Review: Toy Story 4 is a Fitting Finale

Image result for toy story 4

“…One day I’ll be put on display in a toy shop. I’ll be sold as a gift for a very special child who’ll desperately need a secret friend.”

“That’s correct.” Mr. Bodkins smiled and nodded approval. “It will be a little girl or boy who, if he grows up whole and happy, will contribute something of importance to the world. A special child, as you have said. But this will be a child who has to face enormous problems or who must live through a terrible sorrow…But whatever the child’s problems, you will be there to offer comfort, counsel, and love. You must help the child to grow up confident and loving, regardless of what cruelties the world inflicts on him. Because, you see, this special little girl or boy of yours will perhaps become a doctor who saves lives, or a diplomat who negotiates peace, or a teacher … if only he can grow up whole and happy. But if he’s broken by the tragedies he must endure, then he will never have a chance to make this world a better place.

Dean R. Koontz, Oddkins: A Fable for All Ages

Pixar Studios’ first animated film was in 1995 and it revolutionized American film animation forever. That movie was Toy Story and for better or worse, traditional animation has gone by the wayside in the wake of fully computer rendered animation. It’s been twenty-four years since then and nine years since Toy Story 3 and many other great animated films in-between those movies and the years. Toy Story 3 seemed, at the time, a fitting end to the trilogy.  Andy had grown up and moved on to college. The toys had been passed on to a new child, Bonnie, to enjoy.

We are now presented with Toy Story 4, a movie that even I would say was not asked for or needed. The story felt like it was complete at the end of the third film. It’s actually a good thing to be wrong sometimes. Toy Story 4 does more than any other film in the franchise to examine exactly why toys are needed in a kid’s life and how important they are. Not only do the toys need kids to serve a purpose, but kids need toys in their lives. Sure, it’s mentioned that toys need to be there for their kids but it is not until Toy Story 4 that a toy’s true purpose to be there for their kid is best displayed.

In a flashback to nine years previously, Andy is still the energetic fun kid wearing his cowboy hat and playing with Woody and Buzz. During a heavy rainstorm a car pulls up to pick up Molly’s lamp which had Little Bo Peep (Annie Potts) and her little sheep from the previous films is being given away. It was mentioned in Toy Story 3 that Bo Peep was lost, but not why. Now we know she had gone to another home.

Image result for toy story 4

Now with their new kid, the gang seems to be settled in nicely. But Woody (Tom Hanks) finds himself being taken out of Bonnie’s closet less and less. She even pins his sheriff badge on Jesse. When Bonnie finds herself at a crisis point in her young life, namely orientation day at kindergarten, Woody decides on his own that he needs to accompany her to school hidden in her backpack.

While there, Bonnie does feel isolated and alone amongst a room full of other kids she sits alone feeling alienated and alone. During a crafting session, even though Bonnie doesn’t have anything to craft with, Woody sneaks some random things out of the trash, including a spork. Bonnie is inspired enough to create what she will name Forky.

forky

Sometimes it is the simplest things in our world that gives us delight and the simple creation from trash of Forky not only gives Bonnie delight but also praise from her Kindergarten teacher. While in Bonnie’s backpack, Forky (voiced by Tony Hale) comes to life. Now for someone like me, that raises some deep philosophical questions about existence and purpose. Like Buzz Lightyear in the first Toy Story, he does not believe he’s a toy. Unlike Buzz, he thinks he is trash and has already served his purpose as a spork and must be thrown in the trash. He spends much of the film trying to throw himself in the trash.

There is a certain formula to the Toy Story films and part of that is going on a trip and separation of the toys. It happens here as well. Bonnie’s parents take her on a roadtrip since kindergarten doesn’t actually start for another week, and as typical for Toy Story someone gets separated from the group. Forky jumps out the window as an escape and Woody, who has been trying to keep an eye on him follows.

Woody catches up with Forky and on the way to the RV park that Bonnie and the gang are at, they have a long conversation about being a toy. Well, basically it’s Woody reminiscing about his life with Andy and with the other toys. Forky does begin to understand what he is, though. He is a toy, and because Bonnie made him and that he was there for a difficult time in her life, Forky is the most important thing in her life at the moment.

Of course getting back to the RV that the family has been traveling in would be too easy as Woody spots a familiar lamp in the window of an antique shop, but without the porcelain figures that are supposed to go with it. Woody decides to check and see if an old friend is possibly inside. She’s nowhere to be found, but Woody and Forky do meet another doll from the same era as Woody, Gabby Gabby with her entourage of ventriloquist dummies. Dead giveaway folks, ventriloquist dummies are outright creepy, and an entourage of four identical ones is a sign that you are about to deal with a freaking villain. And Gabby has a really dark side to her. But she is not villainous for villainy’s sake

Woody manages to get out of the antique store but Forky is left behind. Across the road is Bonnie and the gang and parked by a traveling carnival. On his way he gets reunited with Bo Peep. Over the years Bo Peep has changed, though. Finding her time in the antique shop dull and boring she set off on her own and spent the last few years in local park living freely with other other toys. With the arrival of the carnival, she plans to hitch  ride and travel along with it.

All this time, Bonnie has been more concerned with her new toy, upset that it’s missing. So of course, Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) decides to go looking for Woody. Along the way we will meet other toys. A pair of them from the carnival are played by Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key. They are a plushy dual of a big bunny and an attached duck, respectively.  Now, Pixar has not exactly been known for their casting diversity and with the comedic talents of Key & Peele, it could have veered too far into the “sassy black” stereotype. In my opinion, I don’t think it did that here. That’s not to say it did not flirt with it. The pair provide some of the best gags and have some interesting plans that involve breaking the toy rules. Listen for a cameo of Carl Weathers as several action figures known as Combat Carl.

In the antique shop, the gang gets some action figure help from Canada’s greatest Stuntman, Duke Kaboom. Another trope of the Toy Story films is the elaborate heist movie plans to escape or rescue another toy.  After four films, this formula has the real possibility of getting stale, but the script and the characters keep it creative. A large part of that fun it is Duke Kaboom who has the most to prove in order to help the gang. Keanu Reeves as Duke Kaboom seems to be having the time of his life portraying what is basically the Canadian version of an Evel Knievel toy while injecting a new catchphrase into the movie lexicon, “Yes I Canada!”

Bo Peep had always been a minor character in the early films. Her porcelain nature may not have been good for the madcap adventures of the other toys. Her fragile nature is actually played for a gag in one bit as she laughs of one of her limbs breaking off and just tapes it back up. And since she was not really Andy’s toy, but his younger sister’s, she ended up being more in the background too. Ultimately it was always about Andy’s toys. But time around, the story tightens and focuses on a lot on not just Woody, but his relationship with Bo Peep. It plays off the little hints of romance we first saw in the original Toy Story.  It’s also good to see more depth to the Bo Peep character and her inherent badass nature.

As par for the course with Pixar films, the quality of the animation is outstanding. There are levels of details here that may be ignored by other studios but are meticulous in its presentation here, such as the presence of dust and cobwebs behind the cabinets of the antique store, or the subtle reflections of objects in the eyes of characters. The scenes of the fair are rendered with such exacting photo-realistic detail, you can almost smell the popcorn and cotton candy.

Despite the formulaic nature of the franchise, Toy Story 4 has an exceptionally strong script. It is very emotional at times and if it doesn’t hit you in the feels at least once, you are dead. Even the Gabby, the antagonist, has a deep story that comes to a conclusion by the end. I think this is what makes Pixar films rise above the rest, the belief in strong storytelling. And the Toy Story films are especially good at telling good stories about relatable characters and their relationships with each other. They connect not only with our children, but with us as adults. And the comedy is still darn funny.

With this fourth entry, this does feel like a a true ending for our characters. But if somewhere down the line another one comes along, it’ll be a welcome friend. Highly Recommended.

Final Score: 9/10

John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum Prepares for War

07956f40-77c4-11e9-9073-657a85982e73

Si vis pacem, para bellum. “If you want peace, prepare for war.”

I remember the first time I ever saw the movie The Killer and Hard Boiled. It was my first exposure to John Woo. After that, I kept seeking out not only more John Woo films like A Better Tomorrow, I was checking out all sorts of Hong Kong action movies with elaborate stunts and gun choreography.

As Hong Kong’s over the top action films started to decline (that’s a whole separate article there), it was countries like South Korea with high production values that appeared to take up the torch. And it certainly seemed like it, but in reality it would be countries like Thailand, led by instant star Tony Jaa, and Indonesia’s Raid films that would inject adrenaline into the modern martial arts action genre.

The following contains spoilers for John Wick 1 and 2

You can read my recap or watch Keanu Reeves cover the first two films in 60 seconds.

The Matrix films, starring Keanu Reeves, were clearly influenced and paid homage to the Hong Kong action films and anime. Those films were revolutionary with their mix of action and special effects. When the first John Wick (again starring Keanu Reeves) movie came along in 2014, it was not only a great action film, but it changed the way action films would look.  The John Wick films was an intense visual feast of grounded fight scenes and gunfights. It became a resounding success both critically and financially. The premise was simple, John Wick is a retired assassin who was living a normal life with his wife. But unfortunately she dies, and as her final gift to him she has a beagle puppy sent to him so that he would have someone to love. In what seems random, his house is broken into and they not only steal his ’69 Mustang, but kill his dog. And that is it, hell is unleashed on the gang and the gangsters that get in his way for revenge.

So it was inevitable that there would be a John Wick Chapter 2 which continued directly after the first one. It really was like a second chapter in a book. In this sequel though, after finally getting his car back from a chop-shop, he is approached by someone who has a marker on him. It is an unbreakable bond that he is obligated to fulfill. The second film expands upon the lore and mythos of the John Wick world. But by the end, after breaking one of the cardinal rules of assassins, he is rendered “excommunicado” with an open $14 million bounty on him.

On to John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum

The third installment of the John Wick franchise has the daunting task of not only living up to the amazing action and stunts of the previous work but also topping it. It succeeds in this in glorious fashion in both fighting scenes and shootouts that come at you one after another, with each sequence being more jaw-dropping than the last.

Chapter 3 opens within an hour of the ending of Chapter 2 with John Wick on the run as every assassin in Manhattan is after him and the huge $14 million bounty on his head. So from the beginning we are thrust into the action. That action is near relentless as we go from one elaborate scene to another. There is an early scene within the first 20 minutes or so where Wick must fight off a horde of other assassins. (Seriously, that is not any sort of spoiler.) Unarmed, he finds himself using whatever weapons he has available, It just happens to be some sort of antique shop or museum full of knives.  But just before that is a great homage to a scene from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.  Right away, the close quarter fight is brutal and raw – topping any other single set piece in the previous films. Look for a cameo by Tiger Hu Chen, good friend of Keanu Reeves, stuntman and assistant choreographer on the Matrix.

Now, the plot is there to not only serve the action but to expand on the lore of the Assassin’s world. It serves its purpose well — but to talk about it too much past the bare basics would spoil the film. With the price on his head, Wick looks for a way to get it lifted. To do so he must first speak to the man above the High Table, the organization that controls the assassins. Yeah, he has to speak to upper management.

Part of that journey involves a trip to Casablanca, Morocco where he will get some help from Sophia (Halle Barry), who just happens to owe Wick a marker herself. And Halle Barry not only adds additional star quality to an already loaded cast, but joins in on the gunplay action.

In the previous films, John Wick was the lone man against many, but once Halle Barry’s Sofia comes along for the ride we realize he not only has star caliber allies but star enemies as well. In addition to the accomplished martial arts actor Tiger Hu Chen earlier is an appearance by a pair of actors from The Raid films, Yayan Ruhian and Cecep Arif Rahman who play a pair admiring killers in a two-on-one fight scene that involves a lot of breaking glass. But most fun to see of all is Mark Dacascos as the leader of a gang of modern shinobi that Wick faces in the final battle (Come on, you know there would be ninjas eventually). Mark Decascos has had a long career in martial arts roles including Cradle to the Grave and most notably Brotherhood of the Wolf, but some may recognize him as the current “Chairman” from Iron Chef America. His character serves as the main villain and provides a few bits of levity as well. Decascos’ prowess is very well displayed and he seems to be having the time of his life doing such intense action.

john-wick-4-parabellum-ending-explained

In non combat roles, Ian McShane and Laurence Fishburne reprise their respective roles from the previous installments. Hollywood legend, Anjelica Huston joins in to provide some back history to John Wick. And Jerome Flynn, best known as Bronn from Game of Thrones chews up a bit of scenery in his small role as a member of the High Table.

Lawrence Fishburne and Tiger Hu Chen are not the only Matrix alum to join Keanu Reeves. Look for a cameo by Randall Duk Kim who played the keymaker in the Matrix films to reprise his roll as the underworld’s go to doctor. Director Chad Stahelski not only served as martial arts stunt coordinator for the Matrix films, he was also Keanu Reeves’ stunt double. So this is nearly a family affair.

If I can lay any criticisms on the film it would be near the end in the last set of fight scenes. John Wick really should have died several times, but I guess out of professional courtesy or respect, he’s given a chance to get back on his feet on more than one occasion. But at this point in the franchise, he’s not just a guy anymore, he’s literally a bloody superhero.

A fourth chapter in the John Wick saga has already been announced, which is no surprise since the final scene before the credits roll provides the seeds for a sequel. How they could possibly continue to top the exciting action sequences from film to film is going to be the biggest mystery.

Some action films are generic. Some are outright forgettable. The John Wick films have not only been instant classics but each has been progressively outstanding in its action. This third chapter comes with the Highest Recommendation

Ninjas on motorcycles! Hell Yeah!