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Non-Review Review: Toy Story 4

Toy Story 4 is a lovely grace note.

Understandably, the largest tension that exists within Toy Story 4 is the question of whether the movie is “necessary”, as much as crowd-pleasing feel-good film must be “necessary.” Rather, it’s the question of whether its presence enhances or diminishes the immediately previous film in the franchise. Toy Story 3 was in many ways a pitch-perfect franchise closer, the perfect place in which to leave these characters and this world. It was bittersweet and deeply moving, striking a perfect balance between providing closure and suggesting that the adventure continues.

The real Toy Story is the toys we made along the way.

This creates an interesting challenge for Toy Story 4. Because Toy Story 3 provided such a fitting ending, it is not enough for Toy Story 4 to simple be amusing or engaging. To quote another popular Tom Hanks vehicle from the nineties, it has to “earn this.” To a certain extent, Toy Story 4 exists in conversation with Toy Story 3, and with the notable handicap of being unable to play many of the same emotional beats as strongly. “This is the epic last go-round” is a card that is difficult to play in two consecutive movies. So, quite apart from how funny and how thrilling and how clever Toy Story 4 is, it faces an uphill struggle.

It is to the credit of Toy Story 4 that it justifies itself so effectively. A lot of this is down to canny structuring; Toy Story 4 is much less of an ensemble piece than any of the two previous films in the series, focused very tightly on Woody as its focal character. This provides a nice change of pace, even compared to the fun “toys mount a rescue” template of Toy Story 2. To a certain extent, Toy Story 4 feels – in terms of tone, plot and character – much closer to the original Toy Story than any of the intermediate films in the franchise. This allows it a certain freshness and lightness on its feet.

A forkin’ delight.

However, the smartest thing about Toy Story 4 is that it understands its position. Toy Story 4 is shrewd enough to understand that it can neither ignore nor repeat Toy Story 3. Indeed, Toy Story 4 is cognisant of the fact that it must be an ending of a sort, but also a different kind of ending than Toy Story 3. The film has to both justify and distinguish itself, fitting with what came before while finding something unique to say. This is a delicate balance to strike, and it is to the credit of Toy Story 4 that it succeeds as thoroughly as it does.

Toy Story 4 exists in the shadow of Toy Story 2 and Toy Story 3, but most animated films do; they are both among the very best films that Pixar has produced, making them among the very best animated films ever produced. Toy Story 4 works well as an epilogue or a coda. It’s charming, smart, funny and very moving in the places where it needs to be. Toy Story 3 existed at the full stop at the end of the story, but Toy Story 4 draws a line under it.

Home on the range.

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Doctor Who: Twice Upon a Time (Review)

“What was that?”

“To be fair, they cut out all the jokes.”

– the First Doctor and the Twelfth Doctor discuss the power of editting

Snow escape.

Twice Upon a Time bids farewell to Peter Capaldi, perhaps to Murray Gold, and to Steven Moffat.

It does all of this within the context of a holiday special, much like The End of Time, Part I and The End of Time, Part II bid farewell to David Tennant and Russell T. Davies with a two-part bonanza split across Christmas and New Year’s. In a way, this makes sense. Christmas is a time for indulgence, and these sorts of grand farewells lend themselves to a certain sense of self-congratulations and celebration. Davies went bigger and bolder for The End of Time, Part I and The End of Time, Part II, opting for a cameo-stuffed blockbuster affair, his style turned to eleven.

Cooler heads prevail.

Twice Upon a Time does something similar, albeit in the style of Steven Moffat. Davies tended to jump from set piece to set piece with his bombastic Christmas specials like The Runaway Bride and Voyage of the Damned, with only the thinnest of plots holding them together. Moffat’s Christmas specials like A Christmas Carol or The Husbands of River Song have set pieces, but they often feel incidental to the characters and dialogue. Twice Upon a Time is a collection of witty banter and wry observations held together by a plot that even the Doctor has to admit does not exist.

In some ways, this feels like an appropriate way to bid farewell to Steven Moffat’s tenure as showrunner on Doctor Who, to draw down the curtain on an impressive and momentous six seasons (and almost eight years) that radically redefined what the programme could (and even should) be. Twice Upon a Time is a Christmas indulgence, but one that feels earned. It is an adventure that doesn’t really need to exist, and one which accepts that premise as its starting point. It is an episode dancing around the inevitable. It is not especially graceful, but is charming nevertheless.

The Twelfth Day of Christmas.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Coda (Review)

In many ways, the Jeri Taylor era of Star Trek: Voyager represented a reaction to the direction that the show had taken under Michael Piller.

Michael Piller had imagined a more dynamic and adventurous version of the show, focusing on two crews thrown together by fate and forced to coexist while journeying through uncharted territory. After seven seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Piller was understandably (and perhaps justifiably) concerned that the second iteration of Star Trek might have been growing somewhat stale. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was in the process of breaking new ground, and Piller felt that it was necessary for the franchise to find a new direction and identity.

Daddy's home.

Daddy’s home.

This is a good idea in theory. In practice, Michael Piller’s vision was disastrous. Piller wanted to do new things, but found himself working with a staff vehemently opposed to his vision of the series and phoning in scripts that should have been provocative like Alliances or Investigations. More than that, Piller was unable to properly realise his own ambitions, citing scripts like Tattoo as incredibly accomplishments rather than recognising them for the embarrassing failures that they were. When Piller was ousted after the second season, Jeri Taylor took over.

Jeri Taylor would oversee the third and fourth seasons of Voyager. She had a very clear vision of what Voyager should be, a rather conservative and generic iteration of the larger Star Trek franchise. Traditionally, the third season had served as a point of transition for the Star Trek spin-offs. It was in their third seasons that The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine really broke the mould and discovered their own unique identities. In contrast,t he third season of Voyager marked a point of retreat from the basic premise of the show.

Carry on regardless.

Carry on regardless.

Taylor wanted to focus on telling very safe and familiar Star Trek stories, ones that did not necessarily rely upon the premise of the show. There are any number of episodes where this approach simply did not work, with episodes like Warlord or The Q and the Grey or Alter Ego feeling like reheated Star Trek leftovers. However, there were points at which Taylor’s approach paid off. Future’s End, Part I and Future’s End, Part II were pure popcorn, but they worked on those terms. It didn’t matter that nobody seemed too bothered at getting Voyager back to Earth.

Coda is another example of the strengths of Taylor’s approach to Voyager. It is a very familiar and archetypal episode of Star Trek, one that might have been assembled from the leftover pieces of Cause and Effect or Tapestry. However, that relative simplicity becomes a strength, allowing Taylor to craft a script focusing on Janeway and giving Kate Mulgrew some meaty material into which she might sink her teeth. There is nothing particularly new or exciting here, but there is something to be said for executing old standards with such charm.

Of course he's evil. He's an admiral.

Of course he’s evil. He’s an admiral.

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X-Men: The End – Book One: Dreamers & Demons (Review/Retrospective)

This May, to celebrate the release of X-Men: Days of Future Past, we’re taking a look at some classic and modern X-Men (and X-Men-related) comics. Check back daily for the latest review.

Marvel went through a phase of publishing books based around “The End” of various iconic properties. These comics allowed creators to imagine telling the last possible story for a given character or corner of the Marvel universe. Creators like Garth Ennis or Peter David got to write stand-alone one-shot stories for The Punisher and The Incredible Hulk, respectively. Paul Jenkins wrote a six-issue miniseries Wolverine: The End, while Jim Starlin closed off the entire Marvel Universe with Marvel Universe: The End.

However, given the sprawling and expansive continuity of the X-Men franchise, it stands to reason that any attempt to tell the final X-Men story would have to be a rather epic tale. Writer Chris Claremont wrote Uncanny X-Men for well over a decade, so even asking him to close off his own threads and plot points would take up considerable space. However, X-Men: The End is an absolutely sprawling comic book saga that is spread across three miniseries and eighteen issues.

Blackbird down...

Blackbird down…

In a way, it feels like a touching coda for Claremont’s version of The X-Men. The writer defined the X-Men franchise, introducing many of the plot and character elements that readers would come to take for granted when reading an X-Men story. The End isn’t Claremont’s last X-Men story by any stretch – the writer still works on the franchise quite frequently in a variety of different roles, enjoying short runs and long runs.

However, The End does seem to serve as an epic farewell tour of the world that Claremont helped to build and define. As such, it’s fitting that the miniseries is somewhat clunky and awkward and epic and sprawling and melodramatic and overblown and absurd and unexpected. It is a capstone to Claremont’s gigantic X-Men epic, a closing statement and thoughtful summation to decades of work.

"X" marks the spot...

“X” marks the spot…

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