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.
As both writer and director of Incredibles 2 (A), Brad Bird’s mastery of the animated form is on display in delirious grandeur. Far surpassing his original film in wit, creativity and subtext, the auteur has delivered one of the most engaging films of the year. The retro comic book style provides a delightful backdrop for adventure and comedy, with an onslaught of fun flourishes appearing like cinematic confections from whiz!bam!pow! frame to frame. It’s a message movie in superhero disguise, of course, with much to say about gender and workplace, societal obsession with technological screens and protecting equal rights of individuals with unconventional origins. And the sequences with the super-baby discovering his new powers are comic gold. The film is fun from start to finish and showcase’s the filmmaker’s maturity and evolution. Hollywood will be hard-pressed to showcase a more satisfying sequel blockbuster this year.
Paul King’s Paddington 2 (B+) is charming family entertainment but with a marmalade tart wit and whimsy exceeding its simple premise. Voice actor Ben Whishaw and delightful actors such as Sally Hawkins and Hugh Bonneville are back from the original film, joined by Hugh Grant in an unexpected tour de force as an unscrupulous out of work thespian who cheats the titular talking bear out of an antique book with clues to buried treasure. Much of the film takes place with wrongly imprisoned Paddington cheering up inmates while Grant’s nefarious villain tries on myriad disguises in an attempt to claim outrageous fortune. The film soars especially in moments with splendid flourishes when least anticipated and in tender and droll subplots which transcend the spectacle. Blending live action, CGI animation and a pop-up art vision of London, the film is a first class caper. Although not quite as crisp as the first film, it’s a boon companion.
Director Chris McKay shows audiences exactly where a famous caped crusader gets those wonderful toys in the whimsical mini-fig laden animated feature The LEGO Batman Movie (B). A spinoff of 2014’s similarly hilarious The LEGO Movie, this new movie’s creators prove the novelty behind these films is not a one-brick pony. Will Arnett successfully voices a braggadocio Dark Knight and enriches the legend with a story about the hero’s solitude and emerging pangs for a community of his own. Zach Galifianakis as The Joker, Rosario Dawson as the new police commissioner of Gotham City and especially Michael Cera as Robin help create a lively surrogate gang of foils and family. The humor is nonstop with anarchic delights as McKay and his team plunder both the DC and Warner Brothers canons for an endless parade of cameos ranging from Martian Manhunter to Stripe Gremlin. Like a Richard Scarry book come to life with Wonder Woman twirling her lasso in one corner of the frame while Zan, Jayna and Gleek do a conga line, there’s more visual feast on the screen than can be absorbed. The film’s builders demonstrate an uncanny knowledge of the superhero films preceding this one and even pull from a Superman universe plot line to propel the narrative. There’s enough action, comedy and heart to please the palettes of all who attend; and although it’s hard to top the novelty of the first film made of bricks, these pegs have legs.
Co-directors John Clements and Ron Musker have animated quests with more Herculean tasks, drawn crooning crabs making a bigger undersea splash and created caves with greater wonders than the adventure afoot in Moana (C+), their mostly adrift Disney Polynesian epic wannabe. It’s quite enchanting to look at, at least for the first act; and newcomer Auli’i Cravalho brings lovely life to the brave and modern title character. Coupled with a goofy demigod convincingly acted and sung by Dwayne Johnson, the heroine embarks on an ill-conceived odyssey marked by listless villains, average banter and misbegotten mishaps. There’s one good song (of seven) played several times in the film, a propulsive anthem by Hamilton‘s Lin-Manuel Miranda called “How Far I’ll Go,” but alas its prescient title begs the answer “too far” or “not far enough.” The most inventive use of tattoos since Memento and a creative battalion of Mad Max style pirate ships cannot lift the story to the gravitas to which it sometimes aspires. Bogged down in bluster and with story conceits which fail to differentiate it in the Disney kingdom canon, the film is barely better than its makers’ Treasure Planet and The Great Mouse Detective. The co-directors have found unexpected box office success but might have been better off leaving this journey in the bottle.
Pete Docter’s Up (A-) is a lovely animated film that peaks in its first ten minutes but then opens up to a variety of rich vistas of imagination. The story of an old man and a kid who drift off in a helium balloon bouquet propelled house to a magical world is a true original. I could have done without the talking dogs and some of the stock villains, but it was mostly gorgeous and moving.
Andrew Stanton’s WALL-E (B) is a fantastical futuristic fantasy in which the earth is filled with garbage and a tiny, adorable clean-up robot is awakened from his drudgery by a beautiful girl droid and a chance to blast off into adventure. The lyrical earthboard sequences are far superior to the latter ones, but this is another Pixar original that will have something to offer both kids and adults.
Andrew Adamson and Vicky Jenson’s endlessly imaginative animated tale Shrek (B+) tells the tale of an ogre (voiced by Mike Myers), a donkey (Eddie Murphy) and a princess (Cameron Diaz) on an adventurous journey in a far-away fractured fairy tale land. The in-jokes are inventive and will keep parents in stitches while kids enjoy the lovable characters in hilarious pratfalls. This whole subversive DreamWorks Animation enterprise pokes gentle fun at the Disney kingdom and gets great laughs from a supporting cast of misfit characters such as its own version of Pinocchio and The Three Little Pigs. John Lithgow is also great as the diminutive villain. Fun and frantically paced, it’s a delightful modern classic.
Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame (A-) is Disney’s dark quasi-opera about a 15th century French deformed bell-ringer who dreams of leaving the cathedral where he is secluded for a moment “out there” in the real world. This adaptation of Victor Hugo’s classic features spectacular songs by Alan Menken and Stephen Swartz and grandiose, swirling animation that brings exquisite life to its time and place. A moving centerpiece is the song “God Help the Outcasts” in this cautionary tale about making the world a safe haven for those who are different.
Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff’s The Lion King (A-) is a stirring animal version of Hamlet featuring some heavy themes about a “circle of life” with betrayal, death and ascension. The regal undertones and the Elton John tunes don’t always jive, but it’s hard to deny the power, poignancy and genuine beauty of this Disney animation milestone. This film marches with a triumphant beat and eschews the formula of the hits directly before it to fashion and even bigger juggernaut of global wonder.
Director Henry Selick does the heavy lifting in a Claymation-inspired motion capture musical holiday extravaganza Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas (B) based on the Beetlejuice/Edward Scissorhands wunderkind’s whimsical mash-up of a night when a cast of ghouls, goblins and Jack Skellington take over Christmas duties. Buoyed by Oingo Boingo front man Danny Elfman’s playfully sinister ditties and a bleak comedic vibe that shows the darker side of holiday glee, it’s a wickedly enchanting, splendidly demented fable for all seasons. Like much of Burton’s fare, a triumph of production design over storytelling – but, oh, what beautiful visuals!
Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise’s animated musical Beauty and the Beast (A) is an assured and timeless confection with a delightful heroine, a forbidden romance and more showstoppers than most modern Broadway musicals. The title song plus “Be Our Guest,” “Belle” and others all written by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman have become iconic. The talking sidekicks – from candelabra Lumiere to clock Cogsworth – are charming as can be, and the French countryside is a splendid setting for a fairy tale. Your heart will melt like the beast’s does for this high point in the Disney canon.