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!

★★★★★

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The Predator

Cast: Boyd Holbrook, Trevante Rhodes, Jacob Tremblay, Keegan-Michael Key, Olivia Munn, Thomas Jane, Alfie Allen, Sterling K. Brown

Director: Shane Black

Writers: Fred Dekker, Shane Black


There’s a moment in the third act of The Predator I keep returning to that aptly demonstrates the movie’s fatal flaw. It’s when the hulking Predator ambushes the rag-tag group of misfit heroes in the middle of a forest. One major character, played by one of the movie’s top-billed actors, attempts to use a repurposed alien weapon against the fiend, only to accidentally incinerate himself instead. The problem with this scene is that I had absolutely no idea it had even happened. It wasn’t until a later scene, as soon as I had noticed that the character in question was missing, that I realised he had been killed. Even then, I hadn’t a clue how it had happened. The scene was so shrouded in darkness and edited so awkwardly, it was all but impossible to make heads or tails of anything during that ambush. The only reason I now know the manner of this character’s death at all is because I read the movie’s synopsis on Wikipedia in preparation for writing this review. That’s what it all comes down to; the movie’s problem isn’t just that the story makes no sense or that the characters feel underdeveloped or that the tone is so inconsistent, it’s that filmmaking is so grossly incompetent for a director whom I know knows how to make a coherent, entertaining film.

Shane Black has made several choices in making this film that could be regarded as questionable, not least of which was casting a mate he knew to be a registered sex offender in a minor part and neglecting to tell his cast, and it baffles me that the director of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Iron Man 3 and The Nice Guys could make a movie this inept. It feels like there was originally a four-hour cut of the movie that somebody attacked with a machete in the editing room, so haphazard are the action sequences. It certainly doesn’t help that most of the scenes are shot at night with a bland colour scheme that makes the mise-en-scéne look largely muddled to the viewer’s eye. The constant, aimless editing however is what makes it so difficult to keep track of the visual geography and the driving actions behind the individual shots to the point that an important development happened before my very eyes without me even noticing. This isn’t the only time this happens either. There are dozens of story gaps and optical blurs scattered throughout the story, most of which would not be in and of themselves detrimental to the film had they been isolated occurrences. That they are constantly happening throughout the film means that they add up and contribute towards creating a hectically chaotic viewing experience.

The plot is similarly disjointed with entire story beats that whiz by so quickly, you’ll wonder whether you dozed off for a few minutes and just woke up. Things kick off when a Predator spaceship crash-lands on Earth. Army sniper Quinn McKenna (Boyd Holbrook) encounters the surviving Predator and his whole unit is wiped out. He escapes with some of the alien’s technology and, convinced he’ll need to keep the evidence out of the government’s hands lest they take him in and try to silence him, he mails the Predator’s mask and wrist cannon to his home in the suburbs. Only it’s not really his home these days. Quinn’s estranged wife Emily (Yvonne Strahovski) lives there with their autistic son Rory (Jacob Tremblay). Rory, a troubled kid who gets bullied at school but also a prodigy, discovers the content of his father’s package and is soon able to work out how the technology works. In the process however he accidentally summons a group of Predators, a scouting party in search of the equipment’s original owner, to his hometown where R-rated havoc is soon to ensue.

Quinn meanwhile is taken into custody by the government, whose plan is to lock him up with all the other undesirables and throw away the keys. Thus he ends up with a crew up of weirdoes and ne’er-do-wells who all have similar problems with rules and authority figures. There’s the insubordinate Nebraska (Tervante Rhodes), the verbal diarrhoeic Coyle (Keegan-Michael Key), the foul-mouthed (because he has Tourrete syndrome) Baxley (Thomas Jane), the British Lynch (Alfie Allen) and the awkward conversationalist Nettles (Augusto Aguilera). As he’s being dealt with, famed biologist Dr. Casey Bracket (Olivia Munn) comes to the facility to study the captured Predator under the direction of government agent Will Traeger (Sterling K. Brown). The Predator breaks free and slaughters its way out of the lab. Quinn and the Loonies take advantage of the chaos to team up and make their own escape, picking up Dr. Bracket on the way, and make for Quinn’s family home so that they can collect the equipment and plan their next move. There they learn that Rory has gone out with the Predator’s armour and that the alien hunter is hot on his trail. R-rated havoc ensues.

The movie takes several leaps in getting us from Point A to Point B to Point C and such leaps are usually permissible in movies when they skimp over minor details without much bearing over the plot and allow room for the audience to catch up. Watching The Predator though is like trying to keep up with a runaway train blindfolded. While the movie does oftentimes leave out details that contribute nothing to the story and would otherwise serve to pad the runtime, there are other leaps that omit fundamental story and character details that are never made clear to us. The movie’s failure is its inability to distinguish between the two. For example, one inconsequential leap in the story takes place when most of the characters have fled to a barn and are planning their next move. A group is sent out to explore a little and the next time we see them is when they arrive in an RV to rescue everybody else from the danger that’s just caught up with them. Where did they get the RV? We never find out and, while slightly distracting, we honestly don’t really need to know; we can use our own imaginations to figure that one out. But then we later realise that two of the characters share a certain bromantic relationship that was never made clear and it feels like the movie skipped a scene or two somewhere along the way that would have established this point. These two characters are so poorly established that I wasn’t even sure if they were genuinely supposed to come across as a gay couple (which would have been awesome considering that gung-ho army renegades are never allowed to be gay) or as simply brothers in arms.

This is an issue that most of these characters suffer from. The movie operates under the impression that these are all fully fleshed-out characters whose fates we are supposed to be invested in yet never puts in the time for establishment and development, opting instead for dirty one-liners and banter. Olivia Munn’s Dr. Bracket more or less wanders into the film without any kind of introduction and simply goes straight down to business as if we’re supposed to already know what her personality and motivation is. I now know this to be the consequence of Shane Black cutting out her introduction as it took place in the scene that had Munn paired up with Steve Wilder Striegel, the friend who was convicted some years ago for making sexual advances at a 14-year-old girl. This part of the movie was quickly and indiscriminately cut out in response to Munn’s justified outrage and the backlash she inspired and the consequence is that her character gets the short shrift. Her story kicks off without the set-up it needs to get started and it is only through Munn’s talents that any semblance of character comes through in the end. That this edit, the consequence of Black’s poor judgement in his casting decision and the studio’s seeming ignorance, was done so hastily and carelessly and affects the overall story so fundamentally is symptomatic I think of just how slapdash the whole movie feels.

This is all a huge shame because on paper Shane Black would appear to be the perfect choice to direct a Predator movie (he even had a minor role in the 1987 movie) and there are instances where you see glimpses of the movie that could have been. When the action is actually intelligible, it’s pretty good, gory fun. As well as delivering some solid action, the movie also gets some pretty entertaining performances out of its actors, most notably Brown who plays the immature, obnoxious Traegar with the demented glee of a bloodthirsty, die-hard 80s action movie fanboy who couldn’t wait until the bullets started firing. His motivation is an unknown entity, as with most of these characters, but at least he’s a lot of fun to watch. Rhodes and Key also have some good moments and feel right at home playing these happy-go-lucky psychopaths delivering Black’s trademark zingers. I’m less convinced by Jane’s Baxley; the movie appears to making a sincere effort to be more inclusive by giving one of its character Tourettes, and yet all of the jokes that emerge from this trait are at his expense so I’m not sure what exactly they were going for. The movie runs into a similar problem with Rory and the apparent insinuation that his autism is some kind of evolutionary superpower. The weakest link though is Holbrook who, between this movie and Narcos, I’ve yet to be convinced by as a leading man. Here he’s playing your typically tough, bland, noble-hearted jerk without any of the charisma that Schwarzenegger and Glover brought back when they helmed this franchise.

The movie has plenty of cool ideas, as in one scene where Black pays tribute to E.T. by having Rory go out trick-or-treating wearing the Predator’s mask or the scene where Traegar explains to Dr. Bracket why they opted to call a murderous alien who hunts for sport a ‘Predator’, but they are few and far in between. The movie has far too many ideas that don’t work; there are sub-plots that don’t go anywhere, jokes that don’t land, motivations that never manifest, and elements that feel like they were added arbitrarily without any clarity or purpose. Black bungles what should have been a match made in heaven, making for a movie that neither excites, amuses nor moves. It’s tempting to suppose that much of what went wrong with this movie could be attributed to studio meddling and forced franchising (and, yes, there are certainly parts of the movie, including a stupid ending, that indicate the studio has every intention of franchising this property), but Black’s questionable judgement in the scandal that emerged around this picture suggests to me that the movie had plenty of problems of its own. The Predator is an ill-executed mess of a movie that never managed to figure out where it wanted to go or what it wanted to be.

★★