Growth Spurt (Big, 1988)

Big_PosterStarting 1984, Hollywood gave us about two Tom Hanks films a year through 1990. Some more memorable than others, but Hanks proved himself a pretty reliable comedy actor. Hanks has always come across as a nice guy in Hollywood and thus endeared himself to the audience.

1988’s Big is the story of thirteen year old Josh.  A shorter kid, after a humiliating night at the Carnival where he is too short to get on a ride with a girl he likes, he stumbles upon the Zoltar Speaks “game”. The machine grants him his wish…to be big.

Josh wakes the next morning to find he is an adult.  His mother reacts poorly and Josh goes on the run. As the story goes on, Josh gets the help of his best friend as they try and relocate Zoltar, only to find out it could take weeks to get the information they need.

This leads to Josh taking a job in data entry at a toy company…but he quickly climbs the ranks when a chance meeting with the head of the company who is impressed with Josh’s understanding of toys.  This is one of the things that makes the film a lot of fun.  Everyone  mistakes Josh’s youthful innocence as brilliance and even a real man.  He finds himself in a growing relationship with co-worker Susan.  His complete naiveté over cut throat business practices and male pissing matches convinces Susan Josh is just mature and above it all.  Initially the relationship is not all that troubling.  She has no reason to think he is thirteen and a thirteen year old in a grown up body…and it is pretty funny when she suggests staying over at his place and this leads to an incredibly wholesome night of playing games and the two sleeping in bunk beds.

I am not sure who thought it was a good idea to actually have the two have sex…it is not Revenge of the Nerds territory…but it is just to close to the line of being gross. This is largely in how they write themselves into a corner when Josh confesses his big secret to her. It then feels a bit like an adult grooming a teen.

I think one of the really nice story points is how Josh becomes pretty enamored with grown-up life.  He starts to ignore the goals of returning to his old life…only realizing that he is missing so much away from his friends and family.

Hanks is the glue that holds this all together.  He is remarkably charming and really sells the “kid” in a grown up body better than almost anyone before or since.

Big is still a pretty charming and fun film thirty some years later.

Life of a Neighbor (a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, 2019)

ABDITN_PosterLloyd Vogel is an investigative journalist known for exposing the truths people would rather not have exposed about themselves. He is a new father. His relationship with his own father seems damaged beyond repair. Lloyd is shocked when he is given a puff piece by his editor for Mr. Rogers in an upcoming Esquire issue dedicated to heroes.

Lloyd is caught off guard when he learns Mr. Rogers was the only person that would even consent to an interview with him. And early on, Lloyd finds himself skeptical of Mr. Rogers and especially his seemingly unending decency and kindness (this prompts his wife Andrea to ask him not to ruin her childhood with his story).

A fictional account inspired by the real life article written by Tom Junod, there is not a real Lloyd Vogel.  Junod notes that Lloyd shares a lot of his life, but they are not simply the same guy and plenty of the events are fabricated.  This realization could have worked against the film…made it seem fake. And yet, it effectively reaches for the heart strings.

This is not a film about Mister Rogers.  It is about how he impacted people that came into his orbit. Or rather those whose orbit he came into.  In spite of having no resemblance Mister Rogers, Hanks fully embodies him.  The kindness…the generosity and the love that seemed to be so much the core of him is fully embodied in Hanks’ performance.

Director Marielle Heller and writers Micah Fizterman-Blue and Noah Harpster frame the story as an episode of Mister Roger’s Neighborhood, which, for those who grew up with the show instantly bring back those childhood memories. The visual transitions of the film are beautiful model creations inspired by the models from the introduction of the old show, and they even use the 4×3 screen format. This is a brilliant bit that helps the film stand out.

The is a childlike innocence to the score by Nate Heller that works beautifully.

The one critique I have of the film, as it really does not give Lloyd the  proper recognition that he is justified in his resistance to his father’s attempts to come back into his life. His father was terrible, but the film almost feels like it believes Lloyd is wrong to refuse to connect back with his father.  I am not saying that the film following a redemptive path is bad or wrong.  But Lloyd’s feelings and anger are fully justified.

However, I still feel a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a powerful and worthwhile film.  It overcomes it’s flaw with heart and soul in it’s performances.

 

 

Meet the New Kids (Toy Story 3, 2010)

Toy_Story_3_PosterWhile Pixar had pushed the Cars franchise at an aggressive rate, their other films had been allowed to remain largely untouched.  In spite of the second film’s success, it was not until 2010 that we saw the third installment of the Toy Story films.

This time, we find Andy getting ready for college.  When the toys are accidentally mistaken as trash, they decide to stow away in a box marked for the local daycare center.

Woody promises them it will be terrible, and shortly after they arrive, he tries to sneak out to return to Andy. However, on his way, he is found by young Bonnie, who brings him home.

 

The other toys are greeted by Losto (a stuff bear) and the other toys.  They sell our old friends on what a paradise the daycare is. But the truth is much darker. Lotso is pretty much the Godfather of the joint.  He runs the show and force new toys to be played with by the youngest kids in the daycare…regardless of whether these toys are meant for that age or not.

This is a pretty crazy story, but it works pretty well. Lotso is charming at first, but you learn he has turned dark from rejection.  Meanwhile, his henchman Ken is taken with Barbie. At first she is smitten, but when she discovers what Lotso does to the other toys, she rejects the cushy life Ken offers.

Meanwhile, Woody is also living a good life with Bonnie and her toys, but he wants to return to Andy…and when he finds out the truth about Lotso and the Daycare, he is determined to save the other toys.

The animation in this is pretty terrific and has come far.  Textures, vibrant colors, hair…everything looks great.  And this time around they have opted for a more stylized look to the human characters which is some much more pleasant to watch than the humans of the previous films.

As usual, there is a lot of heart to this film…it is a bit heavy as the toys contemplate death and complete destruction…but still, it really tugs at the heartstrings.

Again, the performances of the voice cast bring this to life in a way a lot of films fail.  Even the stunt casting never feels like a mere stunt.  The performances feel full of care, and everyone delivers.

Somehow, Pixar managed to keep the same quality in three films, avoiding the dreaded failure within the franchise that each announced film brought.  Toy Story three would have been a perfect cap off to the series, really.  You would have had a high quality trilogy.  It is full of love, humor and even grown up fears and emotion.  Toy Story 3 is a great continuation of the Toy Story Series.

 

 

Collectability (Toy Story 2, 1999)

Toy_Story_2_PosterToy Story had almost cemented itself as a classic in the public mind within a few short years.

This time, they open with a massive space adventure sequence which introduces Buzz’s arch nemesis Evil Emperor Zurg.

When Woody gets stolen by a collector at a yard sale, Buzz mounts a rescue mission. But for Woody, it turns out to not be as simple.

Woody discovers that he is not some random doll…but that he was originally part of a popular fifties toy and TV show combo.  And he finds out he was the last piece of the puzzle for a toy collector who plans to sell his collection to a museum in Japan.

At first, Woody is terrified by the notion.  But the rest of the collection (A cowgirl named Jessie, a horse named Bullseye and Stinky Pete-a toy still in his box, never opened) slowly convinces Woody that maybe life in a museum would not be so bad.

The film has a lot of fun, expanding both Woody and Buzz’s respective worlds.  They also find a new way to advance the story and give us “Buzz Does Not Know He is a Toy” in an entertaining way.

Jessie and Bullseye are engaging and lovable, making it easier to understand why Woody might consider abandoning Andy. Kelsey Grammer gives Stinky Pete just the amount of charm at the beginning to hint there may be more for him than we think. Admittedly, he is a bit of an indictment of collectors, as being left in the box plays a major motivation for Pete.

The animation shows some improvement here, though the human characters look…uh….freakish.  However, with Wayne Knight’s toy collector Al and the old man are much more cartoonish.  And it works more effectively when we see them on screen.

Toy Story 2 is a terrific follow up to the original, improving some things in the technical aspects and giving us a pretty tale revisiting characters we have come to love.

The Secret Life of Toys (Toy Story, 1995)

Toy_Story_PosterIn the 80s Pixar’s team thought that computers could usher in a wave of new animation….animation by computer.  They made their name in the industry with the  short The Adventures of André and Wally B. A few years later it was followed up by the Tin Toy.

When it came to their first feature, the team at Pixar looked at their limitations and based the film in those parameters.  They chose to focus on characters that did not need to look “realistic”.  Toys are made of plastic and fabric.

The concept is that toys are living things that have a purpose…and that purpose is to be a friend to the child to which they belong. And in this case, it is the toys of a kid named Andy.

Life in Andy’s room is full of adventure.  Andy Imagines scenarios in which his toys, ranging from a slinky dog to a dinosaur to cowboy named Sheriff Woody.  Woody is Andy’s favorite and the “leader”.  But all that changes on Andy’s birthday when he receives the exciting new Buzz Lightyear action figure.  A futuristic action toy that can shoot lasers, Woody wonders if he has lost his place in Andy’s heart. The other toys are in awe of Buzz and this only compounds Woodys fears.

Jealous, he ends up alienating himself…and then when he accidentally causes Buzz to be lost, the other toys no longer trust him.  This forces Woody to go on a rescue mission, facing himself and also needing to consider the possibility that a change in status is not bad.

A lot of what sells this film is the performances.  Especially Hanks as the slightly uptight Woody and Tim Allen as the toy who does not realize he is a toy, Buzz Lightyear.

The movie has a ton of fun with the conceit of living toys.  Most of the toys are generic (outside of Mr. Potato Head and a couple much older toys) but this works pretty well.  It allows the voice talent and script to imbue the toys with some genuine personality.

Even now, the animation holds up.  Sure, compared to later films even within the franchise everything is much simpler to look at, lacking a lot of texture…and when we do see people’s faces…well, let’s just say they look like the 2019 Chucky.

But this is a film that manages to overcome those limitations with solid storytelling and performances.  There is both heart and humor that has made this film a classic of modern animation.

How Are We Alive (Toy Story 4, 2019)

Toy_Story_4_PosterHonestly, the Toy Story films are something rare.  Never feeling like a cash grab when you actually watch them, they stand together in a way other animated franchises rarely do….even from Pixar.

Each film finds some new approach to its characters, new and thoughtful hopes and fears. And this time it is no different.  Though, the big questions are…well bigger.

Before the story begins proper, the film addresses why we did not see Bo Peep in the third film.  Granted, Bo is mentioned in a moment of that film as having been given to a new home, but here we get an action packed opener set several years ago, when the toys were still Andy’s.  Unlike the previous two films, which showed us Andy’s imagination, this sequence is the toys trying to save another toy in danger of being lost in a storm. This sets Bo up as being a bit more action oriented, since in earlier films, she is never given a lot to do, other than be the presumed love interest of Woody.

Everyone is shocked to find Bo is being given away, as Molly (Andy’s little sister) no longer is interested her. Bo tells Woody it will be okay and then the film picks up present time, with young Bonnie terrified of her first day at Kindergarten.  Against everyone’s recommendations, Woody stows away with Bonnie. At school, she creates a little friend she nicknames Forky.  When Woody sees how much joy he brings Bonnie, he becomes convinced he must protect Forky at all costs.

When the family takes a road trip, Woody and Forky become separated, they run into several obstacles when trying to get back to the family.

And honestly, the film works most of the time.  What happens to lost toys? Well, here we see a whole tribe under the loose care of Bo Peep.  I liked this adventuresome Bo Peep who represents a possibility that has never occurred to Woody.

There are also a lot of fun new characters, such as Duke Caboom and Giggle McDimples.

The biggest problem of the film is its central conflict character. Gabby Gabby is set up right away as a dark character.  We eventually learn the reasons why, and unlike Lotso in part three, she is offered a redemptive arc. Unfortunately, it is so rushed that it makes things very problematic.  I was not sure initially if it bothered me…but how it plays out could have been done in such a better way.

However, largely, this film is very entertaining and many times managed to tug at my heart strings more than once.  I liked the characters and had a good time overall.  This is not a quartet of near perfect films due to a few issues with Toy Story 4, but it is a pretty solid set of films. Toy Story 4 could have used another pass, but it is a strongly entertaining film.

Round and Round (The Circle, 2017)

Circle_PosterThe Circle asks the question: What if Google Were an Evil All Seeing Corporation?

(And somebody responds… “IF??”)

Emma Watson is Mae, a young woman who dreams of being more than another faceless customer service rep.  Her friend gets her an interview with the Tech Company “The Circle”.  She is overwhelmed at first, they seem to know things about her life that she had not informed them of.  But as her star rises, she becomes drawn in by the very likeable and charismatic Bailey.  Bailey is the “ideal” CEO.  Personable, treats everyone as equally important, regardless of status in the company…he charms Mae into overlooking her concerns as the Circle’s influence grows.

It cannot last, of course.  There are people, even within the company, who believe there is a darker and seedier underside (unsurprisingly, they are correct).  After a tragedy, Mae finds herself at a crossroads.

The Circle is established very well early on as “This could be the coolest place to work!”  But it early on starts to drop hints of creepiness.  Mae’s transition from sweet but overwhelmed to complicit in the organization’s overreach is well handled.  And Hanks just turns on his “I Am Tom Hanks” charm to make Bailey someone you cannot help but like.

The problem for the film is that it spends so much time on build up, it feels like it gets resolved in about six minutes.  They beat the corruption in a sentence.  It feels like the final act should have been developed a bit more.

 

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