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Front Page - Friday, June 28, 2019

Critic's Corner: So glad Pixar opened the ‘Toy’ box one more time

Given all the pointless sequels and reboots hitting theaters this summer – and the lack of audience interest – I would not have been surprised if people had regarded “Toy Story 4” with the same indifference.

After all, “Toy Story 3” was the crowning achievement of a perfect trilogy. When Woody, Buzz Lightyear and the rest of the gang let go of Andy as he outgrew them and left for college, it felt like the end of the story. (Tell me you don’t tear up at the memory of Woody sitting on Bonnie’s porch, watching Andy drive off.)

Also, Pixar Studios (the creators of “Toy Story” and many other modern animated classics, for those of you who have been living under a rock for the last 24 years) has typically been more focused on crafting meaningful, emotionally resonant stories than pumping out sequels.

So, when Pixar announced “Toy Story 4,” the question on more minds than just mine was, “Why?”

Pixar’s answer was simple: Because there’s more story to tell.

It’s with relief that I’m able to write that the “Toy Story” series is still perfect. If you’ve been wondering where Pixar could possibly take a fourth film, rest assured the studio crafted a narrative that’s just as funny, inventive and adventurous as the preceding films and that carries nearly the same emotional and thematic weight.

As the film opens, Woody and company are still Bonnie’s toys, but there’s been a shift in the group’s dynamic: Each morning, when Bonnie opens her closet to choose the toys with which she’ll play, she leaves Woody behind.

Accustomed to being the leader and having a purpose, Woody experiences an identity crisis. This predicament is averted when Bonnie makes a man out of a spork, pipe cleaners and glue during kindergarten orientation.

Like the other toys, Spork comes to life, but is convinced he’s supposed to be trash. “I was made for a bowl of soup, maybe a bowl of chili, and then the trash!” he screams as he bolts for the nearest wastebasket.

Believing Spork is critical to helping the socially shy Bonnie get through kindergarten, Woody leaves his friends and embarks on a quest to retrieve the plastic utensil after it escapes during a family road trip.

What follows is a story that will entertain children and adults but resonate deepest with grown-ups. Wrapped up in the film’s clever humor, amusing action and jaw-dropping visuals is a heartwarming message about redefining yourself and pursuing new possibilities after one chapter of your life ends and another begins.

On the character front, there are some terrific new additions to the series. Spork and a creepy antique doll named Gabby are welcome newcomers, but a pair of plush toys named Duck and Bunny are absolute standouts. Their descriptions of their plans to help rescue Spork, which Pixar animates, are among the film’s funniest moments.

A few beloved characters have reduced roles in “Toy Story 4,” including Buzz. This was a little disappointing, but Pixar made up for it by ensuring each of Buzz’s scenes count. Some of the best writing in the film comes as he follows his inner voice (activates his voice box and complies with whatever quip plays).

Bo Beep, however, leaps to the front of the narrative, remade as an empowered female. Unlike the cheesy, obligatory grrrl power vibe in movies like “Avengers: End Game,” Bo’s transformation into a true narrative force is flawless and her existence as a resourceful woman who can thrive on her own believable.

Seriously, no one does this stuff better than Pixar.

That includes the animation. Google “Bo Peep then and now” and then click on “Images” to see how far Pixar has advanced the art and craft of computer animation since “Toy Story.”

While animated movies should have more clarity and detail after more than two decades of technological improvements, Pixar hasn’t forgotten that an animated image is about more than pixels and polygons; it’s about using technology to paint the tiny details that bring the world and its characters to vivid life.

In “Toy Story 4,” there’s a moment when a toy moves its eyes but the images reflected in its eyes don’t move. That’s the kind of insight that elevates Pixar’s films above other animated offerings.

Pixar invested every image with this level of thought while also pushing the envelope of photorealism. Unlike recent films like “Coco” and “Incredibles 2,” there are no epic images. That’s because the “Toy Story” films are set in a smaller world.

But there are, as I wrote earlier, some jaw-dropping visual wonders, including an antique shop that’s among the most compelling environments Pixar has created (it’s not just warmly beautiful like an antique shop would be but also dusty and cobwebby) and a carnival that’s pure eye candy.

Beyond that, Pixar has perfected the art of virtual camera movement. Owing to how the film was “shot” and edited, with a lot of fluid camera movement, zooms and changes in focus, it would be easy to forget you’re watching a film made in a computer.

Moving forward, Pixar is going to focus on new original properties. I’m excited about that but also glad they pulled Woody, Buzz and the others out of the toy box to play one last time. Their film tells a story we didn’t know the series needed and it’s great fun to watch.

And now we have four perfect films instead of three.