How “Onward” Borrows From “Lord Of The Rings” – In The Best Way!

MAJOR SPOILERS FOR ONWARD…AND THE LETTER FOR THE KING…AHEAD

Onward was never really on my radar – when the trailers came out, I thought they were weak, and I never even got to see the film in theaters due to the coronavirus. But now that I have seen it, I can’t stop thinking about this strangely endearing story, which so many other critics have said is merely okay: an enjoyable, but easily forgettable, offering from a studio that has produced instant classics. That may be true for some, but I’m not ashamed to say that Onward is quickly becoming one of my favorite Pixar films.

Onward
techcrunch.com

I’m thankfully not alone in this opinion. But my opinion on the film has grown stronger and stronger with each passing day (and rewatch). And I have a few theories on why this film speaks so much to me, and why I think it has already become one of Pixar’s most underrated offerings: a story that deserves to be exalted, and is instead being bullied for its simplicity, so-so worldbuilding, and subversion of tropes – which has itself become something of a trope, though I maintain that Onward does it in the best way possible, and that’s because it borrows the inspiration (just the inspiration, mind you, everything else about it is different) for its most crucial subversive element from The Lord Of The Rings.

Now, Onward borrows a lot of stuff from J.R.R. Tolkien’s masterpiece, it’s true. There are little details hidden all over the richly-detailed fantasy world, and, unsurprisingly, many of them harp back to the man who is described as the father of modern fantasy. Fast-food restaurants serving second breakfast, soft drinks named Mountain Doom (with “explosive caffeine!”), an image of what I believe to be Gandalf versus The Balrog in the back of Barley’s van…basically, all the usual stuff that would make me slightly biased in this film’s favor. But no, I don’t love it solely because of that. Nor do I love it solely because everyone in the film is an LGBTQ+ icon (though, if you’re interested, feel free to check out my non-existent TED talk about how Laurel and The Manticore are absolutely canon, the pawn shop owner radiates big boss lesbian energy, and Barley is a chaotic gay cinnamon roll). Sure, those things contribute to the film’s overall appeal – but what I love most about it is how it finally clarifies that Samwise Gamgee was the true hero of The Lord Of The Rings.

Lord Of The Rings Samwise
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If you don’t already know, let me explain: in the Tolkien fandom, there has always been a war between “stans” of Frodo, and “stans” of Samwise Gamgee – a “stan” being a person who devotes themselves, wholly and unconditionally, to one specific person, fictional character, or thing. I’m not a big fan of stanning anyone or anything, simply because stans often become so passionate about whatever they’re stanning that they refuse to see its faults, and instead become toxic and hyper-aggressive when they see a threat to their idol. In the case of The Lord Of The Rings, it’s either really sad or really unsurprising that a story about unconditional love and loyalty would attract so many stans – who often divide themselves into either Frodo stans or Samwise stans. However, all you toxic Samwise stans are off the hook today, because I’m not coming for you – I’m coming for the toxic Frodo stans, and their idea of what makes a true hero.

J.R.R. Tolkien described Samwise Gamgee as the true hero of his story. Needless to say, Frodo stans have never liked this tidbit of trivia, and typically disregard it, either choosing to scream “DEATH OF THE AUTHOR!,” as loudly as possible, or snobbily remarking that “well, Tolkien didn’t write it that way”. Well, actually, he did – though, admittedly, everyone has differing opinions, and I respect that. But Onward uses the same formula for its hero and protagonist and makes it even less disputable.

Onward Barley Lightfoot
variety.com

In my opinion, what Frodo stans often overlook is that a story’s hero isn’t always its protagonist, nor vice versa. It’s rare to find, indeed, though I can actually name at least one other story this year that has done it…in a way. I say “in a way” because, while Netflix’s The Letter For The King turns the tables on its main character and reveals that one of his supporting cast, a young woman, is actually the hero of prophecy, and destined to defeat the villain, she never actually becomes the hero of the story. She’s a central plot-point, but that’s all she is: she’s just there to fight the big bad. In trying to create a surprise hero reveal, Netflix accidentally made their surprise hero the surprise protagonist of the series, while the character who was both hero and protagonist up until that point became solely the hero.

Because here’s the thing, which I’ve found is true across several different mediums: a hero doesn’t have to be the character whose name is in the title, or who gets to fight all the big sword-battles, or wield all the cool magic powers. From my experience, a story’s hero is often the overlooked beating heart of the story, the character around whom the entire story revolves without us ever noticing, usually until the very end. Sam, for instance, is the hero of The Lord Of The Rings – he represents everything the good guys are fighting for, and, without him, the story falls apart: not only because without him Frodo would have died several times before ever reaching Mordor, but because without him, The Lord Of The Rings isn’t the story of unconditional love, unbreakable friendship and unquenchable hope that we know it to be. Without him, in fact, it’s a pretty dark tale. So Sam is the true hero of that story because he is its core, the rock upon which the story is built, and Frodo is the protagonist: the character at the center of the plot – and he’s important too, because he teaches us about the importance of mercy and forgiveness, and how power corrupts. But when Frodo lies, maimed and spiritually exhausted on the slopes of Mount Doom, who is there beside him at the end of all things? Sam, that’s who. And it’s Sam’s presence there that reminds us what the story is all about: hope enduring even in darkness, and love defeating evil. For me, this is what defines a hero versus a protagonist, and shows how both can exist in one story without necessarily being the same person – a story’s true hero is the character who best personifies the themes and moral of the story, if there is one, while the protagonist is the most important character in the plot.

Onward Ian Lightfoot
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And that brings us back to Onward, and the case of Barley and Ian. For most of the film’s duration, it seems clear who is both hero and protagonist: Ian Lightfoot. He’s our POV character the entire time; he’s the one who initiates the quest when he finds out he’s the only character who can use magic; he’s the character who fights all the big fights, overcomes all the hardest obstacles, and has the big third-act battle against the fire-breathing dragon. But that doesn’t make him the hero – as it turns out, Ian is the protagonist, while his overlooked and underestimated older brother Barley Lightfoot is the story’s true hero.

It might sound unthinkable. But Onward isn’t just the story of two boys trying to meet their father – it’s a celebration of parents and parental figures in general. That’s why the father is the elusive end-goal of the movie’s plot. That’s why Laurel, the boys’ mother, follows them on their quest and has a key role in the final battle. That’s why there’s a subplot with the boys’ stepfather, whom they initially dislike but learn to accept. That’s why the big revelation at the end of the movie is that Barley Lightfoot has always been Ian’s own father figure growing up, and that Ian always did know his father, through Barley. And that’s why, in a moving act of gratitude, Ian returns the favor by giving Barley, and Barley alone, the chance to reunite with the ghost of their father in the film’s epic conclusion. That’s not entirely by choice – there’s a large dragon headed their way, and one of them has to stop it before it kills them all – but that makes it more powerful: because by that point, Ian’s character arc has concluded. He’s already figured out what and who the story is all about. But Barley still hasn’t: in a noble act of self-sacrifice, he offers to go hold off the dragon and give Ian the chance to meet their dad. But Ian stops him, telling him that now, Barley deserves what Ian always had: a chance to share his life, even for a moment, with his own father figure. Suddenly, Barley Lightfoot is the true heart, soul and hero of the story, and he best represents what the film is all about.

Now, a celebration of unconventional parental figures and older siblings isn’t anything new – the Frozen series and Lilo & Stitch are two other animated movies that give older siblings all the respect they deserve, and in fact Barley Lightfoot shares a couple characteristics with Elsa in particular (make them both gay, you cowards!) – but Pixar’s spin on the material gives it a truly unique twist. And in so doing, whether intentionally or not, they have paid homage to the father of modern fantasy.

Onward
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And there you have it. At this point I’ve likely angered a fair number of Frodo stans (but don’t worry, I still love all most some a few of you), and I’ve rambled on for far too long. Share your own thoughts, theories and opinions in the comments below!

Oh, and one last thing. My initial rating for Onward was too low, so allow me to do something I almost never do, and revise it:

Rating: 9.5/10

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“Onward” Review! No Spoilers!

This review comes at a strange time, just a little over a month since Pixar’s Onward hit theaters – long after I should already have been able to see this film in a pre-coronavirus world, and long before I should have been able to catch it on streaming. But here we are, entering a new and uncertain chapter of the film industry’s history: one in which films now leave theaters and hop into the ancillary markets much earlier than expected.

Unfortunately, Onward suffered the consequences of arriving on the very weekend that much of the world suddenly realized just how dangerous the coronavirus crisis was quickly becoming – it pulled only small crowds to the box-office, and even those became impossible to muster when theaters collectively chose to close down. As a result, I feel safe in assuming that not many people have seen Onward yet, and for those of you who haven’t, here’s my review. I will not call it “late”, for a movie review is never late – it arrives precisely when it means to.

Onward Pixar
newsweek.com

Onward is not, strictly speaking, Pixar’s first adventure in the fantasy genre – but it is the first one with Elves, and that’s got to count for something. Set in a magic-infused world of wonder that has slowly declined with the inevitable advent of technology and industrialism, the film follows two Elves on their mighty quest to spend a single day with the ghost of their dead father, who can be brought back to life with a little help from a magical gemstone, a wizard’s staff, and an absent-minded Manticore.

Appropriately, the film revels in meta-humor, with plenty of loving shout-outs to mythical characters, creatures and locales; Easter eggs galore for the keen-eyed; and all the standard fantasy tropes we know and love. Because of the unusual circumstances allowing us to watch Onward from the comfort of our own homes, it’s tempting to watch the film with a finger poised over the pause button, trying to examine every corner of the screen for these whimsical details (though some are obvious: such as a fast-food restaurant whose giant neon signboard reads “Burger Shire: Now Serving Second Breakfast!”). I encourage you to try and refrain from doing so, at least on your first watch, so you don’t miss out on the story itself. As Martin Scorsese would advise – just try to pretend you’re in a theater.

Onward‘s multitude of callbacks to classic fantasy literature and myths get the film in trouble in more ways than one, unfortunately. Whereas other Pixar films usually involve some unique, hilarious twist, and immerse the viewer in a fully fleshed-out world rich with individuality, Onward‘s twist has been explored in dozens of books and movies before, most successfully in Terry Pratchett’s satirical Discworld novels, and its world is mostly built from borrowed material. This makes it hard to sell people on the worldbuilding premise, because the film doesn’t scream creativity like Pixar’s previous hits: Coco, Inside Out, Toy Story, Finding Nemo, Monsters Inc., etc.

Onward
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So what do you sell them on? Well, Pixar seems to think that audiences just want a good long cry, and markets its films accordingly – but Onward is really more heartwarming than sad. Don’t get me wrong: it has plenty of sad scenes, but the story, and its resolution, are more poignant and subtly bittersweet than outright soul-crushing. This is sadness done right; sadness used as an essential ingredient of a larger story, rather than for shock-value or in a formulaic fashion.

The story is carried by two extremely likable protagonists, whose contrasting and conflicting personalities balance each other out very nicely – Ian Lightfoot (voiced by, and almost certainly modeled after, Tom Holland) is the indecisive, socially awkward youngest member of the Lightfoot family, who was born after his father’s death, and thus relies on second-hand accounts of his father to build his own impression of him. Barley Lightfoot (Chris Pratt), the older brother, is something of a gentle giant, with relatable, but niche, interests: ancient history, magic, and mythology. The voice-work on both characters is solid, though unremarkable – which possibly benefits Pratt, as he is controversial enough in his personal life that distancing him from the characters he plays isn’t exactly a bad idea.

The small supporting cast is filled out by Julia Louis-Dreyfuss as the Lightfoots’ mother, Laurel, whose almost superhuman strength (seemingly obtained through routine aerobics sessions) feels like it should be more of a big deal than it is; The Manticore (Octavia Spencer), once an Athena-esque figure of legend who gifted heroes with magical weapons and wisdom, now a worn-down restaurant owner just trying to host karaoke night; and Lena Waithe as “Pixar’s first openly gay character”, a cop who appears in one scene and has a single line of dialogue referencing her girlfriend’s kid. It’s a small step forward for the LGBTQ+ community, but in a film where Laurel Lightfoot and The Manticore share several scenes together and have undeniable chemistry as they go on their own little lawless adventure to restore The Manticore to her former glory, it’s also a missed opportunity.

Onward
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The quality of the film’s animation is nowhere near as spectacular as films like Coco or Brave – but in the world we now live in, it’s possible Onward will be nominated for an Oscar simply because so many other animated films will be pushed back to next year.

Honestly, if no better challenger arrives on the scene between now and next Oscar season, I wouldn’t mind seeing this unfortunate underdog eke out a win. Not only do I relish the thought of a sequel (yeah, yeah, I know, Pixar wants to focus on original content: well, tell them to stop coming up with original content that demands a follow-up!), but I think it would be welcome compensation for the film’s lost audience appeal and box-office returns – not to mention petty vengeance on coronavirus for all the damage and disruption it’s caused.

Movie Rating: 9.5/10

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“Soul” Second Trailer Review!

The second trailer for Pixar’s upcoming feature film Soul gives us our first good look at what really awaits beyond life – and more importantly to protagonist Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx): what came before.

When the middle school teacher and fame-seeking jazz musician stumbles through a manhole and is knocked unconscious, his baffled soul finds himself stuck on a slow-moving escalator towards the Great Beyond (which isn’t shown at all in this trailer: presumably whatever lies beyond will either be a major plot point of the movie, or kept completely offscreen to prevent conflict with various religious groups). But Joe’s soul doesn’t want to die, because he isn’t done living out his glorious life. So, in a desperate attempt to escape, he flings himself off the side of the escalator and falls even further into empty nothingness – until he lands in the Great Before.

Soul
denofgeek.com

Just as the Great Beyond takes us all when we die, the Great Before is where we all came from: with a few eye-catching visuals, the trailer explains how all souls live here in a vibrant lavender paradise before being assigned to various newborn humans and sent to Earth to live their lives, die, and go on to the Great Beyond. Here, Joe meets another soul, voiced by Tina Fey, whose entire goal is to never have that happen to her: she already knows everything about Earth, and has decided it’s just not the place for her. “Is all that living really worth dying for?,” she asks.

Yikes. From the looks of it, this may be one of Pixar’s heaviest films yet, and it’s going to take a lot of silly jokes (of which there are plenty) to lighten the mood in the theater. Joe’s mission to get back to his body, which currently lies in a deep coma at a hospital, is already going to be tough enough: now add on a subplot where he tries to convince Tina Fey’s soul that life is worth dying for. The end of the trailer has the two hurtling through a vortex towards Earth, which I’m hoping isn’t a spoiler. Could it really be as easy as Joe returning to his body, waking up and living out the rest of his life? Or could he end up taking that final path to the Great Beyond?

And is there a point to the strange little stinger that has two vague stick-figures counting the number of souls heading to the Great Beyond and noting that “the count is off”. Do they have a purpose? Are they heroes or villains? We have no idea.

So what did you think of this trailer for Soul? Share your own thoughts, theories and opinions in the comments below!

Trailer Rating: 8/10

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“Soul” Teaser Trailer Review!

Disney & Pixar’s Soul promises a whole bunch of mind-boggling metaphysics in its first, minute-long teaser trailer: and surprisingly few “ugly-cry” moments from a studio that will keep Kleenex in business for years to come. But if anyone’s gonna make us sob in this movie, it’s going to be star Jamie Foxx, who is already doing an excellent job in his Pixar debut as the studio’s first black leading man.

His trailer monologue sounds like excerpts from some rousing speech that his character, middle school teacher Joe Gardner probably gives in the third act: he talks passionately and brilliantly about how life is too short to waste being anything other than what you want to be – what you were born to be. For Joe, that’s a career as a great jazz musician, a goal he works hard to achieve – before tripping into an open manhole in the street and…um, turning into a tiny glowing green vaguely-amoeba shaped thing? Did he die? Is he unconscious? Knowing Pixar, they killed him.

Either way, his little green soul is clearly very much alive – or, at least, undead. He finds himself in what appears to be the vast expanse of the cosmos, watching in exasperation as Tina Fey’s little glowing green undead soul tells him that she wants to be remembered for her funny cowboy-dance. I’m not entirely sure what Joe is supposed to learn in the soul region, as he already appears to have his life pretty much in order and he clearly understands what he wants to be and how he wants to get there – but Pixar is usually pretty good with thematic material, so I trust them to put together a compelling story.

So what do you think? How would you rate the trailer, and how many tears do you think you’ll shed, watching little green lightbulbs wax poetic about philosophy? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Trailer Rating: 9/10

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“Onward” Trailer Review!

Pixar is going all out on the sob-factor in their new, humorously quirky, vaguely unsettling trailer for Onward, a film about two brothers trying to resurrect their deceased father in a world full of magic, mischief, and angry unicorns. And it’s a good thing they are, because it’s all they’ve got so far.

As in the first trailer, I’m still not seeing much about the actual concept that feels entirely unique – yes, it’s turning common fantasy tropes upside-down and giving them a funny twist, but…it’s been done. The unicorns raiding trash cans, the biker gang of fairies, the pet dragon: I mean, maybe it’s just because I read a lot of Terry Pratchett’s work, but “mundane magic” doesn’t feel extremely high-concept anymore. But, of course, Pixar isn’t relying solely on setting to sell this story – no, they’re relying on human tears to fuel this movie at the box-office.

In this new trailer, we watch Ian and Barley Lightfoot, our Elven protagonists, as they attempt to use a magic staff to bring their father back from the dead for a single day – but, this being Pixar, the plan backfires, and what they’re left with is a pair of sentient ghost legs that will probably make us all cry ourselves to death in the theater, but for the moment just look…kind of creepy, to tell you the truth. That situation is not alleviated when the brothers attempt to disguise the legs by giving their dad a fake body composed of several sweatshirts, jackets and a pair of glasses – am I supposed to stifle a sob at the sight, or tremble in terror? Honestly, I’m not sure.

Yeah, and then, um, I think somebody gets decapitated? And also burned to a crisp? I’m not entirely sure what to think of that, but the impression I’m getting is that, for all of Onward‘s yoga trolls and casual cyclops (cyclopses? cyclopsis?) this world is actually quite dark and dangerous: after all, it wouldn’t really be Pixar without somebody dying or getting killed in the opening sequence – though, as we recently learned from Toy Story 4, even some of the studio’s most nightmarish villains get served up justice.

The trailer gives us a bit of humor, mostly resulting from the highly awkward scenario of having to travel around with a pair of legs, searching for the top half of a ghost. But the actual jokes are pretty weak – probably because Pixar is saving their best ones for the movie-going experience. The studio has often been accused of having weak trailers for great films, and I hope that Onward is no different: sure, it might look a little derivative right now, but who’s not going to see this film at some point, whether in theaters or on streaming? Are you?

What do you think of the trailer, and what are your thoughts on the genre? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Trailer Rating: 6/10

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“Toy Story 4” SPOILER Review!

Okay. Let me just preface this by reminding you that yesterday, when I discussed my overall feelings toward Toy Story 4, I had basically no clue what to say – my mind was still reeling from what I had just seen, and the emotions were still too near, too raw.

Now, I’ve had a chance to think over everything that happened in the movie, and I think I can put into words what I was attempting to explain yesterday – at the very least, I’ll try, and we’ll see how it goes. This is a SPOILER REVIEW, which will make it much easier for me to discuss certain things (obviously), but if you don’t want to know anything about Toy Story 4 I urge you to leave now.

And for those of you who have seen the film already (or simply don’t care about spoilers), then let’s hop on this merry-go-round – sorry, carousel – of emotions.

"Toy Story 4" SPOILER Review! 1
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First, let’s just discuss one of the overwhelmingly positive things about the movie: the story itself. Never has a Toy Story movie felt so deep and complex, with so much richness of detail – except maybe Toy Story 2, still my favorite of the franchise and the only one  that, in my opinion, perfectly balanced the arcs of our main characters, who were Woody, Buzz and Jessie at the time. Introducing Bo Peep to the story in Toy Story 4 adds a large complexity to this film, as the story has to work overtime to establish her as a character, since – well, she really wasn’t one in Toy Story or Toy Story 2, and she wasn’t even present in Toy Story 3. So this film does have an issue sometimes while juggling the stories of four main leads – but we’ll get to that. Leaving them aside, the plot itself is an intricate web, with a good balance of comedic and dramatic moments: it even turns into an elegant film-noir suspense thriller when our antagonist, Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), enters the picture. One thing I didn’t understand while watching the movie and still don’t understand now is Pixar president Jim Morris’ claim that Toy Story 4 is a “romantic comedy” – I mean, sure, the love story of Woody (Tom Hanks) and Bo Peep (Annie Potts) plays a large part, and tries hard to look like the defining factor in Woody’s eventual decision to leave behind his life as a toy – but it really isn’t. It was inevitable from the movie’s first few scenes that Woody had no reason to stay with his new child owner, Bonnie – he was constantly reminiscing about his better days with Andy, and some of the other toys, specifically Dolly (Bonnie Hunt), were treating him like worthless garbage. The romance only gives Woody additional motivation to leave. So, if anything, the movie feels most like a feel-good motivational film about learning self-value.

A really hilarious one, though: I have no qualms about admitting that Toy Story 4 is easily the funniest entry in the franchise, with a large assortment of brilliant one-liners and running gags – many of them packed into the last twenty minutes of the movie, as Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), Jessie (Joan Cusack), Trixie (Kristen Schaal), and Forky (Tony Hale) team up to try and stop Bonnie’s family from leaving in their RV: what starts out with Jessie merely puncturing the vehicle’s tires and Buzz causing a humorous distraction turns into hysterical comedy when Trixie sabotages the GPS and starts trying to lead the family back to the fairground where they left Woody – “Right! Another right! RIGHT!”, while Buttercup (Jeff Garlin) frantically tries to help by grabbing hold of the accelerator. Eventually cops start trailing the erratic RV, and Forky even locks Bonnie’s dad out of the car – and somehow Bonnie sleeps through all of this. I gotta say, I really felt for Bonnie’s parents in this movie: not only did they have to handle one very hyper and very forgetful child (literally, I lost count of how many times she misplaces her backpack in this movie), but their weekend vacation turned really stressful, really fast. No fault of their own, of course.

But I have to admit, I cracked up when the RV finally ground to a halt at its (a.k.a the toys’) destination, and Buttercup exclaimed “Dad’s totally going to jail now!”.

Just as funny, if not funnier, is the addition of Ducky (Keegan-Michael Key) and Bunny (Jordan Peele) to the Toy Story universe: two lovable plush toys with big egos and laser eyes (no, really!), their back-and-forth repertoire is one of the movie’s highlights – their best running joke is one that we glimpsed a part of in the final trailer, where they attack an elderly lady: as I suspected, this scenario is merely a hypothetical, but it’s actually just one in a long list of different ideas that the duo come up with in order to take an important key from the woman. The other battle-plans that they propose get funnier and funnier, until we culminate in the ultimate horror parody – where we watch the woman lock up shop for the night, drive home down lonely country lanes, eat dinner, take a bath, and settle into bed, all set to some quaint, foreboding music, only to have Ducky and Bunny rise above her pillow as she sleeps – which cuts away as we hear the woman scream in terror. “Yeah, we’re not doing that,” Buzz declares. In the end, they manage to get the key by pure luck, as the woman happens to set it down on the shelf right next to them, but the “ol’ plush rush”, as the fluffy toys call one of their more tame strategic maneuvers, is used twice more in the film: once to help a young child find her parents, and once during a mid-credits cut-scene where Ducky and Bunny imagine themselves terrorizing their human overlords and becoming gargantuan, unstoppable forces of apocalyptic power, equipped with laser eyes. All this is even funnier when you remember that Jordan Peele is a horror-film director himself, and these scenes act as gentle satire of his own preferred genre.

However, I did not expect the rest of the film to also adopt certain horror tropes – most notably with its host of absolutely terrifying ventriloquist dolls, and the scene where Woody wakes up after having his voice-box removed only to find one of these dolls staring down at him with a frightening smile. In fact, those dolls were everywhere – they were used for multiple jump-scare moments, including one in which an unsuspecting woman runs to grab an out-of-control baby-carriage, screaming when she discovers one of the puppets inside it. In fact, the humans of Toy Story were subjected to more unimaginable humiliations and nightmarish events than ever before in the franchise – even leaving aside the many times Ducky and Bunny wanted to burn them all, humans were manipulated, scared out of their minds and left heartbroken by toys in this movie. I felt devastated for one child, Harmony, when she took Woody with her to the park only to have him run away as soon as her back was turned – and then, of course, I hated Harmony when she threw away Gabby Gabby later in the film.

Honestly, Gabby Gabby is probably the franchise’s best villain ever – except for maybe, just maybe, Emperor Zurg from Toy Story 2, because he terrified me as a kid. In general, the new characters are all fantastic: Keanu Reeves’ Duke Caboom does a lot even with limited screentime; Forky is wonderful and must be protected at all costs – and his new girlfriend Knifey, who gets revealed during a mid-credits scene, looks fun too; there are even cameos from Mel Brooks, Carol Burnett and Carl Reiner, though far too brief to make much of an impression; and even Bo Peep’s sheep get personalities.

"Toy Story 4" SPOILER Review! 2
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Unfortunately, the cast of characters has become so large that it would be impossible to give everyone the appreciation they deserve: Hamm, Rex, the Potato Heads, Slinky Dog and the iconic three-eyed aliens are all completely sidelined throughout the movie, given little or no dialogue (were the aliens even in the movie at all?), and any semblance of character arcs for them are nonexistent. I mean, I don’t know about you, but it makes me really angry that the aliens weren’t part of the film’s finale, as they were in Toy Story 3 – they’re iconic characters, unofficial mascots of the franchise.

I could even have forgiven that, though, if this hadn’t also happened to literally everyone not named Woody or Bo Peep. Buzz Lightyear and Jessie should have been crucial characters in this story’s plot – but the film only tries half-heartedly with Buzz, and it doesn’t even try at all with Jessie. Was I inordinately happy when Woody gave his Sheriff’s badge to Jessie at the end of the movie? Yes! But it felt like a poor attempt to make her seem important: in Toy Story 2, she was the heart and soul of the movie – but here, she was merely one face in an over-crowded ensemble that couldn’t even be bothered to give Buzz Lightyear a decent conclusion. Saying the oft-repeated catchphrase “To infinity and beyond” does not count, in my opinion. But Woody and Bo Peep, well, they got plenty of time to frolic around the fairground, chatting, laughing, and going to nightclubs – where Bo proceeded to treat Woody as her “accessory”.

If I may make a Marvel comparison here, I feel like Woody was both the Iron Man and the Captain America of Toy Story 4: Iron Man because he was constantly being treated poorly by everyone around him – and Captain America because, in the end, he chooses to go off and live the life he always wanted with Bo Peep, abandoning his own “no toy left behind” mantra,  after passing on his responsibilities to Jessie. In which case Buzz is his Bucky, and in both cases neither friendship got to end with any sort of satisfying conclusion to years of emotional, important storytelling.

"Toy Story 4" SPOILER Review! 3
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As you can probably guess, I’m a little conflicted about the ending: on the one hand, I knew it was coming and I appreciated its bravery. On the other hand, I expected Pixar to handle it a little less roughly and awkwardly than they did – maybe it’s because we did just see this sort of thing in Avengers: Endgame (stop cannibalizing your own movies, Disney!), or maybe it’s because I was dumbfounded while watching it, but it didn’t have the impact I expected it to; not because it didn’t make me cry (it did), but because it didn’t feel final to me. I don’t want this to be the ending – Jessie and Buzz didn’t even get proper character arcs! There were no aliens! There’s still so much story left to tell!

Even if it doesn’t involve Woody or Bo Peep, can’t we get a Toy Story 5 focused on the toys still living in Bonnie’s room? – but no, instead there’s a Bo Peep short film called “Lamp Life” on its way to Disney Plus, where we’ll probably learn more about her escape from the antique store and her acclimation to life as a lost toy. There is also apparently a series of short features about Forky (and presumably Knifey) arriving on the streaming platform as well, which, according to Tony Hale, should have room for tons of cameos from the original cast.

Forky and the Aliens, please?

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“Toy Story 4” Review!

I had a lot of trouble deciding what to say about this movie in a non-spoiler review – I was left completely speechless after the film ended, and for about twenty minutes I still had virtually no words to describe what I had just seen. I was tempted to say that the experience was surreal: watching a franchise that is a dearly beloved part of my childhood…come to an end. But, while it certainly felt surreal at times (how is this happening? This can’t be happening? I’m not actually watching this happen onscreen in front of my eyes? Those were some of the thoughts running through my head while watching), I’ve decided that what was actually most shocking was that this movie, the final chapter in more than twenty years of Toy Stories, didn’t feel entirely final.

Don’t get me wrong: the movie is a very satisfying conclusion to the stories of our protagonists, especially Sheriff Woody (Tom Hanks) and Bo Peep (Annie Potts), who are given the fullest character arcs – for an ornament attached to a lamp, Bo certainly manages to make up for lost time in this movie: somehow, despite the fact that she’s only gotten a handful of lines and a few minutes of screentime in all three previous Toy Story movies combined, she doesn’t feel like a new character; even though, when you think about it, she really ought to. Woody’s story is definitely concluded here as well – the movie’s ending is appropriately poignant and tear-jerking, but it’s fair. It allows you to cry while also reminding you why you should be happy: even if it is hard to feel at all happy.

But what I’m trying to say is that, even as we say goodbye to the individual toys, the Toy Story feels like it’s still going strong – a little more than halfway through the movie, the realization hit me hard: there are a billion topics and themes that could be explored through the eyes of any one of these characters. I can’t even explain exactly how or why this light-bulb went off inside my head, but it completely changed the way I was watching the film: it no longer felt like I was waiting for the inevitable sob-fest and emotional farewells at the end – it felt more like I was watching a new beginning. I think that feeling will wear off as the realization dawns that this is indeed the final chapter, but at least for these blissful moments it’s enough to keep me from crying my eyes out.

All this is not to say that Toy Story 4 feels inconclusive or unfinished: the movie, in fact, is probably one of my favorites in the franchise – still a little behind Toy Story 2. It’s definitely the saddest and funniest installment. There are gut-wrenching emotional scenes (as in, the very first scene of the movie), and there are hysterically funny jokes and running gags. I’m just having a very hard time explaining: and maybe it’s because these movies mean so much to me, on a personal level. I love all of them – except Toy Story 3 – and I love all the toys. All I really needed from this movie were real, satisfying endings to the stories of our main characters: namely Woody, Bo Peep, Jessie (Joan Cusack), and Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen).

I got half of that.

I would be lying if I didn’t admit that Jessie and Buzz don’t really get the endings I had in mind for them: their stories don’t end badly or anything, just not as well as I’d hoped. And I think that’s probably just my own opinion – but I feel like both characters could have gotten more screentime, more attention, than they received in this movie: Buzz was a huge onscreen presence in the first film, and Jessie’s character arc was a major focal point of the second. But Toy Story 4 really has no time for either of them. They have their funny moments, of course, and Buzz even has the beginnings of what looks like an entire subplot, but it just ends up leading right back to Woody and Bo Peep.

"Toy Story 4" Review! 4
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My biggest fear going in, though, was that new characters like Forky (Tony Hale), Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves), and the comedic plushy-duo Bunny and Ducky (Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key) would hog the spotlight and distract from our main cast of regulars. Having seen the film, I’m just sorry that all these new faces come in too late to be part of that main cast: all four are wonderful, creative and hilarious additions to the franchise. Peele and Key especially get some fantastic moments, when they parody Peele’s own horror movies in a family-friendly, laugh-out-loud manner. Reeves actually has surprisingly little screentime, but just enough to make his character feel worthwhile rather than obnoxious – compare and contrast that with Toy Story 3, in which all the new toys seemed to be constantly stealing valuable moments away from our actual heroes (looking at you, Ken). Sadly, the characters we knew from the first three movies were clearly never going to get that much screentime at all – Rex, Hamm, Slinky Dog, and the Potato Heads do basically nothing at all: I don’t think Mrs. Potato Head (Estelle Harris) even got a single line of dialogue. Even the new toys from the third movie only get a few good moments: specifically, Buttercup (Jeff Garlin) and Trixie (Kristen Schaal). One random character who turned out to be incredibly annoying was Dolly (Bonnie Hunt) who acts sweet on the surface, but is really bossy and not at all empathetic with Woody’s own metaphysical crisis.

As always with the Toy Story films, the villain is superb: Toy Story 4 showcases the series’ first female antagonist, defective antique doll Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), who has made it her mission to kidnap Woody and steal his working voice-box for herself, so she can finally make it out of the dark, dusty store in which she lives. I could sympathize with her pain: the cobwebs in that place were horrifying, even if animated.

The animation is reason enough to see this movie on the big screen: there are times in the film when you think you’re watching a live-action film – especially in the first scene, when it’s raining, and a certain toy is stuck in a gutter, about to be washed away into oblivion; and also for one brief moment, glimpsed in the trailers, where the antique store owner’s cat is stretching in the sunlight – that cat looked eerily real.

That’s pretty much all that I feel comfortable discussing in a non-spoiler review. Obviously, a lot of stuff happens in this movie, and there were a couple of really exciting plot-twists that had me at the edge of my seat (there was also one shocking moment when Bo Peep’s sheep drop to the floor that I felt needed to be mentioned: if you don’t gasp out loud in the theater when you see it, you’re cruel and heartless). I think the movie is really a fantastic film, pushing the limits of what can be done with animation, and I’m pretty confident it will win Best Animated Feature at next year’s Oscars. I’m just not entirely sure how I feel about it as an ending to the franchise yet, because, as I said before, I’m satisfied but I’m not…well, I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’m still expecting something more, and I don’t know what. A Toy Story 5 isn’t happening. I know there will be a Bo Peep miniseries on the Disney Plus streaming platform, alongside a series focused on Forky, but those aren’t really piquing my interest yet: I feel like, if anyone was cheated in this movie, it was Jessie and Buzz. I want a Disney Plus series about them, not the spork! (No offense, Forky).

Well, that’s all for now, at least until I start writing my spoiler review: hopefully my feelings and emotions are clearer by then. But for now…so long, partner.

Movie Rating: 9/10

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“Onward” Trailer Review!

Unfortunately, this trailer dropped late at night, so I was unable to review it then – but we’re here now, aren’t we? Honestly, I have no idea who at Pixar and Disney thought it was a good idea to release the first teaser trailer for an animated kid’s movie at night, it’s not like this is going to be Maleficent or something, but whatever.

Let’s take a look, shall we?

Right off the bat, the animation looks pretty good, as we soar over a mystical land of magic and wonder, populated by flying unicorns and mermaids. Then, in a charming shot, we see a jet-plane interrupt the tranquility of this strange place. After that initial moment of wonder, the trailer goes rapidly downhill as we enter the magical suburbs where our protagonists live.

Don’t get me wrong, none of that has to do with voice actors Tom Holland and Chris Pratt. Holland sounds essentially like…well, like Holland, which works for his character; a shy, scrawny, teenage elf named Ian Lightfoot, who is clearly modeled off the actor’s more notable role as Spider-man, presumably in an attempt to attract Holland’s mobs of overzealous fans (though his fans would ravenously devour him in any role, to be honest). Pratt’s character, Barley Lightfoot (seriously, that’s his name), the brother of our teenage elf protagonist, is some sort of grungy adventurer who drives around in a unicorn-emblazoned van, talking loudly and using archaic words – like an entire movie of Pratt’s Marvel character Star-Lord copying Thor’s voice, from that iconic scene in Avengers: Infinity War. The two elf brothers are apparently on a quest (which Holland’s elf denies is a quest) to find the last remaining real magic in their world, somewhere outside of their town of…New Mushroomton (as if the names in this movie didn’t already sound rather trippy, New Mushroomton is all the evidence you need to prove that someone working on this film is smoking something).

And it’s New Mushroomton that’s the problem, as one might expect. Yes, the whole premise of the movie is that magic is now commonplace: we see mermaids checking their texts while lounging in the pool, centaurs jogging, unicorns raiding garbage cans like really sparkly raccoons. That’s fine, but the animation doesn’t illustrate this concept with charm or the usual Pixar wit – the New Mushroomton suburbs look rather boring, and what could be some really juxtapositions of the magic and the mundane…look pretty unimaginative. For instance, Ian Lightfoot’s pet being a dragon that acts like a dog – that is the easiest possible choice, and it’s been done before! Why not have the dragon be a cat? – or, better yet, have the Lightfoots’ pet be something interesting, like a giant spider or a phoenix, or something.

I mean, yeah, it’s just a brief teaser trailer, but it does nothing to excite me in the way that a Pixar film usually would; so far, I’m not seeing the creativity I’m used to seeing from this studio.

Trailer Rating: 4.5/10

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“Toy Story 4” Final Trailer!

On June 21, for the last time, we will join Woody, Buzz Lightyear, Little Bo Peep and their gang of toys on an epic adventure to save a spork.

While the previous trailers for this final Toy Story outing have mostly been designed to bring tears to our eyes and leave us heartbroken, this one is a fun and goofy callback to this franchise’s golden age and the characters we love – with a few new additions, like the aforementioned Forky the spork, as well as Canada’s Greatest Stuntman, Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves) and a plushy duo voiced by Jordan Peele and Keegan Michael-Key. Bo Peep herself might as well count as a new addition, considering how much she’s changed since her last appearance in 1999.

The new trailer gives us a lot of great humor but very few plot details, so there’s not exactly a lot to discuss. Woody is taking a leap of faith on the back of a toy-motorcycle, Bo Peep is a daring adventurer who seems to have great proficiency at zip-lining, and Bunny and Ducky ambush an elderly lady – which, to me, is the most interesting moment in the trailer: in all the previous Toy Story movies, the toys have kept their existence a secret, “playing dead” when a human would enter a room – but here we see them literally attacking a lady. I’ll be interested to see if that has any consequences, or if it’s a purely hypothetical scenario, as it’s edited to look like in the trailer. Even if it is, Bunny and Ducky imply in their conversation with Buzz Lightyear that they’ve done “the ole’ plush rush” before – so…how does that work? Do the human residents of this town know about the animated toys waiting to attack? Why does this sound like the premise of a horror movie?

The trailer doesn’t bring much to the table, but it reinforces my tentative faith in this upcoming movie. I’m going to need that faith when walking into the movie theater – endings are the most difficult part of any story. I don’t expect Toy Story 4 to be a perfect finale to my favorite Pixar franchise, but it needs to be better than Toy Story 3. Fingers crossed.

Trailer Rating: 8/10

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Toy Story 4 Trailer Review!

Deeply conflicting though this whole endeavor might be, I know I’m still interested to see how the Toy Story saga comes to a close. I love the first two Toy Story movies to infinity and beyond, but the third was a massive letdown, and I still don’t want to get my hopes up for the fourth – the final installment in this series that is so deeply ingrained in the public conscious, and in the hearts of so many people.

It’s been a harrowing adventure getting to this trailer – the first teasers were rather dull, and the first look at Bo Peep (Annie Potts) was so different, that I think a lot of people have been slightly concerned, or maybe just uncertain whether or not this film is worth going to see in theaters.

But come on, this is the end of Toy Story. Even if it is awful, are you really going to miss out on this movie?

Well, let’s take a look at the trailer that Disney/Pixar dropped today, and we’ll see.

So it starts out with Woody (Tom Hanks) introducing us to a new toy, Forky (Tony Hale) – who is, as the name suggests, a fork: or, rather, a spork, as one of the other toys says when they meet this pessimistic piece of plastic.

It soon becomes clear that Forky is no ordinary toy. He was created by the toys’ owner, Bonnie, and he clearly has no idea why he’s alive, or what it means to be a toy: in his own words, “I was made for soup, salad, maybe chili, and then the trash!”

So he tries to escape, by literally jumping out of a moving vehicle. And Woody, who has decided that nothing is more important than keeping Bonnie happy, jumps out after him, in a desperate attempt to rescue the spork, and bring him back.

The logistics would suggest that a spork that goes flying out of the back of a trailer would be lost forever on the highway, but Woody finds him and tries to remind him of his duties as a toy: he is there to “help create happy memories”. Forky doesn’t seem particularly interested, and you can’t blame him – I mean, the chances of them ever finding Bonnie and the other toys again is slim to none.

But…all is not lost.

The two lost toys stumble wearily into the town of Grand Basin, which hosts a large fair and a massive antique store. Woody glances through the grimy window of this store and happens to spot something quite unusual: a very familiar lamp. It’s a real gasp-out-loud moment, and I love it. This lamp, of course, is Little Bo Peep’s lamp.

So Woody enters the antique store, and goes looking for Bo Peep. Instead, he finds a collection of extraordinarily creepy antique toys, led by a frightening little doll named Gabby Gabby, who rides around in a perambulator with ventriloquist-dummy bodyguards. Woody and Forky look to be in a dangerous situation when they are suddenly rescued by the intervention of Little Bo Peep herself, who comes flying out of nowhere, wielding her shepherd’s crook with skill – she expertly nabs Gabby Gabby and tosses her off a shelf. Seeing Bo Peep as a crime-fighting superhero is rather odd, and takes some getting used to, but there’s still something natural about her, that makes her likable, and fun. Clearly, something has happened to Bo Peep that we’re only now going to learn about – the mild-mannered shepherdess has become tougher and wiser, and she’s decided to take risks and go solo: she tells Woody that toys don’t have to spend their entire lives making kids happy: they can have lives of their own, on their own.

What’s really surprising is that we see Woody beginning to agree. The roles are now reversed: Forky asks him if they’re going back to find Bonnie, and Woody doesn’t even seem to hear him.

But the other toys aren’t going to just let their friend go this easily: Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) and Jessie (Joan Cusack) make a plan to go find Woody, and they end up at the fair too. There’s a clip of Bonnie searching desperately for Forky, and crying – Pixar’s going to have us all in tears by the end of this, of course.

Meanwhile, Woody is having the time of his life: in fact, he and Bo Peep are going to clubs and going on dates – “Change can be good,” Bo Peep tells him, and it seems she’s right.

Obviously, Woody will be having an existential crisis, as is normal for him, but this one seems more serious than anything he’s faced before. Something tells me that, at the end of this, the toys might all go their separate ways. Some might stay with Bonnie. Some might stay at this fair, where Bo Peep seems to be living. Some might just go off into the world. But nothing’s ever going back to the way things were: the trailer helpfully inserts a flashback of Andy, the toys’ original owner, playing with Buzz Lightyear and Jessie, to illustrate this point.

Except, it’s not Andy.

Anybody with even a cursory knowledge of Toy Story knows that Andy’s room had wallpaper decorated with clouds: it’s iconic. The cloud wallpaper is closely tied to the whole franchise, and was even featured in the first teaser for this movie. But here, where, supposedly, we are getting a flashback to the good old days when Andy owned the toys, there’s no cloud wallpaper: there’s large yellow stars on the walls, and they stand out like…like, large yellow stars. The kid clearly has Andy’s hat – so my best guess is that Buzz Lightyear and Jessie end up with Andy’s kid, somewhere down the line. I don’t want that to be true, but that’s my prediction.

Anyway, the trailer than packs a last little punch: there’s a scene with Woody and Bo Peep standing under a car in the rain, which looks like it’ll be incredibly emotional. “Kids lose their toys every day,” Bo Peep reminds Woody.

In the end, it’s Forky who, surprisingly, looks to be the moral compass of this movie: he tells Woody that “everything’s gonna be OK”, and then we see one last shot of Woody smiling, before the title appears, and the screen fades to black.

Now, in some ways, I really like this trailer: Pixar knows how to leave us sobbing in the theater, so I have no doubt it’ll be an emotional sledgehammer. But will it be a fitting conclusion to the story? Will we be given a chance to say goodbye to each and every one of these wonderful toys? Will Andy ever show up again? Where will Woody, Buzz and Bo end up spending the rest of their lives? There’s too many questions, and too little time to wrap up all the loose ends.

But yeah, the movie could be good, bad, or just middle-of-the-road, but it’s the last one. Let that sink in before you decide to skip this film in theaters.

Trailer Rating: 8/10

 

EDIT: I have learned that the star wallpaper is in fact in Toy Story 2, and I feel quite humiliated that I did not realize that – I guess my supposed knowledge is less than comprehensive. So, yeah, that probably is a flashback: I will, however, point out that the animation there does nothing to convince me of that, since the kid looks nothing like Andy from the original Toy Story movies.

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