Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Toy Story 4

You've Got a Friend in Me … and Me … and Me …

 Other activities (including attending an Oakland Athletics baseball game [vs. the talented Tampa Bay Rays; we lost, damn it!] and a marvelous outdoor presentation [at Twining Vine Winery, Castro Valley CA, which made it even better] of the hilarious 37 Shakespeare Plays in 90 Minutes [more formally known as The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)]) limited me to only 1 new movie to review this week, but as a singular experience it was well worth it, so let's get started.

Review by Ken Burke

                             Toy Story 4 (Josh Cooley)   rated G

“Executive Summary” (no spoilers): Once again the supposedly-inanimate toys from 3 previous episodes of this franchise come actively to life when there are no humans around to observe them, with the large group led by sheriff Woody and space-ranger Buzz Lightyear facing an existential crisis (where toys are concerned) when their new child, Bonnie, begins to lose interest in them as she faces her own trauma of the first day in kindergarten.  However, she overcomes her fears (with Woody’s help; he snuck into school in her backpack) by making a new toy, Forky, from a spork found in the trashcan, a character she loves but who sees himself as trash so Woody has to keep constant vigil on him for Bonnie’s sake.  Soon the whole group’s on an RV trip (organized by Bonnie’s parents) which yields some significant plot advances: Woody convinces Forky he’s a toy as loved as any of the rest of them; Woody meets up with Bo Beep, his love from many years ago, who’s now living on the fringes of society, forsaking the comfort of a loving child; Woody also meets sinister Gabby Gabby, a doll who desperately wants his functioning voice box; Forky’s captured by Gabby’s creepy henchmen, requiring a lot of coordinated effort from all of the other more-hospitable toys to attempt to rescue him.  Beyond that, I’d have to be in Spoiler territory, so either join the millions who’ve already seen Toy Story 4 to fill in the final, heart-tugging gaps or just plow ahead into the detailed review below, spoilers be damned!  But even if you decide to read ahead before attending a screening, I still encourage you to seek out Toy Story 4 because, like all the other entries in this series, this one's a bunch of fun to watch, even as it has some melancholy in its conclusion.

Here’s the trailer:  (Use the full screen button in the image’s lower right to enlarge it; activate that same button on the full screen’s lower right or your “esc” keyboard key to return to normal size.)

If you can abide plot spoilers read on, but as this blog’s intended for those who’ve seen the film—or want to save some bucks—to help any of you who want to learn more details yet avoid important plot-reveals I’ll identify any give-away sentences/sentence-clusters like this: 
⇒The first and last words will be noted with arrows and red.⇐ OK, now continue on if you prefer.

What Happens: We start 9 years ago when Andy (the original owner of most of these toys, who grew up across the years of the previous episodes until he was ready to head off to college in the last installment*) was probably about 9 himself, as Woody (voice of Tom Hanks) and the ever-expanding Slinky Dog (Blake Clark) manage a rescue on a rainy night to keep little Race Car from washing down a storm drain.  (This car plays an important role in a climatic-chase-scene in the first Toy Story Not that I directly remember it, however, but my Toy Story-loving-wife, Nina, and I stumbled upon those first 2 installments on some TV channel called Freeform [owned by Disney] so we got to refresh our memories; of course, we found it after seeing … 4 so it would have been better if our wayback-machine had been available earlier, but watching these earlier ones again definitely enhances the overall sense of continuity of this franchise.  Even better would have been equally-quick-access to … 3, which I find to be the best of the series, probably worth 4½ stars if I ever officially review it, so I guess we’ll just have to put some effort into seeking out that earlier one.)

*If it would help to put this latest (Final? That's the indication from Pixar, but ... 3 was also due to be the finale.) installment of the Toy Story stories into more complete context (unless your memory’s better than mine), you can find detailed plot summaries along with other interesting data about Toy Story (John Lasseter, 1995), Toy Story 2 (Lasseter, 1999), Toy Story 3 (Lee Unkrich, 2010) at the sites I suggest as well as many others, I’m sure; all of these movies came out before we began this blog so we have no What Happens info for you (brilliant as our views might have been, once again).

 Woody’s triumph is undercut that night, though, when his younger sister Molly (she's gone after this opening; ... 3 explains why) decides to let Bo Beep (Annie Potts), Woody’s love interest in the first 2 movies, be taken away in a box of discards, explaining why Bo had no appearance in … 3.  After that, we’re back to the present where Andy’s long departed, with all his former toys now the property of little Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw), whom we met during the events of … 3 (I can’t say it enough: Watch this one if you never have or watch it again if you’ve seen it before).  Unlike Andy, who was excited to head off to college, though, Bonnie’s resistance to begin kindergarten doesn’t imply healthy academic experiences for her, so Woody (who’s largely been neglected by Bonnie lately, bringing up his old insecurities about becoming a forgotten toy—or, even worse, a lost toy) sneaks into her backpack, helps her by getting some materials from the trashcan for her first-day-art-project (another kid grabbed what was on her desk), from which she crafts Forky (Tony Hale), a spork with Popsicle-stick-feet, pipe-cleaner-arms, and a funky-face only a 5-year-old could love.  Bonnie’s new-found-affection for Forky puts an encouraging-light on school for her, but when he’s back home he keeps trying to jump into a trash can, convinced his place is with the refuse, not the official toys, so Woody keeps a constant watch in order to maintain Bonnie’s happiness (even when neglected, Woody has a consistent sense of duty toward the child of the house, an admirable trait although often leading to conflicted situations with the other toys who tend to see things differently).

 In that all these Toy … stories seem to thrive on automotive action (in which toys—usually Woody and someone else—tend to get lost along the way or some other trouble occurs), naturally we’re soon on the road again as Bonnie’s parents load her, Forky, and other toys into their RV for a trip to Grand Basin where an antique store and the nearby carnival become the settings for the rest of our current narrative.  Of course, problems occur along the way so after several attempts to keep Forky from disposing of himself he manages to get loose on the highway with Woody in hot pursuit.  Soon they reconnect, walking onward to the family's campgrounds (Woody often carrying his new friend because those popsicle feet weren’t intended for easy movement) as Woody finally convinces Forky he’s truly a toy, much beloved by Bonnie, with such attention from a child all any toy should ever want.  When they get to Grand Basin, though, Woody sees in the window of the antique shot a lamp like the one ceramic Bo Peep and her sheep (3 heads on 1 interconnected-body) once occupied so he slips into the store (bringing now-confused-Forky along, not understanding why they've stopped going directly back to Bonnie [in other scenes, she's upset her new favorite toy has disappeared]).  In the process of trying to find Bo, though, Woody instead is essentially taken into custody by a large doll, Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), and her 3 creepy-henchmen-dummies, the Bensons.

 Gabby wants Woody’s functioning voice box (his pull-string still works with it so phrases like “There’s a snake in my boot” come from inside him in addition to what he says on his own through his mouth to other toys) because hers was defective from the start, leading to rejection from her long-lost-child.  Woody escapes but not Forky, so as Woody’s trying to figure out how to rescue his oddball-pal he comes upon assertive-Bo, now happy to be a renegade toy with no human connections; Bo’s pals, Giggle McDimples (Ally Maki), a very tiny cop, and Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves), a Canadian motorcycle-stuntman (with a crash-plagued-past) promise to help; meanwhile, Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) wanders into the carnival where he’s caught, put on a prize-booth-wall with Ducky (Keegan-Michael Key) and Bunny (Jordan Peele).  ⇒They all manage to escape, meet up with Woody and his new allies, but their plan to liberate Forky fails, leading to the rest of them (except Bo, her sheep, her pals) heading back to Bonnie, only Woody left to save Forky (after he insulted the others, so they have no interest in his quest), which he does by sacrificing his voice box.  Ultimately, as the plot pushes onward: Woody befriends sad Gabby after the store owner’s granddaughter, Harmony (Lila Sage Bromley), rejects the newly-voiced doll; Bo comes back to the store for Woody, gives Gabby a pep-talk; Forky reunites with Bonnie; sneaking through the carnival with Woody on the way to Bonnie’s RV Gabby sees a lost girl crying so she makes herself available, leading to a new connection; Woody doesn’t want to leave Bo, Buzz convinces him Bonnie will be OK, so before the others depart in the RV Woody appoints cowgirl Jessie (Joan Cusack) as the new sheriff, then—in a mid-credits scenejoins in with Bo, Giggle, Ducky, Bunny, and Duke to help liberate other toys, rigging the carny booth (where the slacker guy in charge never notices anything until it's too late) so every kid’s a winner, gets a prize.  In another mid-credits-scene, Bonnie returns from her first day in first-grade with a decorated “girl” plastic knife immediately attracted to Forky.  However, when she asks him the question of why she’s alive, he has no answer (neither do we).*⇐

*Don Rickles is also in there again as Mr. Potato Head, even though the actor died in 2017.  All of his dialogue was culled from retained-recordings from the previous Toy Story movies along with various other sources; thus, the final script was written around what was still available from Rickles.

So What?  When you contemplate the interconnected themes of the Toy Story movies (These characters are also part of an additional media blitz by Disney/Pixar, but I’m not conversant with other aspects of their larger narrative), you find messages that I see in parallel with the marvelous children’s book (with relevance for adults as well), The Velveteen Rabbit (Margery Williams, 1922), which still causes me to tear up when I think about it (first read it when I was a college undergrad, helped me get past some of my own ego-driven-traumas, although that’s been a life-long-project), a very touching story about a stuffed-toy beloved by a little boy who suffered from scarlet fever so when the kid recovered the constantly-snuggled-bunny was set to be burned, causing him to cry a real tear, leading to the appearance of a magic fairy who turned him into an actual rabbit who has a new happy life in the woods with others of his kind.  Here’s, for me, the essence of the story (and one of the best guides I’ve ever encountered on how to approach the difficulties we all face in life): “'Real isn’t how you are made,' said the Skin Horse [to the rabbit]. 'It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real. […] It doesn’t happen all at once,' said the Skin Horse. 'You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.' […] Weeks passed, and the little Rabbit grew very old and shabby, but the Boy loved him just as much. He loved him so hard that he loved all his whiskers off, and the pink lining to his ears turned grey, and his brown spots faded. He even began to lose his shape, and he scarcely looked like a rabbit any more, except to the Boy. To him he was always beautiful, and that was all that the little Rabbit cared about. He didn’t mind how he looked to other people, because the nursery magic had made him Real, and when you are Real shabbiness doesn’t matter.”  If only we could all embrace such useful wisdom instead of becoming self-protective, pulling away, fearful of our fragile mortality.

 Across the arc of these touching Toy Story movies various characters at times become damaged physically but recover, at other times some lose faith that Andy or Bonnie still cares for them but most (not all, so tragedy does reside within these sentiments) find the love of their cherished child’s still there once they overcome their fears of rejection; further, the toys learn to support and care for each other (in their various ways; not all of them express their emotions in easily-understood-manners), so again and again they find themselves—hopefully as inspirations for the kids of all ages watching these moral lessons up on the big screen (or smaller video ones)—expanding the scope of their ultimately-embracing-community, becoming emotionally “real” (like the Velveteen Rabbit) to match the mysterious physical “lives” the humans in their houses never know about or can observe.

Bottom Line Final Comments: Although the lead line for this paragraph should read “You can’t expect a better movie debut in 2019’s otherwise-distraction-filled-summer than the $135.1 domestic millions raked in by Toy Story 4 in its debut weekend (plus another $123.6 million internationally for its $258.7 global total),” the reality is even that humongous-haul isn’t considered “enough” by the movie industry, as expectations for the opening ran as high as $160 million domestically (U.S.-Canada)even $200 million, by some estimatesso, despite that huge run on the box-office a few days ago, already putting its current total at #9 domestically for the entire 2019 year (#28 on the All-Time Domestic Openings Weekend list) while those in front on it have already been running continuously for a few months (with the biggest by far being Avengers: Endgame [Anthony and Joe Russo; review in our May 1, 2019 posting] at $834.9 million [now up to $2.75 billion worldwide, with a re-releaseeven though it’s still playing?to help it top Avatar {James Cameron, 2009}, currently at $2.79 billion as All-Time Worldwide champ; Avatar also blew away opening domestic weekend records at $357 million] and Captain Marvel [Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck; review in our March 14, 2019 posting] at $426.8 million)Toy Story 4 is oddly being considered a bit of a box-office-disappointment, along with other returning-franchise-offerings such as Men In Black International (F. Gary Gray)—$52.6 million domestically so far—Godzilla: King of the Monsters (Michael Dougherty; review in our June 6, 2019 posting)—$102.5 million—Shaft [2019] (Tim Story; review in our June 20, 2019 posting), but in the larger context of 2019 grosses this addition to the Toy Story lineage along with Avengers: Endgame, Captain Marvel, and the live-action-remake of Aladdin [2019] (Guy Ritchie; review in our May 29, 2019 posting) should be helping the Disney stockholders have an enjoyable summer (along with the huge crowds [reservations required when it first opened] exploring the new Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge attraction at Disneyland), so I doubt Pixar folks are too worried about how much total Woody and company rake in because their jobs must feel secure (as long as no one follows departed-studio-head Lasseter into the realm of “alleged sexual misconduct toward employees” [we should know by now only U.S. President-“grab them by the p____”-Trump can get away with that kind of behavior—but hopefully not for too much longer!]).

 No matter how you assess the financial strength of Toy Story 4, though, you couldn’t ask for better critical response, with 98% positive reviews cited at Rotten Tomatoes (giving this movie one of their Certified Fresh designations, for those getting at least 75% positive responses from at least 80 of their Tomatometer critics, with at least 5 of their Top Critics [none of these designations include me, of course]; you can go here to see RT’s top 75 of 2019 [so far], many of which I haven’t even seen, although Toy Story 4 tops much of that more-esoteric-fare at #3 for the year at this point), a very solid (for them) 84% average score at Metacritic (they’ve added a Must-See designation for anything scoring 81% or higher from at least 15 of their professional critics [again, not me; no surprise], which is about 5% of what they review; here are MC's 2019 ratings [so far], many of which at the 80% level or higher I haven’t seen either [there seems to be a pattern here of critics embracing really-obscure-options], with their highest in my awareness being #2, The Souvenir [Joanna Hogg; review in our June 12, 2019 posting], yielding only 2½ stars from me, so maybe all these top-rated RT and MC successes aren’t films I’d be that knocked-out by anyway)Toy Story 4 continues in an impressive-critically-embraced-tradition: The original accomplished an extremely-rare 100% collection of positive RT reviews, a huge 95% MC score (Lasseter got an Oscar, an Academy Special Achievement Award for the breakthrough-accomplishment of this first computer-imaged-animated-feature; further, this Toy Story was nominated in the Best Original Screenplay category, the first animated feature ever to get any Oscar nom for writing); … 2 was exceptional also at RT with another 100% cluster of positives along with a very commendable 88% MC score (plus an Oscar to Randy Newman for Best Original Song, “When She Loved Me”); … 3 was also well-received (you could argue it was the best of the bunch overall—it certainly has the most emotional impact for me) with 98% at RT, a 92% average MC score (notably high for them) as it also won the Best Animated Feature Oscar (however, that award wasn’t given for movies released prior to 2001 so it’s impossible to know how the first 2 might have fared in such races).  Any way you slice it, though, this has been an incredibly-successful-cluster of cinematic stories (by my tally the first 3 earned about $1.9 billion worldwide, no matter how much … 4 eventually adds to that total), even if they’ve reached the end of their arc, which would seem to be the case as Woody’s now left home, finally able to rejoice in his new status with Bo and the others as a willing “lost toy.”

 When considering options for my usual review-wrap-up-tactic of a Musical Metaphor for Toy Story 4, I decided the song should focus on friendship because that’s been the overriding theme of all of these episodes—building friendships, being concerned about losing them, understanding what truly underlies them, repairing tears in their fabric (even while shedding tears [ah, the beauties of our at-times-confusing-language])—so I thought about several possibilities including The Beatles’ "With a Little Help from My Friends" (from their 1967 Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album), The Beach Boys’ "Friends" (from their 1968 album of the same name), "Thank You for Being a Friend" (theme song from NBC TV’s The Golden Girls [1985-‘92]), and "Friend Like Me" (from the soundtracks of Disney’s Aladdin [Ron Clements and John Musker, 1992; Guy Ritchie, 2019—the latter reviewed in our May 29, 2019 posting—with Robin Williams singing in the earlier version, Will Smith in the remake]), but ultimately I picked 4 others, all of which are my official Metaphors to reflect the interrelated themes of these 4 Toy Story movies as we’ve come to know/embrace them.*

*Notice I didn’t mention “I’ll Be There for You,” the theme song from NBC TV’s Friends (1994-2004), which just verifies 2 things: (1) I don’t care much for this song, especially compared to anything else I’ve cited in the above and below paragraphs; (2) I never got into Friends either, probably a generational-taste-thing, as I much preferred the show that followed it on Thursday nights, NBC TV’s Seinfeld (1989-‘98), even though both were set in NYC, a place where I lived for a couple of years in the early 1970s (maybe I’d have liked Friends more if I’d been able to share in their Manhattan experience when I was also in my 20s, but living in Queens was a whole different world—just ask Archie Bunker or Donald Trump; not so different, really, except for income levels and a decent heart under Archie’s gruff exterior; Trump needs to ask the Wizard of Oz to give him one or at least sell him a discounted, non-tariff one from China).  I guess by the time both of these series came along I could relate better to the relationship/work/daily-challenges-of-living neuroses of the latter more so than the coffee-drinking, dating-intrigue, whatever-the-hell-else-was-going-on in the former.  For those who think this would be a crucial omission from these comments, though (even if you're as old as I am [71] but liked Friends more than Seinfeld) here’s that omitted-theme-song by The Rembrandts, joined by the Friends main cast (because, now or always, “I’ll Be There for You”).

 The first one’s what’s understood as the franchise’s theme song, Randy Newman’s “You've Got a Friend in Me” (from the 1995 soundtrack of the original Toy Story plus the soundtracks of all 3 sequels) at (a video combining scenes from all 3 previous Toy… stories) acknowledging how Woody overcame his initial jealousy of Buzz’s more-current-fame to finally welcome him into Andy’s toy collection; the second is The Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” (from the 1966 Pet Sounds album), at fn4 (supposedly a 1966 live performance with pathetic video [yet Brian Wilson’s on keyboards in the background even though he stopped touring in 1964, with comments the video’s actually from mid-1967 when he rejoined them for a bit; when I first saw them in early 1967 Bruce Johnson was already a permanent member of the band, so what can I tell you except maybe believe what you see?], nice audio though)—which is used in the background of the above trailer for … 4—in recognition of how Woody meets cowgirl Jessie and horse Bullseye from the complete set of his early-TV-group in Toy Story 2 but then creates a crisis for Jessie when it seems she’ll be going to a museum in Japan but Woody wouldn’t be coming along (a later crisis emerges when Woody’s willing to go to Japan, leaving behind all his close friends in Andy’s house); the third is Neil Young’s “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” (from his 1970 After the Gold Rush album) at https://www., acknowledging the horror the playthings face in Toy Story 3 where many of them mistakenly think they’ve been thrown away as trash, then later the whole cluster of our beloved characters are on the brink of being incinerated yet they face their collective demise together until their last-second-rescue; finally, for … 4 we have Carol King’s soul-restoring “You’ve Got a Friend” (from her 1971 Tapestry album) at My7WTU, affirming that even as lives and priorities change they open up new possibilities while old assumptions must be rethought: “Now, ain’t it good to know that you’ve got a friend When people [or toys] can be so cold?  They’ll hurt you, and desert you And take your soul if you let them Oh, but don’t you let them.”  Woody, Buzz, and their other friends ultimately wouldn’t “let them”; hopefully, even when times are lower than what we think we can stand, when our seeming-rocks represented in these movies by Andy and Bonnie aren’t there for us even as we desperately need them, we’ll find the needed stamina within ourselves aided by others still with us, because “Ain’t it good to know, you’ve got a friend? […] Oh yeah You’ve got a friend.”  Certainly, I hope you do, or can at least meet one before you next encounter the marvelous insights we offer at Two Guys in the Dark.
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Here’s more information about Toy Story 4: (12:42 video on 56 Easter Eggs in this movie, drawn from the full Pixar collection)

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If you’d rather contact Ken directly rather than leaving a comment here please use my email address of if you truly have too much time on your hands you might want to explore some even-longer-and-more-obtuse-than-my-film-reviews—if that even seems possible—academic articles about various cinematic topics at my website,, which could really give you something to talk to me about.)

If we did talk, though, you’d easily see how my early-70s-age informs my references, Musical Metaphors, etc. in these reviews because I’m clearly a guy of the later 20th century, not so much the contemporary world.  I’ve come to accept my ongoing situation, though, realizing we all (if fate allows) keep getting older, we just have to embrace it, as Joni Mitchell did so well in "The Circle Game," offering sage advice even when she was quite young herself.

By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile. Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.  But wherever the rest of my body may be my heart’s always with my longtime-companion, lover, and wife, Nina Kindblad, so here’s our favorite shared song—Neil Young’s "Harvest Moon"
—from the performance we saw at the Desert Trip concerts in Indio, CA on October 15, 2016 (as a full moon was rising over the stadium) because “I’m still in love with you,” my dearest, a never-changing-reality even as the moon waxes and wanes over the months/years to come.
Finally, for the data-oriented among you, Google stats say over the past month (which they seem to measure from right now back 30 days) the total unique hits at this site were 31,758 (as always, we thank all of you for your support with our hopes you’ll continue to be regular readers); below is a snapshot of where and by what means those responses have come from within the previous week (Why we've been so popular in Russia lately remains a mystery to me because my computer's not connected to any USA voting machines, but Two Guys in the Dark appreciates your solid interest.):

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