Toy Story 4

Posted on June 18, 2019 at 12:16 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: G
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Fantasy/action peril and violence, character sacrifices a part of his body
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: June 21, 2019
Date Released to DVD: October 7, 2019

Let’s get right to the big three questions about “Toy Story 4.” Yes, it’s good, yes, you’re going to cry, and yes, you have to stay ALL the way to the end for one final blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment that is worth the wait.

The small miracle of the “Toy Story” series is that a film that would have been memorable for its technology alone as the first fully computer-animated feature film, the shiny, plastic toy characters the focus because Pixar had not yet developed the technology to animate hair, fur, or more expressive faces, was smart, heartfelt, and genuinely moving. Woody (Tom Hanks) was a retro cowboy doll with a pull-cord attached to a voice box and said things like “There’s a snake in my boot” and “You’re my favorite deputy!” When their boy Andy was away and the toys came to life, Woody was their natural leader, looked up to by the other toys, including Mr. and Mrs. Potatohead, the T-Rex (Wallace Shawn), the slinky dog, and Bo Peep (Annie Potts).

And then a new toy arrived, a shiny spaceman named Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), with flashing lights and pop-out wings, and a digital voice to proclaim, “To infinity and beyond!” But Buzz did not know he was a toy, creating an existential conflict. He thought he really was a space explorer who could really fly. The conflict in the film came from Woody’s jealousy over Andy’s affection for the shiny new toy and his frustration in not being able to persuade Buzz that he was not “real” in the way he thought he was. His purpose was not to explore space and fight the evil Emperor Zurg. His purpose was to be a companion and inspiration and comfort to Andy, a boy we barely glimpse in the film. The excitement comes from the toys’ efforts to escape the mutilations of the boy next door and to be reunited with Andy when they become separated. The heartwarming theme of the film, though, is about the friendship that develops between the rivals and their mutual understanding of the meaning of their existence as Andy’s toys.

These themes continued through the next two films. The second raised the issue of value — the difference between a mint condition toy still in the box that can be sold for a good price and a well-loved toy that might be scuffed and missing some pieces but meant something to a child, even a child who has grown up and has other interests. The third film gracefully and very poignantly saw Andy leave for college but give his toys to the imaginative pre-schooler Bonnie, so they could continue to fulfill their purpose. The first image in the original film was of clouds in a blue sky that turned out to be painted on the ceiling of Andy’s room. The final image of the third one was the real sky, showing that Andy’s world had opened up.

So, how to move on from that perfect ending? With another existential crisis, or maybe two. Woody has always defined himself by being important to a child. But increasingly Bonnie is leaving him in the closet, even taking his sheriff star and pinning it on Jessie (Joan Cusack). When Bonnie is nervous about her first day of kindergarten, Woody sees a chance to be useful and he sneaks into her backpack so he can to with her.

But what comforts Bonnie at school is creating something new. From a plastic spork and a broken popsicle stick she makes a…something she calls “Forky” (Tony Hale). When Woody tells the other toys back at home that Bonnie made a friend at school, he is speaking literally. But, in a parallel to Buzz in the first movie, Forky does not know he’s a toy. He cannot adjust to the notion that he is more than a single-use plastic utensil whose destiny is to be thrown in the trash. He keeps trying to throw himself away. But Woody sees Forky as a chance to be useful to Bonnie. If Woody can’t be important to Bonnie, he can teach Forky how to be.

And once again, the characters are separated from each other and from their child. Bonnie and her family rent an RV and go on a trip that puts the toys in two settings rich with fascinating details, colorful characters, and all kinds of wildly inventive and delightfully treacherous adventures. The first is an antique shop, where Woody glimpses the lamp stand that his old friend — and maybe more — Bo Peep used to be on. He brings Forky inside to look for her, and there they meet Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) a Chatty Cathy-style talking little girl doll with perfect curls and an imperfect voice box and her entourage of identical creepy-looking ventriloquist dummies all called Benson. Note that “Toy Story 2” involved “vintage” toys but now they are antiques. Keanu Reeves all but steals the film as a proudly Canadian Evel Knievel-style stunt rider toy called Duke Caboom.

The other new setting is a carnival, with rides and arcade games, and there we meet two plush toy prizes, Ducky and Bunny, voiced by Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, who have a blast riffing with each other. And it turns out that Bo Peep is there, too, having left her lamp, traveling with the carnival and seeing the world.

There are separations and perilous rescues, many near-misses and close calls, a gasp-inducing sacrifice, and a very sad farewell. The Pixar team is getting older, and they take us with them as they confront their own existential conundrums. You know you’re not going to get out of a Pixar movie without tears, and this one may be more like boo-hoo sobs. But that’s because we care about these characters and we care about the way they care about and for each other. Watch out for another shot of the sky — and for some fun scenes over the credits and, when the long, long list of filmmakers and production babies is over, a just-perfect scene at the very end.

Of course you can now buy a Forky doll. You can even choose between one that talks and one that walks. But I’m guessing that kids who see this movie will want to make something of their own.

Parents should know that this movie has extended action/fantasy-style peril with some scary ventriloquist dummies, and a genuinely shocking moment when a character voluntarily undergoes doll surgery to give up a piece of himself for another toy. Characters use some schoolyard language.

Family discussion: Why does Bonnie love Forky? How does Woody change Forky’s mind? Did Woody make the right decisions about Gabby Gabby and Bo Peep?

If you like this, try: The other “Toy Story” films and Pixar’s “A Bug’s Life” and “Monsters, Inc.”

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Chimpanzee

Posted on April 19, 2012 at 6:00 pm

B+
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: G
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Sad offscreen death of a parent, non-explicit discussions of attacks and turf battles
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: April 20, 2012
Date Released to DVD: August 20, 2012
Amazon.com ASIN: 1423153022

DisneyNature’s fourth in its series of nature documentaries released for Earth Day is gorgeously photographed, heartwarming, inspiring, and adorable. It combines astonishingly vivid and intimate footage of animal life with narration that sometimes crosses the line between accessible and intrusive.  And this G-rated saga has a “Bambi” problem.  The primatologists who appear at the end of the film are excited about sharing the unexpected and undeniably sweet story of an orphaned baby chimp who is adopted by an unrelated male. But that means the cute baby has to lose his mother first.  It is handled discreetly, but we have seen how tenderly she cares for her son and how much he depends on her, so sensitive viewers of any age may find her loss and the baby’s abandonment by the other adults disturbing.

Narrator Tim Allen introduces us to newborn Oscar, whose tiny, wizened face is utterly captivating as he begins to explore the world around him.  His mother Isha cuddles him, feeds him, and patiently teaches him how to survive in the jungle.  They are part of a tribe led by alpha male Freddy, who provides protection and helps search for food. “The jungle itself is a living, healthy thing that does not want to be eaten,” Allen tells us.  Nuts are hard to open and honey is guarded by bees.

As the area is cut into by development, food becomes harder to find.  The chimps are threatened by an invasion from a nearby group of hungry chimps with “a formidable leader named Scar.” The choice of names and framing of the story unhesitatingly directs our loyalties.  Scar “steals” but Freddy and his tribe bravely forage for food.

Like Sharks and Jets, the two groups have deadly battles over turf.  Oscar is left alone.  He is still too young to fend for himself and at first, he cannot find anyone to take care of him.  Freddy becomes his adoptive father, but soon faces the work/life balance problem that is all too familiar.  He is so enthralled with his new son that he begins to neglect his job of protecting the group.  And Scar is waiting for his chance to return.

Allen’s commentary is sometimes corny and distractingly over-anthropomorphized.  But director Mark Linfield and his crew were able to use the latest technology to bring us closer into the lives of these beautiful animals than even the scientists who study them have been able to get before.  The breathtaking visuals and the brave and affectionate hearts of these beautiful creatures continue to draw us back in to the story.  We see how the chimpanzees communicate and cooperate, how they use tools and teach each other survival skills, and how they use grooming to build community and define their hierarchy.  Deep within the grand sweep of the African rainforest, illuminated by the gentle glow of bioluminescent fungi, Oscar and Freddy teach us that “humanity” is too narrow a term to encompass the love, courage, and compassion these chimps so clearly understand.

 

(more…)

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Documentary DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week

Toy Story 3

Posted on November 1, 2010 at 8:00 am

A
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: G
Profanity: Some brief schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Characters in frequent peril, tense confrontations, bully, dealing with loss
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: June 18, 2010
Date Released to DVD: November 2, 2010
Amazon.com ASIN: B00275EHJG

You won’t just forget you are watching an animated movie; you will forget you are watching a movie. That is how completely we enter this wonderful world, and how reluctantly we leave it.

“Toy Story 3” has more honest, acutely observed, and engaging characters, a more authentic understanding of the poignant complexities of the human condition, bigger laughs, and better action than most live-action films and is close to being as authentic and involving as real life. You have to remind yourself, a little sadly, that these are not toys you’ve played with and people you know. It is by any standard and in any category a masterpiece.

It was just 15 years ago that Pixar released the first “Toy Story” and changed the course of movies forever. They made it about toys because the limited motion and smooth, shiny surfaces of plastic made it possible to hide the limitations of the technology of the time. And as they have with every film they produced, they made the story and the characters come first. It was the writing — and the voice performances by Tim Allen and Tom Hanks and the rest of the cast — that made the movie come to life. Ten record-breaking, genre-shattering films later, Pixar returns to the story of Buzz and Woody with all of the humor and action and even more heart. The early works were kids’ movies adults could enjoy but as they showed with “Up,” they are now making films for grown-ups that kids will appreciate.

As with “Up,” “Toy Story 3” begins with a brief flashback sequence filled with a breathtaking mastery of telling, evocative detail. Once there was a time when children played with toys powered by imagination rather than batteries. We go back in time to see Andy playing out a fabulously inventive adventure and the buoyant energy of his vision, acting rather than re-enacting, is jubilant with the pure pleasure of making things up. (This must be what it is like to work at Pixar.)

But time has gone by. Andy is packing for college and the only way the toys who love him can get his attention is to hide his cell phone in the toy box. He has to clear out his room. Where will the toys go?

Through a mix-up, they find themselves at a day care center where they are at first warmly welcomed by the toys who live there, led by Lots-o’-Huggin’ Bear (voice of Ned Beatty). It seems perfect; with new children coming every year they will never be outgrown or neglected. “No owners means no heartbreak.” They have a chance to do what they love — making kids happy.

But things begin to go very badly. They are placed with children who are too young to make up stories for them or care for them. When Buzz Lightyear protests, he is rebooted, restored to his original programming. Once again, Woody must come to the rescue, and once again, they must decide what their purpose is and where their loyalties are.

The first movie came out in 1995, but the toys were intentionally retro, more familiar to the parents in the audience than the children. The little green soldiers, the barrel of monkeys, the Potatoheads, the slinky dog, and the cowboy were old school. Part of the poignancy of the first film was the arrival of the first battery-powered, space-age toy, Buzz Lightyear. And part of the charm of the second film was its theme about what value means — is it better to be in mint condition forever and sold on eBay as a collectible or to be played with and loved, knowing that childhood is brief and the person you are devoted to will leave?

The new characters in this film are perfectly rendered replicas of toybox classics (bet you grown-ups can’t get through the movie without saying to the person next to you, “I had that!”) and originals that fit in so perfectly you can almost remember seeing the ads and humming the jingle. Barbie (voice of “The Little Mermaid’s” Jodi Benson) and Ken (voice of Michael Keaton) show some unsuspected depth (her political views are surprisingly well-founded) and he has some unanticipated growth opportunities. His wardrobe provides some of the movie’s most delicious moments, especially when he reverses the usual movie convention to put on a montage try-on session. I also loved Mr. Pricklepants (voice of Timothy Dalton), a Vincent Crummles-style thespian (a stuffed and stuffy hedgehog) who reminds Woody about the pleasures of play, a theme that gently deepens and expands, so entertainingly you don’t realize how stirring it becomes.

All of this is done with wit and style and action-packed chase scenes, and then it is brilliantly, perfectly resolved, showing us that the time the toys spent with Andy helped to make him who he is. I dare you not to cry. It’s a happy ending that like all great movies makes us think more wisely about our own sense of purpose and connection. And it reminds us, too, of the pleasures of imagination by showing us what it can achieve.

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3D Action/Adventure Animation Comedy DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week For the Whole Family Movie Mom’s Top Picks for Families Series/Sequel

Toy Story

Posted on June 12, 2010 at 1:17 pm

A+
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: G
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Some tense scenes, characters in peril
Diversity Issues: No strong female or minority characters
Date Released to Theaters: 1995
Date Released to DVD: March 30, 2010
Amazon.com ASIN: B0030IIZ4M

Celebrate the release of “Toy Story 3” with another look at the original — Pixar’s first feature release was the first theatrical released animated entirely by computer. It is now available in a pristine Blu-Ray version that pops off the screen. Although the dazzling technology is especially well suited to a story in which the major characters are made out of plastic, it is the unpretentious imagination and energy of the people behind the story and the outstanding vocal performances that make the movie an enduring classic.

The story is about the toys belonging to a boy named Andy. His favorite is a sheriff from the old west named Woody (with the voice of Tom Hanks). He acts as the leader of the rest of Andy’s toys, including a Tyrannosaurus Rex (voice of Wallace Shawn) and Mr. Potatohead (voice of Don Rickles). All is going well until Andy receives for his birthday an astronaut named Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen of “Home Improvement”). Woody becomes jealous, and in an effort to keep Andy from taking Buzz with him on an excursion, Andy accidentally knocks Buzz out the window. Woody follows, and the rest of the movie consists of their efforts to return home before the family moves away.

Children may relate to the idea of the sibling rivalry between Woody and Buzz, and the movie may provide a good starting point for a discussion of jealous feelings. It may also be fun for parents to point out some favorites from their own childhoods, including Mr. and Mrs. Potatohead, Etch-a-Sketch, Slinky Dog and Barrel Of Monkeys.

NOTE: This movie may be too scary for very young children. The three- year-old with me insisted on leaving less than halfway through, and it got scarier after that. Andy’s next-door neighbor is a vicious and destructive boy named Sid, who mutilates and tortures toys. His room is filled with genuinely grotesque creations made from bits and pieces of toys — sort of Geppeto’s workshop as seen by Stephen King. Sid gets a relatively mild comeuppance as the toys “break the rules” to scare him into being kind to all toys in the future.

Children may also be troubled by the notion that the toys are “real” whenever the humans are out of the room. This is even more confusing because one of the cleverest aspects of the movie’s plot is that Buzz does not know he is a toy, and thinks he really is a space explorer on his way “to infinity and beyond.” Note also that Andy does not have a father, although it is presented so subtly that most kids will miss it.

The two toys have special appeal not only for Andy to use to imagine himself as the fantasy male archetypes of cowboy and astronaut, but also perhaps as father substitutes. Meanwhile, there are no strong female toys, only a simpering Bo Peep who flirts with Woody.

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