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!

★★★★★

Love, Simon

Cast: Nick Robinson, Jennifer Garner, Nick Duhamel, Katherine Langford, Alexandra Shipp, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Tony Hale

Director: Greg Berlanti

Writers: Isaac Aptaker, Elizabeth Berger


Love, Simon is a teen rom-com like any other. It’s quirky, idealistic, and a little bit schmaltzy. It features a good-looking, charming, and somewhat popular kid who falls for someone online and sets out to discover who they really are. There are parties, love triangles, clueless adults, a high school musical, public declarations, broken hearts, witty banter, and a compilation of catchy pop songs. It uses every cliché in the book and never apologises for it, it is as representative of this day and age as the John Hughes movies were of the 80s and 90s, and it is everything that a lover of sappy high school movie romances could possibly want. And also the main character happens to be gay. This is the first mainstream, major studio release to focus on a gay teenage romance, a milestone so overdue that I kind of feel like the movie might have had a more meaningful impact had it been made around the same time as Mean Girls. But the fact it was made at all is significant, to be sure, and it’s a good enough film to be worthy of the task it undertakes to break new ground in LGBT cinema.

Our protagonist is 16-year-old Simon Spier (Nick Robinson), a kid “just like you”. He lives in a beautiful home in the suburbs of Atlanta with his loving, liberal-minded parents Emily (Jennifer Ganrer) and Jack (Josh Duhamel) and his little, Top Chef obsessed sister Nora (Talitha Bateman). He has a healthy social life at school and a crew of close friends he likes to hang out with including lifelong BFFs Leah (Katherine Langford) and Nick (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.) and trendy new girl Abby (Alexandra Shipp). Simon is about as normal as a teenager can be. He goes to parties, takes part in the school’s drama club, attends sports rallies, and has even had a couple of girlfriends. But he also has a huge secret that’s he’s never shared with anybody before: he’s gay. Things change when a closeted boy at school, known only as Blue, writes an online post sharing his thoughts and fears about coming out. Simon reaches out to him privately in an email under the alias of Jacques and the two start a correspondence with each other that evolves over time into a romance.

Love, Simon is a refreshing watch for a number of reasons. For one thing, with a cinematic history that includes Boys Don’t Cry, Brokeback Mountain, and Milk where LGBT characters have to battle prejudices against their sexuality and find only heartbreak and oftentimes death at the end of it all, it is a sign of progress that a gay character can enjoy a healthy and harmless romance without being punished for it and get his happy ending. For another thing, in a genre where gay characters are often relegated to the role of sidekicks and are seldom given the opportunity to voice their own desires, anxieties, and struggles, it is almost unbelievable how wholly the film focuses on Simon’s gayness. In addition, I was surprised by how thoughtful, complex, and heartfelt this movie actually turned out to be. A part of me was worried that this major studio release that had made such a big deal in its marketing over how inclusive and liberal it would be might turn out to be a work of self-indulgence; a cheap way for Hollywood to pat itself on the back for being so ‘woke’. Thankfully (even though the movie is still a little too self-congratulatory for my liking) Love, Simon takes care to tell a real story where you can understand the main character’s feelings and inner-conflict and empathise with him.

Simon’s initial struggle is that he’s afraid of coming out. This isn’t because he fears he will be hated or rejected, in fact he is certain that his family and friends would be fully supportive and accepting of him. What’s stopping him is that he’s not quite ready for his life to change in the way it inevitably will when people learn the truth about him. He’s not prepared to handle the altered perceptions and the confused emotions that his loved ones will develop when they discover that he has been keeping a part of himself hidden from them for so long and just needs time to get himself there. A part of him is also resentful of the way the heterosexuality has been accepted as the default and that LGBT kids are the ones who have to come out, which the movie pokes fun at in an amusing sequence where we see some of Simon’s friends come out as straight to their hurt, tearful, and unaccepting parents. That scene is just one of the ways in which the film is skilfully able to merge humour with pathos, which is a vital part of what makes Love, Simon so watchable. The movie is capable of being both light-hearted and dark at the same time.

Things start taking a dark turn when fellow classmate Martin (Logan Miller), a nerdy and obnoxious guy who makes it so easy for all the characters to hate him it almost seems deliberate, learns Simon’s secret and uses it to blackmail him. Unless Simon helps him win a date with Abby, Martin will release his emails for the whole school to read. The secret will be out and Blue will retreat and be lost to Simon for good. Simon thus gets himself caught in a tangled web of unrequited crushes and manipulated feelings, leading to much emotional confusion, anguish and chaos among his friends as things spin more and more out of control. Simon himself gets increasingly confounded over time not only by guilt, but also by the nagging question of who Blue really is. The movie gives us plenty of suspects in this mystery, and with them comes all of these looks, statements, and gestures that could mean nothing or everything. Maybe Blue is Bram (Keiynan Lonsdale) the friendly jock, maybe he’s Lyle (Joey Pollari) the flirty server, or maybe Cal (Miles Heizer) the musical classmate. Or maybe he’s someone else entirely who Simon has never even given a second thought to. It’s a well-developed mystery and the climatic reveal is satisfying.

Still, even though it might be a little unfair to begrudge this of a film that wants to be a mainstream high school rom-com and does it well, there were times when I wished the movie was more willing to take a few risks. The characterisation of gayness in this film, for instance, is so conventional and inoffensive it could almost be called bland by today’s standards. For the most part Robinson plays Simon in a straightforward, normative manner with his typically masculine looks and physique, even when he’s alone and not putting up a façade; it’s a ‘normal guy who happens to be gay’ kind of thing that they’re going for, which is fine except it also would have been fine ten years ago. There’s a scene where Simon imagines the colourful, flamboyant musical his life might become when he’s out and goes to college, which ends with him breaking the fourth wall to say, “Well, maybe not that gay”. It’s a funny punchline, but it also kind of undercuts what I thought to be the most creative, vibrant and memorable scene in the whole movie. If the movie is really set on breaking ground in the representation and normalisation of gay culture in mass media, why not go all the way with it?

I do also wish that the movie didn’t go to quite as many lengths as it did to show how ‘okay’ it is for Simon to be gay and trusted that the audience would root for him themselves and celebrate his victories without any prompting. There are some moments when showing the other characters’ acceptance of Simon is important, as in one scene between Simon and his mother which Garner knocks out of the park (I now want a movie that’s just Jennifer Garner and Michael Stuhlbarg delivering moving and eloquent monologues to their gay children). But there are others where it feels like the movie is celebrating its own open-mindedness and liberalism more than it is Simon’s arc as a character. While it’s great that Simon is immediately accepted by the school en masse when the truth does finally come out, their active, fervent support and encouragement in his search for Blue struck me as so overzealous that when the climax arrived and we finally see the kiss it’s all been leading up to, I felt like the movie was trying harder to convey its affirmation of the moment than it was the culmination of Simon’s journey. For a movie that repeatedly emphasises how Simon is just like the rest of us, I felt that this overcompensation somewhat detracted from his relatability.

Still, Love, Simon is a movie that Hollywood has needed to make for a long time and its arrival marks an undeniable sign of progress. While recent films like Call Me by Your Name and Blue is the Warmest Colour have already garnered praise for their positive portrayals of LGBT romance, those films were not made for teen audiences nor are they the kinds of films that most teenagers will actively seek out. This film appeals itself directly towards modern teenagers and young adults of all sexual orientations and does so without talking down to them or seeming out of touch. It is a teenage rom-com through and through in that it is sentimental, quaint, and pretty cheesy, which means that those who like those kinds of movies will really like this one. Even those who tend to cringe or roll their eyes when the music starts playing as the lovers embrace each other may very well find themselves moved by what happens between the clichés. For those gay teens and adults who have been waiting for a movie such as this to come along, they, like Simon himself when all is finally said and done, can breath a sigh of relief. This is an enjoyable and heartfelt movie and one that I hope will launch a new wave of mainstream cinema that will feature new and different depictions of LGBT culture.

★★★★