s new favourite but even that can only keep him busy for so long. When Woody is later reunited with Bo Peep, whose departure we see in the opening scene, and learns of the life she’s built for herself since, it’s then that he starts to wonder whether there is more to being a toy than having a kid’s name written on the sole of your foot.

It’s a tough question that Woody struggles to answer because he and so many of the other toys he’s encountered over the years have been conditioned to believe that a toy’s existence is meaningless without the love of a child. The dark side of this desire is presented in Gabby Gabby, a 1950s pullstring doll hidden away in an antiques shop. Her voicebox is broken, a manufacturing defect, and so she was rejected and stored away, left to sit and gather dust for all these decades. It’s a cruel lesson that the Toy Story films taught us before back when Woody tore his arm in the second film, that the adolescent love and adoration these toys all crave is conditional. Since no child wants to play with a pullstring doll that cannot speak, Gabby sets her sights on Woody’s voicebox when he Forky happen to wander into the shop in search of a friend. What makes Gabby a great antagonist (apart from being voiced by Christina Hendricks) is that she isn’t an outright villain in the way that Sid and Lotso were. She isn’t in herself a bad person but the years of neglect she’s suffered and the harsh belief that only true perfection will make her worthy of the affection she so despondently pines for compels her to act out in harmful ways. In meeting her Woody is treated to a dark reflection, a warning of who he might become if he allows his desire to be needed to consume him.

All of this talk about existential crises, moral dilemmas and empty futures makes Toy Story 4 sound like it could have been directed by David Lynch or Werner Herzog (either of which, incidentally, I would absolutely love to see happen). I should therefore take this chance to stress that the movie is in fact a delight to watch in all the ways Toy Story has always been. The movie is a visual splendour from beginning to end, not only in the wonderful designs it conjures up from the dark, sinister antiques shop that Gabby dominates with her ventriloquist dummy stooges (the scariest things in the film) to the colourfully resplendent fairground just across the road or in the seamless fluidity of the movements and action but also in the character animation. So many of the film’s most touching moments hit all the harder because the animators always know the exact right expression to go for to complement the performance, just as writers Stanton and Folsom and director Cooley know when to stop for a moment so that the audience has some time to take it in. Pixar remains one of the modern masters of visual storytelling and Toy Story 4 is yet another testament to them. The movie is also incredibly funny, thanks in no small part to the inclusion of such new characters as a pair of conjoined plush dolls voiced by Keegan Michael-Key and Jordan Peele and a Canadian Evel Knievel knock-off as voiced by Keanu Reeves.

It shouldn’t be possible for a movie to be this funny and entertaining while still being this loaded with philosophy and metaphor and yet Toy Story makes it look almost childishly simple. Part of the reason it works as well as it does is due to how freely flexible so much of the subtext is. The movie is loaded with images and ideas that can be a hundred different things to a hundred different people, all of whom can impart their own feelings onto the text of the film and read it all of their subtly different ways without the movie ever seeming like it’s at odds with itself. Woody is a character so rich in personality, history and mythology that he can be whichever character the individual viewer needs him to be. When Toy Story 3 came along nine years ago and delivered not only the perfect ending to its own story but also the ending that my seventeen-year-old self needed to see at that age, I was adamant that Pixar had no business revisiting this franchise and tarnishing its legacy. Having now watched Toy Story 4 I still believe that this is a movie that didn’t need to exist, but I’m glad that it does all the same. That the 1995 animated classic grew into such a magnificent blockbuster series and has against all odds proven itself capable of evolving and reinventing itself across generations is a feat worthy of celebration. Now please Pixar, for the love of God and all that is holy, stop making these films!

★★★★★

Bad Moms

Cast: Mila Kunis, Kristen Bell, Kathryn Hahn, Annie Mumolo, Jay Hernandez, Jada Pinkett Smith, Christina Applegate

Directors: Jon Lucas, Scott Moore

Writers: Jon Lucas, Scott Moore


This film, which has been advertised as the product of the “gratefully married” writers of The Hangover, wants to sell itself as a gift to women. The intention, it seems, is to pay tribute to the daily works and sacrifices that wives and mothers make for their families and to acknowledge how overwhelming and thankless their efforts can be. As well intentioned as this project may have been, it is rather telling that a film about motherhood was made by a predominantly male creative team led by two guys called Jon and Scott. It is strange that this should be the case when there are more female writers and directors working in comedy today than ever before. Yes, the cast is largely female, but that doesn’t mean the film will necessarily be representative of women. Bad Moms is, to say the least, a weak film; one that suffers from many of the same problems plaguing American comedies today. More importantly, Bad Moms is not in any shape or form a feminist film.

Amy Mitchell (Mila Kunis) is a married, working mother who feels overly stressed by her commitments and the pressure she is under. It doesn’t help that her husband Mike (David Walton) barely lifts a finger to help her and that she is constantly judged for her failings by the mothers of the PTA, led by the autocratic Gwendolyn James (Christina Applegate) and her lapdogs Stacy (Jada Pinkett Smith) and Vicky (Annie Mumolo). When Amy finally explodes in a loud, public meltdown, she winds up in a bar where she meets the relaxed, sexually-liberal mum Carla (Kathryn Hahn) and the sheepish, stay-at-home mum Kiki (Kristen Bell). The three of them make a pact to abandon the standards expected of “perfect” mothers and take some time for themselves instead. When her new attitude clashes with that of Gwendolyn, the two go to war with one another. Amy thus resolves to run for the PTA presidency and to stand up for all the “bad moms”.

What irritated me about this film was the way it proclaimed itself to be a celebration of motherhood when it didn’t even have the decency to treat the subject as seriously as it deserves. That might seem like a misguided criticism for what is supposed to be a raunchy comedy but I do think it is important for a movie that aspires towards feminism. While there are plenty of mothers today who are able to make ends meet for their children while working full-time jobs, this movie undermines their efforts with a protagonist who fails to be relatable due to her one-dimensionality and stupidity (seriously, who eats spaghetti while driving?). The movie proceeds to divide the mothers into cliques where they display the emotional maturity of fifteen-year-olds as they squabble over such petty issues as bake sales. This movie takes the struggles of white suburban motherhood and reduces them to cheap and inconsequential problems that become greatly exaggerated until they are resolved through the act of letting go and taking it easy. This portrait of motherhood is not just false, it’s utterly patronising.

Maybe I’m being too harsh. After all I don’t really expect a comedy in the vein of The Hangover to provide me with a deep, honest insight into the challenges and struggles of motherhood. But the idea that this movie was intended as man’s gift for all of those wives and mothers is what stopped me from letting it off the hook. During the credits we are treated to a series of interviews with the six principal actresses (all of whom are mums) and their real-life mothers talking about the challenges of raising children and sharing some of their own “bad mom” stories. We are therefore encouraged to view this movie as being representative of the experiences of real mothers, a grossly misleading notion. While I’m not prepared to state that men are incapable of making feminist films, there is no shortage of mothers working in show business today capable of making the film that Bad Moms could have been (Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Sharon Horgan to name a few (heck, Annie Mumolo is an Oscar-nominated writer!)).

Putting the film’s issues with feminism aside, Bad Moms can be pretty funny on occasion, largely because of its talented cast. Anyone who watches this film looking for nothing more than a silly comedy with coarse humour will get exactly that. There was a surprise cameo during a party scene in the middle that got a laugh out of me. Still it surprises me that in 2016 we’re still getting female-targeted comedies that don’t bring enough women into the creative process. I’m not going to pretend that every male-led comedy is inherently sexist or that every female-led comedy is necessarily feminist, but it doesn’t take a genius to realise that mothers probably understand motherhood better than most. This movie comes across less as a tribute to motherhood and more as a satire. Even then, it isn’t a particularly good satire. It misses the whole point about the sexist cultural issues that have led to the impossible standards of modern motherhood and instead determines that the problem is with other bitchy mothers. Bad Moms is good for the occasional chuckle but not much else.

★★

Suicide Squad

Cast: Will Smith, Jared Leto, Margot Robbie, Joel Kinnaman, Viola Davis, Jai Courtney, Jay Hernandez, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Karen Fukuhara, Ike Barinholtz, Scott Eastwood, Cara Delevingne

Director: David Ayer

Writer: David Ayer


Watching Suicide Squad has made one thing about the DC cinematic universe clear to me: it isn’t just Zack Snyder. The trouble with this franchise is not the brainchild of a single overseer, it’s happening on an institutional level. It pains to write this because I watched the cartoons growing up, read the comic books as a teenager, and deeply love this universe and its characters.. Nothing would please me more than to sing the praises of the movie franchise that has brought this universe to life. I can’t do that though because for three films now they’ve made the same mistakes again and again. All three movies have been entertaining on a spectacular level, but their stories and characters continue to suffer from an aggravating inability to realise these fundamental flaws. Suicide Squad is an improvement on this front, but at the end of the day it suffers from the same overall problem as the other DC movies. The ultimate problem is that Warner Bros is more interested in making movies with good trailers than it is in making good movies.

Following Superman’s death, Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) has determined that the Earth needs a new force to protect humanity against inhuman threats. Her proposal is a mercenary team made up of dangerous criminals kept in check by chips implanted in their brains. The villains selected for this team are the skilled assassin Deadshot (Will Smith), the insane Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), the incendiary El Diablo (Jay Hernandez) the rugged thief Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), the genetic deformity Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) and the ancient sorceress Enchantress (Cara Delevingne). Leading the team is Waller’s trusted colonel Rick Flagg (Joel Kinnaman), a soldier with little patience for the criminal scum he must work with. When Midway City is besieged by a horde of monsters powered by some mystical weapon, the Suicide Squad is sent on their first mission to combat them. Hot on their trail is the Joker (Jared Leto) who is on his own mission to liberate his beloved Harley Quinn.

The movie’s saving grace is its main cast. Despite some illogical inconsistencies, a feeble villain and a weak second half, the ensemble managed to carry this movie most of the way through and made it more fulfilling to watch than either of DC’s first two offerings. Viola Davis is fantastic as Waller, a ruthless government official who gives orders and combats threats with a cold, business-like attitude. Will Smith succeeds marvellously in playing Deadshot both as an adept assassin and as a concerned father trying to do right by his daughter. Margot Robbie is perfectly cast as Harley Quinn and delivers a crazed and layered performance that was regrettably undermined by the movie’s excessive objectification of her character. I was also a big fan of Jay Hernandez as El Diablo, a fundamentally good man cursed with a destructive power that he cannot entirely control. Leto however, considering the enormous publicity surrounding his performance and the standard set by Nicholson, Hamill, and Ledger, was a let-down. While his portrayal as the Joker was somewhat intriguing, his screen time is minimal and his role is almost entirely immaterial to the main story.

The films starts off promisingly enough as we are introduced to these characters and get to know them a bit. The numerous flashbacks are quite disorienting due to some messy editing and there were also some parts that can only be described as bizarre (The one that stands out is that mindboggling moment featuring Batman and Harley Quinn), but I was still on board when the team was finally assembled and ready to set out on their mission. From this point onwards Suicide Squad becomes the same generic action movie we’ve seen a million times. There’s the bland villain with the vague motivation, the expendable, faceless army sent to combat the main cast, and the same old indefinably destructive portal from movies like Fantastic Four that threatens to destroy the world or something. The characters do help to make the movie’s second half somewhat entertaining, but the threat facing them is bland and forgettable and the amount of tension the film is able to conjure up is almost nil. This made for a movie that was fun to watch, but not particularly engaging or thrilling.

I think that the critical panning this film has received has more to do with the audience’s frustration with the DC franchise than it does with any of the movie’s particular faults. When held to its own merits and demerits as separate from the franchise, I don’t think it deserves the hate it has received. Suicide Squad is an often entertaining movie with many colourful and memorable characters that falls apart in its second half. It doesn’t suffer from the stale tone of Man of Steel or from the severely overblown plot of Batman v. Superman. It is however symptomatic of a misguided franchise that is more interested in making movies that look good than in making movies that actually are good. The gimmick of seeing iconic characters from the comics come to life on the big screen will wear off for most viewers and already has for some. Unless Warner Bros wakes up and starts to offer something more substantive in these movies, the audience’s exasperation will only continue to grow.

★★★