Jesper is supposed to be a cadet training in the royal postal academy but he’s made no progress at all. His father pulled every string to get him there but he’s squandering his chance once again. Jesper’s a spoiled brat so his father gives him a wake up call. Jesper’s being sent to Smeerensburg where he’ll have a year to establish a working postal office – he’s got to get 6000 letters mailed or he’s cut off for good.
Smeerensburg is a remote island nation known for only one thing: its intense feuds. They are so dedicated to not mingling with their enemies they don’t even send their kids to school. Postman? Don’t need one, don’t want one. These are not the letter-sending type. Which is fine because we aren’t exactly rooting for dreadful Jesper to succeed. He makes zero friends, and is particularly afraid of a reclusive woodsman named Klaus who spends his days amassing treasures he carves out of wood. When Klaus gives one to a small lonesome boy, Jesper smells potential. He can trick kids into sending letter requests for toys to woodsman Klaus, fullfilling his postage quota.
I was so confused by this message: that the Santa Claus tradition has sprung from such a selfish, mercenary place, that I rewound the movie 34 minutes just to keep better track. But I was right: Jesper manufactures Christmas. I mean sure you can say that toy companies and Coca-Cola have been responsible for this exact thing, but convention says we usually put a bit more of a heart-warming gloss on it, at least for the kids.
You can appreciate that this whole letters-for-presents thing really takes off. And not to worry: the legend of Klaus eventually brings about lots of positive changes in the town, so it’s not a horrible message for kids. It just takes its time getting there.
With excellent voice work from Jason Schwartzman, JK Simmons, Rashida Jones, Joan Cusack and more, this Netflix original eventually manages to embrace the holiday spirit and puts a bright spot in your heart. It took me a while to win me over, but eventually I realized that what concerned me first was actually its virtue: since it takes a different approach to its theme, it’s nearly Christmas cliche-free. What a marvel! Klaus rewards patience, and it breathes new life into the genre.
A tin-foil-sporting Joan Cusack spells it out: snow brings us together.
She’s lying of course. Snow forces us apart. It keeps us warm in our own houses, or trapped behind walls of hard-packed snow. It keeps us isolated behind layers of scarves, unable to get to work, spinning our wheels in our own driveways. Snow makes us miss our flights and cancel our plans. But for the sake of Netflix let’s say it brings us together, unless in this one small town, in which a bunch of young people have some loosely connected stories going on, including:
a) a teenager desperately in love with his best friend but completely unable to tell her
b) a lonesome popstar
c) a young woman about to defer college because of a sick mother
d) as aspiring DJ
e) a young waitress with feelings for a customer
f) an attention-seeking adolescent with a thing for pigs
Netflix is releasing a steady stream of holiday movies to warm the cockles of your holiday heart. This is one of them. Christmas rom-coms are perhaps even more formulaic than their rest-of-the-year counterparts, but since we don’t demand much of them, it’s hard to be disappointed. And though bland and vanilla as heck, Let It Snow is sort of charming in its way, buoyed by some non-sucking performances by Isabela Merced, Shameik Moore, Kiernan Shipka, Liv Hewson, and Jacob Batalon.
If this movie was a recipe for Christmas cookies, you’d have some fine, and even promising ingredients on your hands. Blend hard as you might they won’t come together, but maybe you’ve heard that cookies aren’t the only end product anymore. Our teeny attention spans have given way to the marketing of cookie dough; you can lick those raw, wet ingredients and get a hint of what might have been. It’s not as good as cookies, but it’s good enough, with only a small chance of salmonella. That’s what Let It Snow is: if you can let go of the warm gooey goodness of a chocolate chip cookie right out of the oven (say, It’s a Wonderful Life), or even the semi-satisfying snap of an Oreo dunked in milk (The Santa Clause), you might enjoy scraping the bottom of the bowl with Let It Snow.
Chicken Little has been shunned in his community ever since, you know, that incident. The one where he said the sky was falling but it wasn’t? Yeah, majorly embarrassing – they even made a movie about it, seemingly just to rub it in. Plus he’s bullied at school and things have been totally strained between him and his dad.
Chicken Little’s dad, Buck Cluck, was a very popular jock back in his day and he hardly knows how to cope with such a puny, disappointing son. Chicken Little (Zach Braff) decides the best way to win over his dad (Garry Marshall) is through sports, so he joins the baseball team and against all odds scores a game-winning run. Don’t worry, he doesn’t let it go to his head (yeah right). But you know what does go straight to his head? Another piece of the sky, which promptly falls on him. Chicken Little’s a little wiser this time – he knows sounding the alarm bells will only spell more mortification for him, so he keeps it to himself and a few trusted friends, namely Runt of the Litter (Steve Zahn) and Abby Mallard (Joan Cusack) (aka Ugly Duckling) (Abby Mallard, that is, not Joan Cusack; Cusack is a wonder and a delight, but I don’t think it should be used for poor Abby either). Turns out, Chicken Little ISN’T crazy, but nor is the sky falling. In fact, it’s pieces of wonky spaceship he keeps getting pelted with, and the whole thing boils down to: ALIEN INVASION!!!!
Truth is, I forgot about Chicken Little, which came out back in 2005, and I definitely forget to classify it as a Disney film, which it is. It came out just a year before Disney officially merged with Pixar, so it’s a weird hybrid where the animation is definitely trying to look more like Pixar but it lacks Pixar’s edge, their detailed world-building, their boundary-breaking story-telling. It’s only Disney’s second completely computer-generated animated film (after 2000’s Dinosaur) so it makes sense that they haven’t found a signature style yet.
Anyway, I was reminded about Chicken Little being a thing when I visited Disney World back in February because Chicken Little himself was just walking about the park as if he had nowhere better to be. His friend Abby Mallard was with him, and they both stopped to sign autographs for my 4 year old nephew who was delighted despite not knowing who the heck they were. Abby was in such a good mood that she grabbed my hand and started skipping down Main Street with me, toward Cinderella’s Castle. And that’s what you have to love about Disney. Those characters were unannounced, unscheduled extras. They were walking around making the day extra special for several kids, and several more kids at heart.
The Addams family home is all shook up: the kids are playing Marie Antoinette with a real, working guillotine with their new mustachioed baby brother Pubert, and Gomez and Morticia have brought in a new nanny named Debbie to sort them all out. Uncle Fester of course falls madly in love with her.
There’s just one problem. Well, clearly there’s more than one. But the big one, aside from Wednesday and Pugsley trying to kill their baby brother, is that Debbie (Joan Cusack) is a black widow. She has a nasty habit of marrying wealthy men and murdering them on their wedding night. And Fester (Christopher Lloyd) is indeed a wealthy man. Well, he’s wealthy anyway. And he’s smitten.
The rest of the Addams family, not so much. Gomez (Raul Julia) and Morticia (Anjelica Huston) try to wish him well, even when he cuts them out of his life, but little Wednesday (Christina Ricci) and Pugsley (Jimmy Workman), though somewhat neutered by summer camp, are naturally more suspicious. But now that he’s estranged, can anyone possibly reach him before it’s too late?
Addams Family Values is a rare sequel that seems to have gained in momentum from the first. It introduces new characters that add new dimensionality to the family. Fester really comes into his own in this film, and Joan Cusack is an absolute dish. It’s also exceedingly fun to watch the Addams siblings do a sleepaway camp. Never have two people belonged anywhere less. And the way in which they ruin a historically inaccurate play is the absolute most fun. I could watch this as a spin-off all day long. I should also note that Granny gets replaced in the sequel; Carol Kane replaces her. And Carol Kane is god. She’s also younger than Huston, who plays her daughter, but watcha gonna do? Huston gamely gets back into character, and I love the way they’re lighting her face, with just a beam of light across her eyes. It’s so strikingly different from everyone else in the room. And I know I said this last time, but I’ll say it again: Christina Ricci is a child actor tough to outdo. She really nails Wednesday and makes sure the kids aren’t just placeholders in these films.
All told, Addams Family Values good fun. It’s not great, but it’s like training wheels for future horror fanatics and the freaks and creeps in all of us.
This is going to sound strange, so deep breath in, and bear with me. The problem with High Fidelity is John Cusack.
There, I said it. I feel much better now.
You can disagree with me if you want. You’re wrong, but you can disagree. It is physically possible. It’s just not intellectually advisable.
There’s nothing wrong with John Cusack. He was just miscast. I mean, I get how Rob Gordon might seem like the grownup version of Lloyd Dobler, but he’s not even close. Rob Gordon is actually a pretty pathetic guy, but because he’s played by Cusack, some accidental, unintentional coolness is rubbed off. And I get how some underachieving young men might misguidedly put him on a pedestal. Rob is the ultimate fanboy nerd, but he’s the least losery of his friends, the least socially inept. And he puffs himself up by being snobby about his pop culture obsession. Fine. But the thing about Rob Gordon is: he’s not a good guy.
Nick Hornby makes that pretty damn clear in the book, and the character tells us this repeatedly himself in the film: “I am a fucking asshole,” he tells us, but then Cusack flashes those deep brown puppy dog eyes and we feel conflicted. He’s doing and saying pretty shitty things, but it’s Cusack, so he MUST be likable, right?
He’s not likable. He’s an ungrateful little shit. He’s a womanizer with a serious case of (male, as if it needs to be said) entitlement. He skulks about being a rude human being, a stalkery ex, and a very bad boyfriend. But Cusack is such a charmer, and he’s got such a sweet, sympathetic history with cinema, that we ascribe way more positive feelings toward this guy than the character actually deserves.
At one point, when he’s on a self-serving rampage of reconnecting with ex-girlfriends in order to reassure himself that he’s basically blameless, Penny tells reminds him that in fact, HE broke up with HER because she wouldn’t have sex with him (“I wasn’t interested in Penny’s nice qualities, just her breasts, and therefore she was no good to me.”). Her heartbreak led to what basically amounts to rape, and years of sex phobia, and he’s so relieved and satisfied with that answer that he’s spurred to pursue even more ex-girlfriends, never mind the fact that the one right in front of him has just run out of the restaurant in tears. The man is a sociopath and I’m not even kidding. The next ex-girlfriend he visits is thickly mired in depression, and he practically asks us to pat him on the back for not taking advantage of her.
Rob is jealous and possessive and harassing. He is the stuff restraining orders are made of. And he doesn’t even learn a lesson. In the end, the woman who dumped him takes him back because, having just suffered the death of her father, she’s simply too tired, too beaten down by his coersion, to fend him off. That is not a getting back together story that anyone should feel good about, and almost as fast as they can reconcile, he’s off chasing yet another manic pixie fantasy cunt because he can’t even for 10 seconds actually be the nice guy he pretends to be. This is the height of toxic masculinity, but because it’s wearing a cute and cuddly John Cusack body, we fail to see it. We root for him because he’s less of a greaseball than Tim Robbins’s Ian. But being 10% less of a douche doesn’t make you not a douche. It doesn’t make you a nice guy. It doesn’t make you deserving of anyone’s love. Rob Gordon is not a hero. He’s a romantic failure and a social liability and if we made a follow-up to the movie today, he’d be living in his mom’s basement screaming at her to make him some Hamburger Helper as he trashed-talked 12 year olds on League of Legends.
Toy Story movies have always been darker than people give them credit for. In the first film, Buzz believes himself to be a hero stranded in a hostile environment. Turns out, he’s just a toy – everything he thought was real is a lie. He exists to be someone’s plaything, and Woody and the gang convince him that there’s dignity and even nobility in this fate, even if it strikes you and I as a kind of slavery, to exist merely at someone else’s whim, until you’re all used up, and then you’re disposed of. What a dizzying and disorienting concept; it’s no wonder Buzz literally gets depressed when he learns his true nature. In the second film, Woody literally contemplates his own mortality. His benevolent master Andy will one day tire of him, and worthless, he’ll be discarded. His friend Jessie really hammers this home with a heart-wrenching flashback of being abandoned at the side of a road by someone who once claimed to love her. Ultimately, Woody chooses to live as a toy rather than achieving a sort of immortality as a collector’s item; he’ll have a short but meaningful life rather than a long but insignificant one. What a choice. In the third film, Woody and the gang face the consequence of this choice: Andy goes off to college, and eventual abandonment becomes actual abandonment. Not only that, but the best friends are being separated, with Woody being doomed to spend his twilight years alone on Andy’s shelf, no longer a useful, loved plaything, but a mere relic of his past. Meanwhile, his friends are going to molder up in the dark oblivion of an attic. What cold comfort. Luckily, the toys are instead given to a little girl named Bonnie to live out a happy afterlife. Cue the fourth film.
Woody (Tom Hanks) and pals are having a grand old time being played with by Bonnie. Sure, the little girl prefers cowgirl Jessie (Joan Cusack) over cowboy Woody just a tad, but still, it’s a good life, no complaints. Bonnie is starting kindergarten soon, and at an orientation session, she shows some initiative (fancy term for not following instructions) and makes herself a toy out of trash rather than a pencil cup out of art supplies. She brings her cherished new friend home and gives him a place of honour among toys. “Forky” is no more than a spork, some googly eyes, a pipe cleaner, and a broken popsicle stick, but he’s Bonnie’s new best friend, so Woody vows to keep them together at all costs. That’s going to be a problematic promise because a) Bonnie’s family is embarking on an RV roadtrip and b) Forky has some suicidal tendencies. Forky was never supposed to be a toy, you see. He’s trash. He knows he’s trash. Rather simple-minded and fairly spooked, all he wants more than anything in the world is to be trash once again, which is where he keeps launching himself. Woody keeps dutifully fishing him out, but one of these times he’s bound to get thrown out for good. It’s on one such rescue mission that Woody encounters an antique store where he thinks he may find an old friend/lost toy/love interest, Bo Peep (Annie Potts). We haven’t seen Bo Peep since the second movie, which was 20 years ago. Where has she been this whole time?
Bo’s been living free and wild as a toy with no owner. That’s essentially Woody’s worst nightmare but she makes it sound rather grand. Besides, Woody has a new worst nightmare: another antique store occupant, vintage doll Gabby Gabby wants his voicebox and she’s prepared to rip the stuffing out of his chest to get it. Yikes!
Structurallly, this fourth installment plays out a lot like those that came before it. There’s always some kind of separation, and then some kind of secondary rescue mission when the first one fails. These toys sure do get themselves into some high-stakes situations on an alarming basis!
It’s wonderful to see the cast of old friends: Bo looks shinier than ever, and Jessie’s hair has never looked yarnier. The animation on these films started out innovative and has only improved. And new friends are a hoot and a half: Forky (Tony Hale) is a walking, talking existential crisis, but the rendering of his pipe cleaner is photo realistic. Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) was a dollie defective right out of the box, and her resulting failure to bond has really warped her. Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves) is a Canadian daredevil who never lived up to his promise; he is haunted by his past, and by the kid who resoundingly rejected him. Ducky (Keegan-Michael Key) and Bunny (Jordan Peele) are two brightly-coloured stuffed animals attached at the hands. They’ve been unredeemed carnival prizes for far too long, and are a little unhinged. Officer Giggle McDimples, Giggs for short (Ally Maki), may look precious and pocket-sized, but she’s a force to be reckoned with, and fiercely protective of her road warrior partner, Bo Peep. All these new toys will come together in surprising ways to give our pal Woody one last big adventure.
Coming full circle with the original film in the franchise which was released 24 years ago, Toy Story 4 has Woody once again paired with a toy who does not believe himself to be a toy. Woody’s experiences with Andy, and now with Bonnie, position him to a real advocate for finding and fulfilling one’s purpose and embracing one’s destiny. Heartwarming and heartbreaking in almost equal measure (I cried twice before the opening credits were over, and then alllllll the way home), Toy Story 4 more than justifies its existence. But after the perfect send-off in #3, is #4 a necessary or worthy addition? As much as I looked forward to connecting with these characters again, I surprise myself by saying no. Toy Story 4 is a good movie, an entertaining one, a very sweet one, but I can’t help but wish they’d left it at a trilogy so that we could have one perfect, shiny thing in our lives.
Time and again, we have been told that a toy’s only intrinsic value is to be useful. And when that toy ceases to be useful – either it gets broken, or a kid stops playing with it – well, that toy has met the end of its life. Yikes. Woody and friends have occasionally had the chance to grab at immortality but have always convinced themselves that to be Andy’s toy is the highest possible achievement. There is no better thing, therefore it is okay to accept the eventual certainty of death. One day, Andy WILL grow up, will leave for college, will leave them behind.
That day has come.
Andy is indeed off to college. Toy Story 3 was released in 2010, 15 years after the first one, so by any accurate count, Woody and the gang have had some bonus years. But their luck has run out. Andy is packing up his room – putting aside a few things to store in his mother’s attic, a few essentials to bring along with him, and the rest will be marked for garbage. Andy’s sentimental side has him setting aside Woody for college, and bagging the rest of his old pals for storage, but a misunderstanding leads both his mother and the toys themselves to think that they’re meant for the trash. The toys manage to save themselves from the metallic maw of the garbage truck, and they throw themselves into a donation pile destined for Sunnyside Daycare.
The toys are sad to leave Andy, but thrilled that they might once again be played with. Until now, the toys have spent their lives caring solely for Andy, wanting nothing but his happiness. Their own needs have occasionally gone unmet in this quest, especially in these last few years, with Andy the teenager no longer having time for them. The toys, and Woody in particular, have often seemed parental in their concern for him, and in fact, with Andy’s dad curiously absent and unremarked upon, Woody seems to have stepped into that of father figure. But parents too must say goodbye to their children eventually, and when they grow to become useless, they too will be placed in an institution. The toys are optimistic about the daycare centre, but it’s easy to read it as relegation to retirement living, being put out to pasture (Buzz even gets lobotomized, like a dementia patient). There’s always been this double read to Toy Story, one that often leaves us choked up. Thanks a lot, internet. I thought the well had finally run dry, and now I’m flooding my keyboard with tears.
But that’s not even the sad part! Toy Story 3’s genius has the toys not just facing oblivion and meaninglessness without a kid to serve, but it has them facing actual death. When the daycare turns out to be a pretty awful, tyrannical living situation, they find themselves embracing death. This is possibly this decade’s most traumatic and touching scene: with death mere moments away, the toys stop their futile efforts to save themselves, and hold hands to face it bravely together. Luckily, Pixar thinks better of killing off their revered heroes, and they do get a last minute reprieve and a second chance at life with Bonnie, a little girl just down the street from Andy. Even Woody, who was meant to accompany Andy to college, gets reassigned, and frankly, it’s with a sigh of relief that we find he will remain with his friends. Because for me at least, it wasn’t actually death that seemed the worst of it, it was thinking of Woody and Buzz, best buds and life partners, being separated in their twilight years. Is anyone not thinking of their grandparents, and who will die first, leaving the other to face those bleak years alone?
Toy Story 3 improves upon its predecessors in my ways. In 11 years, the animation has of course improved by big heaping gobs. In the first film, we briefly see a teddy bear that’s been relegated to the shelf; they chose not to make him part of the gang because fur was just too hard to get right. In this film, Lotso the bear is made a proper villain, and he looks glorious. Not only are the colours and textures perfect, but the animators find ways to show proper wear and tear on the toys as well. The animation is vivid and astonishing. The expressions on the toys’ faces are often so realistic that you have to pinch yourself to remember it’s just a cartoon (Woody has 229 animation points of movement in his face alone). In Toy Story 3, the Pixar animators are fearless. Whereas before they struggled to get clothes right, in this film they embrace them, with Ken making over 20 costume changes alone (and all of them fabulous). Hair swings. Fibers are differentiated. But they’re not just improving, they’re innovating. Believe it or not, in this film, the real challenge was the trash bag. They have properties that apparently you and I take for granted, but the animators truly struggled with.
But we don’t keep coming back to this franchise for the richly drawn cartoons, we come back because these characters are our friends, and the excellent story-writing has made us care. And boy did we line up in droves to see this film, even if it had been more than a decade since the last installment: it was the first animated film to make a billion dollars worldwide, which it did in just over 2 months at the box office. It was also one of only 3 animated films to score an Oscar nomination for Best Picture (Beauty and the Beast and Up were the other 2), and it did it without any of its predecessors being nominated. Toy Story has continued to surprise fans because it actually feels that each sequel is better than the last, while Hollywood of course has led us to expect exactly the opposite. Although, it should be noted: while the first and second films both had 100% ratings on Spoiled Red Fruit, this one had a mere 99.
If the nostalgia attached to vintage toys and TV shows and lunchboxes isn’t enough for you, I find it kind of neat that Toy Story has managed to keep the same guy, John Morris, as Andy’s voice for its entire run (there was an 11 year gap between this film and the one before it – the producers had no idea if adult Morris would at all be suitable, but they called him up and his voicemail convinced them on the spot). And Laurie Metcalf as his mom; Roseanne was still on network TV when the first film premiered, and now I suppose it’s kind of on again. Of course, we’ve lost some voice actors along the way: Jim Varney (Slinky) was replaced by his friend Blake Clark. And Don Rickles (Mr. Potato Head) will appear in the latest film via archival audio. But we’ve also seen some great additions. Toy Story 3 introduces Ned Beatty (Lotso), Michael Keaton (Ken), Jodi Benson (Barbie – but most famous as the voice of Ariel, of course), Timothy Dalton (Mr. Pricklepants), Kristen Schaal (Trixie), Bonnie Hunt (Dolly), and the list goes on. Toy Story 3 has over 300 characters, which is a lot for any movie, never mind one in which each needs to be rendered from scratch!
Toy Story 3 earned a place in our hearts with scenes that register both pleasure and pain – bittersweet, like life. It taps into our primal fears (uselessness, loneliness, death) but ends with a hopeful note. Toy Story 3 was the perfect way to end a beloved franchise: Andy says goodbye to his toys, and so do we. We know they’re safe and happy in their after(Andy)life, with the final scene panning up into white fluffy cloud, reminiscent of Andy’s wallpaper, but also a sure symbol of heaven. But this franchise has again proved irresistible and Disney-Pixar just couldn’t stay away: a fourth installment hits theatres this weekend, so if you’re curious what life has been like for the toys in their new home, you’re in luck. Just pray that this one holds up to the rest.