Welcome to playland purgatory as Woody and his island of misfit toys ponder the post-Andy afterlife. Josh Cooley’s Toy Story 4 (B+) explores what lies beyond for the playthings of yesteryear as their very reason for being – the owner who needed them for years – fades to a distant memory. The characters must heed their inner voices to summon what comes next. Told through the joint metaphors of a creepy antique store populated by capricious and dead-eyed vaudeville dummies who cling to the past and a kaleidoscopic carnival full of color, imagination and possibilities, there is more subtext afoot in the film than meets the very entertained eye. Lushly rendered and tenderly told, this tale takes a moment to gain momentum but ultimately delivers solidly. Although most of the usual ensemble members are sidelined so the cowboy protagonist can seek his fortune while playing guardian angel to the timid little girl Bonnie, mentor to her Gumby-esque arts and craft project Forky and potential love interest to Bo-Peep, the streamlined approach enlivens the quality of storytelling. Bunny and Ducky (played by Key & Peele) are hilarious additions as mischievous mavens of the midway. This is a splendid family film with messages at work for multiple generations about the stories we still have to tell, about trashing assumptions and treasuring the next chapter.
Lee Unkrich’s Toy Story 3 (B) delves even deeper into the emo treasure box of this CGI animation universe, with elegiac and nostalgic results. This is the installment of the family franchise that plumbs themes of putting away childish things, playing on the heartstrings without yielding as much fun with the playthings. Woody, Buzz and friends are donated to a daycare when owner Andy is preparing for college, and more melancholy moments and farewells happen than in Return of the King. The farewell tour is about as final as a Cher concert (see Toy Story 4). There’s still plenty of comedy and cleverness, but this entry tries hard to be capital “I” Important.
John Lasseter’s Toy Story 2 (B) expands the emotional landscapes of Pixar’s playscapes. The animation is stronger and the story more expansive, but the novelty isn’t quite as nifty. The energetic ensemble faces displacement due to Woody’s discovery of his origins in a televised Western puppet show, and adventure ensues. Woody gets a countrified love interest in Jessie, accompanied by plaintiff music. This series has a habit of piling on new characters to mixed effect. All in all, it’s a fun sequel.
Tony Bancroft and Barry Cook’s animated film Mulan (B+) takes place in China during the Han dynasty where Fa Mulan (a marvelous Ming-Na Wen), daughter of aged warrior Fa Zhou, impersonates a man and takes her dad’s conscription slot to fend off a Hun invasion. Filled with rich animation, exciting set pieces, lively songs, tense drama and witty comic interludes, it’s an epic part of Disney’s animation Renaissance. Although the plot is lifted from Asian legend, the story of cross dressing to fit into a man’s world is a bit Ori-Yentl; but the creativity, scale and scope work magnificently. Eddie Murphy’s travel-size dragon sidekick and a lucky cricket are an added bonus of delight. The sumptuous drawing detail is a mark of distinction for the film, and while it’s not quite as engaging as some other Disney films of its era, it’s in a prestigious pantheon.
The classic toys that come to life in John Lasseter’s Toy Story (A-) are among the most endearing new creations developed for the screen. Pull-string cowboy Woody (Tom Hanks) and rival-turned-pal astronaut toy Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) preside over a pixel playroom of great characters including Mr. Potatohead, Slinky Dog and other favorites come to life. When there’s trouble in toyland, it’s time for teamwork, and the saccharine sweetness never gets too much to turn off adult audiences who are watching with kids. The Randy Newman ballads are a little treachly, but everything else is super-fresh, and Pixar Studios shows why it’s the high-tech hotshot on the scene with 110,064 frames of computer animation that translate into absolute enjoyment.