TOY STORY 4 – A PRIMAL LOSS

SHORT TAKE:

Despite a brilliant start, clever plot, continued great acting, wonderful cameos, and magical animation, the story abandons its own raison d’etre.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Anyone can go but I can’t recommend it for the target young audience because of very dark imagery and multiple scenes of loss and childhood trauma involving being separated from one’s family and justifiable fears of a child losing her toys  which could seriously distress small children. And I can’t recommend it for the older crowd because of the final message.

LONG TAKE:

SPOILERS FOR THE ENTIRE TOY STORY FRANCHISE

Full disclosure – this is a long post, even by my standards, but the Toy Story franchise has always been the beneficiary of some truly good writing, and the theme has always been that of family, so, it breaks my heart, but I have to make the case ….. against Toy Story 4, and that’s going to take some explaining.

In the first movie the question was the choice between ego or family, when Woody’s seniority and favorite status is threatened by Buzz Lightyear. Woody chose family by placing the needs of his fatherless owner, Andy, above his own wants and even risking his own life to rescue Buzz and incorporate Buzz into their group.

Toy Story 2 dealt with the idea of fame versus family when Woody has the opportunity to be admired from afar as a classic toy in a Japanese museum but instead chooses to return to Andy, even telling Buzz that he no longer fears Andy outgrowing him because he has the family of toys “for [sic] infinity and beyond”.

Toy Story 3 addresses the inevitable time when Andy, like Little Jackie Paper in the song “Puff the Magic Dragon”, does outgrow the magic and the toys are sent to another child.

This latest installment also involves the issue of family.

Aside from the amazing computer animation, the sterling voice acting of terrific actors, the astonishingly complex characters, the jokes both obvious and inside which parents and even the youngest can understand on a variety of levels and the complex and interesting plot lines, the real brilliance of the films has always been that the stories are really about parenthood – selflessly being there when your child needs you, even if they don’t know they do, even if you do it knowing the goal is for them to eventually not need you any more.

To be a good parent one must choose their children’s happiness, safety and sense of security over the expediences of the parents’ own wants, desires and even needs. Woody, the de facto Dad in each of the movies, chooses to protect his toy family for the benefit of his child. And this is the way to which the ownership is referred – that the toy has a child, which is always viewed as the ultimate and Xanadu of existence for any toy. And the lack of a child is always seen as a tragic circumstance and even one which can, like Lotso or Stinky Pete, lead to a bitter expression of their baser and negative personality traits.

Woody chooses to share the lime light in the first, to forego fame in the second, and accept when his child no longer needs him but accepts the responsibilities of another child who does in the third.

MAJOR SPOILERS FOR TOY STORY 4 – SEROUSLY I AM GOING TO BE DISCUSSING THE ENDING SO IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN IT YET AND WANT TO LET THE STORY UNVEIL ITSELF IN THE MOVIE THEATER PLEASE BAIL OUT NOW.

ALSO SPOILERS BY IMPLICATION FOR IMPORTANT PLOT POINTS IN PETER PAN, LION KING, ALADDIN AND STAR WARS – A NEW HOPE.

OK FAIR WARNING WAS GIVEN

FIRST – THE GOOD STUFF

While I have rarely seen a franchise manage the same quality throughout all of its films, Back to the Future being the only one that springs to mind at the moment, Toy Story seemed to conquer that artistic challenge with grace and a strong sense of its own universe. The writers respect these characters and recognize the intricate personalities of each toy, especially the major players. Each has flaws and virtues. None are treated as black and white. They are very recognizably 3D humans. Part of the magic of these stories is that everyone in the audience, including the adults, can find a toy with which to identify, just as any child can, in real life, find a toy which speaks to them out of a well stocked toy box. And the one overarching and abiding principle which has provided the strength of backbone to all of the stories is that their child means everything to the toys about whom the tale is woven.

Toy Story 4 is no exception. At least not at first and not for most of the movie. Woody steps aside as Jessie and other toys are regularly chosen as playmates over him because that is what Bonnie wants. He is the only one who recognizes Bonnie’s need for a champion and secret guardian when she is taken to kindergarten for orientation. Not even her parents apparently fully wish to understand that the little girl is too young to be left at an institution when she is devastated by her separation from home. Woody sneaks into her backpack and secretly assists her throughout the day, proving abundantly that he was right. Woody then steps up to promote a “toy” given life by Bonnie’s imagination and love which is made from a spork and some art supplies. Forky’s determination to be trash instead and his constant attempts to throw himself away are played for laughs and every parent who has had to deal with a self-destructive toddler (but I repeat myself) understands what Woody is up against.

And for anyone who has raised a child to adulthood, Woody’s consistent leadership, even when not wanted, and loyalty even when not appreciated, are part of the definition of true parenthood. You want kids to grow up and not need you any more but it is a painful process. In Woody’s case Bonnie still needs him but doesn’t even know it.

They have brought to the acting table all of the previous actors: Tom Hanks as Woody, Tim Allen is Buzz Lightyear, the ubiquitous Ratzenberger as Hamm, Wally Shawn as Rex, Joan Cusack as Jessie, Annie Potts as Bo Peep, Bonnie Hunt as Dolly, and even, using posthumous archival clips, the late Don Rickles as Mr. Potato Head, even dedicating the film to his memory. And in a delightful spate of celebrity castings they have added: TV legend Carol Burnett in a small part as a talking child’s chair named Chairol Burnett, the one and only incredible Mel Brooks as Meliphant Brooks, and Betty White as Bitey White, the infamous web-short duo of Key and (Academy Award winning) Peele as Ducky and Bunny, Carl “Apollo Creed” Weathers as three action adventure versions of Combat Carl (possibly take-offs of real toys based on his role in Predator), the Shakespearean actor and former James Bond Timothy Dalton in a reprising role as Mr. Pricklepants, Carl “basically invented TV sitcoms” Reiner as the little pink Carl Reinerocerous , and saving the most surprsing for laughs – Keanu “John Wick” Reeves as Duke Caboom – a Canadian based (in honor of Reeves home country) daredevil toy.

As a small digression: for anyone who has read my review of John Wick will note, I have mentioned that, despite Reeves omnipresence in bloody action flicks might otherwise suggest, Reeves calling is comedian – and if this stint as the voice of the wheelie posturing motorcyclist doesn’t prove that, then not even Bill and Ted could.

NOW THE BAD – TO BEGIN WITH IT IS VERY DARK AND CREEPY

I wish I could tell you that the film makers took this final installment to the Toy Story adventure to a brilliant conclusion… AND THEY WERE sooooooo CLOSE… but in truth they stumbled and fell badly at the finish line – or perhaps it would be more accurate to say they just quit the race altogether.

I won’t reveal the details of the plot journey in THIS part of the post, except to say this is a darker movie than the others. Even Toy Story 3 with the accidental abandonment of the toys and Lotso’s dystopian nursery is not as unsettling as Toy Story 4. Bo Peep reemerges but her porcelein arms have been broken, are held on by tape and occasionally fall off. Some time is spent in an antique store which might as well have been labeled “Haunted House” from the toys’ point of view. A band of shuffling, very creepy, perpetually smiling, voiceless ventriolquist dolls protect, Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) the nemesis, providing jump scares and kidnapping and assaulting different characters. Worse, Bonnie is beset almost the entire film with having to face loss. Loss of her home to kindergarten, loss of security as the other children treat her with casual indifference and her teacher does nothing about it; constant and repeated episodes of losing Forky, a traumatic (and I mean for the observing audience as well) scene where she is beside herself over Forky’s disappearance on a trip.

I HOPE YOU’RE SITTING DOWN, BUT WOODY — LEAVES — HIS CHILD

But the darkest parts of this Toy Story is Woody’s decision to become a “lost toy”. By choice.

Our younger son who went with us, an adult now, but a child when the first one came out, mentioned he was glad they had not gone to the well again of making another toy the “bad guy” as they had done with both Toy Stories 2 and 3 with Stinky Pete and Lotso, respectively. In retrospect, I’m afraid he was wrong. And I’m not talking about Gabby who ultimately repents, but Bo Peep. like the song about the temptress Lola in Damn Yankees, whatever Bo wants she gets and Woody, little man, she wants you.

Bo even expresses bitterness at having never truly been played with but ultimately rejected and discarded as an eventually unneeded nightlight. She shows her true colors in the opening scene of TS4,  in a flashback event which took place nine years before, (and retroactively explains why Bo was not in Toy Story 3), when she tries to get Woody to abandon Andy, when Andy was still just a little boy. Woody wisely resists the temptation and stays with his child. But Bo finally gets her revenge through Bonnie, by enticing Woody to abandon his sworn responsibilities to Bonnie, his child now, to run off with her. It is a stunningly sad epitaph describing the fall of a once noble character.

The narrator in a famous Bruce Springsteen song defiantly declares: “Got a wife and kids in Baltimore, Jack, I went out for a ride and I never went back….” This is all we need to know about this manure ball – that he abandoned his family because he had a “hungry heart”. Sorry, but that’s a pathetic reason to turn your back on your kids – your KIDS! Never mind breaking the most important oath he will ever make – to his wife. This is an evil perpetrated that can never be fully healed.

In the end, and contrary to everything that has gone before in all four movies, Woody walks away from his heretofore all important vocation of being his child’s toy in order to stay with Bo Peep. Bonnie, his child, has not given him up. She plays with him sometimes, knows he’s around, obviously needs him whether she knows it or not, and will eventually realize he is gone.

In the somewhat realistic universe in which the Toy Story characters exist it is even possible that Andy, who gave Woody up with great reluctance at the end of Toy Story 3 and then only because he thought Bonnie loved Woody so much, that Andy might one day find out that Woody has been lost. So Woody’s abandonment of Bonnie is a betrayal not just of Bonnie but of Andy as well.

ALSO also, the toys live in a background of realism where their actions did effect the humans around them. Al from Al’s Toy Barn, for example, ended up near bankruptcy when he lost his valuable toys – but could be seen to deserve it because he had stolen Woody. Bonnie’s parents are stopped by the police when the van they are driving moves erratically because of toy hi-jinx. So, when in the end of TS4 the mission of Woody, Bo and company seems to be stealing from carnival barkers to give toys they do not own to children, this has a disastrous effect on the humans. From the horrified expression of the game attendant on which this scheme was perpetrated, this was not a good thing. His stall would not survive long and he might even be accused of stealing the merchandise himself.

If Toy Story is a reminder to parents to not let their ego get in the way of being good parents, if Toy Story 2 is a reminder not to let the lure of fame and attraction of money (presumably representing one’s job) keep them from being there for their kids, and if Toy Story 3 is a reminder to parents that one day they will have to take a step back and let their kids grow up but perhaps parent (read grandparent) a new generation , then what exactly is Toy Story 4 trying to tell us?

AN EXCUSE FOR THE ABANDONING, DEAD BEAT PARENT

Are the Toy Story 4 film makers saying one should put personal romantic attachments ahead of their family? Is this a subtle message to imply that a Dad who abandons his responsibilities for a girl friend is OK? Is this finally, an attempt at justifying behavior of the actual Hollywood culture which is responsible for the creation of this franchise, to say that it is acceptable to leave their children behind like goose droppings or unwanted furniture for a selfish fling? Yes, Bo Peep is an old friend, but this is still not reasonable. Woody’s behavior in the final moments of this four movie franchise flies in the face of everything Woody has said, done and believed up to now INCLUDING what he has said in this very movie – that a toy’s most noble cause and purpose is to help their child. Instead Woody, in a completely unexpected 180 degree turn around ABANDONS his child, who is still a little girl demonstrably in need of his aid, even if it is behind the scenes, for Bo Peep, a now wild toy who he has not seen for 9 years.

This is, frankly, an appalling and disappointing break in an established noble character –  What if Simba had decided to stay in his comfy hobo existence? What if Wendy had chosen to not leave Neverland with her brothers? What if Aladdin had decided to tuck Genie back into his lamp for a rainy day? I know I’m crossing universes here but Disney will eventually own everything, so what if Han had decided to book it out of town with the gold in the first Star Wars and never come back?

What if Woody left his child?

The Woody we know would not leave Bonnie. But he does. It’s a shame that the Toy Story franchise had to end with a tag line that should have read: And so Bonnie lived precariously, never knowing what loss she would suffer next … ever after.

WOODY LOSES HIS CONSCIENCE

Now all this being said, my husband made a VERY interesting point. A lot of  rather clever and playful reference is made about one’s conscience. Woody understands the abstract concept well but when trying to explain it to Buzz, Buzz mistakes it for his pre-programmed sayings, which actually end up being very appropriate. This was actually quite a cute way to broach this ethereal topic for a very young crowd and amuse the older people at the same time. Woody’s pre-programmed voice box works perfectly, but the voice box of Gabby Gabby, the antagonist, does not – because she was manufactured incorrectly.

Before the exchange near the end of the movie in order to save Forky, Woody’s spiritual conscience works with selfless clarity of purpose, while Gabby’s behavior stems from a desperate selfishness born of loneliness and a sense of never experiencing what non-defective dolls get – unconditional love (her  appropriately used term).

AFTER the transplant, though we never hear the defective version of Woody’s pre-programmed “inner voice”, we get to hear Gabby’s now much improved inner, pull string, voice. So we know the exchange was made, with Woody getting Gabby’s flawed “inner voice”.

We quickly see a subtle but significant change in behavior. Gabby gives up a sure home to risk helping a lost child, while Woody … chooses the vagabond life of a “lost” toy to be with his “honey,” Bo Peep, abandoning his fellow toys and Bonnie, the little girl who is SELF-DESCRIBED AS HIS CHILD. It used to be considered an abominably shameful thing to turn your back on the spouse to whom you promised fidelity and the child you produced, in order to engage in selfish pursuits.  Now, tragically, it is applauded and the children left behind are treated like old furniture at a garage sale to be shuffled to whomever might still want them.

IS TOY STORY NOW ADVOCATING IN FAVOR OF THE DIVORCE CULTURE ?

For more information on the devastation that divorce leaves, even decades later to adult children of divorced parents, you can buy at the Ruth Institute or READ ONLINE FOR FREE HERE THROUGH AMAZON KINDLE, a copy of Leila Millers’s Primal Loss – The Now Adult Children of Divorce Speak.

And where were Jessie and Buzz? I can not fathom why the writers think we would accept either of them letting Woody go. But it fits in with the popular divorce routine where all the adult friends are supposed to rally around the abandoning parent and encourage them to “follow their heart”. I think if I hear that phrase used to justify another self-indulgently destructive behavior in a movie I’m going to stand up right there in the theater and scream in frustration. While they do not actually SAY it in TS4 Woody certainly DOES it.

Were the film makers saying they think it is OK to justify the “divorce” culture dad who leaves his child to start a new life with another woman (or less frequently but just as horrible, wife who leaves to be with another man) and we’re all supposed to be OK with it? OR – is this a subtle remonstration that those who behave in such a cruelly callous, irresponsible and self indulgent manner have broken inner voices – defective consciences? If the latter, it wasn’t nearly made clear enough … perhaps because the writers were afraid to ruffle a few feathers whose plumage was way too close to the guilty fire on this one.

I’m more than a little confused so can only imagine the perplexing message being conveyed to the youngest members of the family to whom these movies are primarily aimed.

The Toy Story we know and loved might have allowed Woody to be tempted but one of his most trusted confidantes would have slapped him, questioned his sanity, and made Woody recognize what a terrible mistake he was making. THAT would have been a good and fitting ending to this franchise. Anyone can be tempted. Even Jesus was tempted in the desert. It is what we fallen creatures do in the face of that temptation which separates the wheat from the chaff. And the film makers tossed every bit of good will the audience had invested in this character into the wind.

I would rather have seen Woody destroyed or fade into inanimacy from Bonnie’s loss of interest than see him betray everything for which he was created, everything he espoused and every principle he upheld for the last 24 years through the first three and most of this fourth movie.

The writers, lead by John Lasseter and Andrew Stanton, had so much going into this movie: a rich treasure of talent, an invested audience, well developed characters and plot back ground, and they gave it all away for a potage of politically correct propaganda to help justify succumbing to the lure of romantic adventure at the expense of a small trusting child. Shame on them.

THE FOUNDER – DULL BIOPIC OF THE BUSINESS VULTURE RAY KROC IN A WASTE OF KEATON’S TALENTS

AUDIO PODCAST OPTION OF THE FOUNDER REVIEW

SHORT TAKE:

Dry and uninvolving biopic, despite Michael Keaton’s efforts, about Ray Kroc, the avaricious business predator, who co-opted then outsted the McDonald brothers from their own creation.

WHO SHOULD WATCH:

Limited to adults and older teens only because some language and Kroc’s lack of interpersonal and business ethics. The mechaniations of enterprise – good and bad – might be interesting to business and history students.

AND IF YOU LIKE THESE REVIEWS PLEASE SUBSCRIBE! THEN YOU’LL GET     EVERY NEW REVIEW SENT STRAIGHT TO YOUR E-MAIL!!

GO TO THE BOTTOM OF THE LEFT HAND SIDE AND TYPE YOUR E-MAIL IN – IT (SHOULD BE) THAT EASY. ANY PROBLEMS PLEASE SEND ME A COMMENT AND I’LL DO MY BEST TO RESOLVE YOUR ISSUE.

LONG TAKE:

If you can not be a good example be a horrible warning. I’m not sure which one the makers of The Founder intended it to be.

The Founder is a 2016 biopic about Ray Kroc, the man who made McDonald’s a multi-bazillion dollar enterprise and its distinct Golden Arches logo one of the most recognizable symbols on (literally) the entire planet.

McDonald’s was a singular hamburger restaurant – one of, if not the first, walk-up, designed by the McDonald brothers, Maurice and Richard (John Carroll Lynch of Jackie – see my review of Jackie here – and Nick Offerman from Parks and Recreation). Their’s was a unique concept, carefully designed and laid out, innovative and revoluitionary in the Drive-In-car hop-predominated culture of America in the 1950’s. Richard and Maurice, had created this style as a money saver – no car hops, broken glassware, or dallying hoodlums. People stood in line to get great tasting burgers, in throw away packaging, in a clean family friendly environment. What the McDonald brothers saw as the fulfillment of a lifelong dream, Ray Kroc saw as a golden goose just waiting to be plucked.

SPOILERS

The film starts with Ray as an unsuccessful multi-spindle milkshake salesman who happens upon this singular successful enterprise and recognizes the brilliant business model for what it is. The McDonald brothers think “small” but Ray believes in BIG. And the McDonald brothers don’t know to whom they are linking their futures when they sign a contract with Ray to establish franchises. Ray’s personal motto is “Persistence” and he uses his formidable variation on it to: slowly negotiate, maneuver and leverage their business right out from under them, steal the wife of one of his franchise partners, leave his own wife, and cheat the McDonald brothers out of the royalty fees to which they were promised when they inevitably are forced to sell out to Ray.

This is NOT a nice man, but then neither was Vito Corleone in The Godfather Trilogy or Loki from The Avengers movies. And people generally love both the Corleone patriarch and Thor’s sly brother as guilty pleasures.  But what the latter two had in abundance, Ray Kroc, as portrayed in The Founder, had none of – and that was a relatable personality.

The Founder plays out like the dramatically filmed version of a documentary. It is not filmed in documentary style but is written as a series of facts filmed in vignettes. The movie is seen through Ray Kroc’s eyes in a terrific performance by Michael Keaton but only in the visual sense. By that I mean, we see what happens as Kroc himself might remember them but we, the audience, get no real feel for seeing AS Kroc might have seen life. We are never given opportunity to see the world as Ray Kroc sees it. We only hear him voice the sentiments of his own avarice without understanding what it was that drove him to HAVE those views. No back story, no moments of reflection, no knowing how he reconciles with or justifies to himself what he has done to others. Certainly, no King Claudius self-tormenting moments from Hamlet, wherein the character knows the wrong he has done and would like to repent but is unable because of his own weaknesses for the things he has acquired through those same outrageous acts.

Keaton has been Batman, Bird Man, Vulture in Spiderman Homecoming, and Mr. Mom – all variations on super heroes with a dark but redemptively inclined streak in one form or another (even his character in the comedy Mr Mom gets within a hair’s breadth of the dark action of cheating on his wife but comes to his senses in the nick of time). So playing an appealing villain would not be his first rodeo. Unfortunately, the script gives him little to do but posture and go through the motions. Once he establishes his unsuccessful frustrated character then woos the McDonald brothers, the rest of the movie is merely a checklist of events. Expand the business – check. Buy land – check. Meet his business associate’s wife and show interest – check. Use innovations, like dried instant milkshake without the McDonald brothers permission – check. Tell the brothers he has more money and so he can do what he wants and they are  out – check. Movie over – check.

Don’t get me wrong. Keaton does his best with this dry script. He even manages a few moments which gives a glimmer of what the movie should have been. For example, there’s one scene where he joins his future second wife, Joan (Linda Cardellini from Daddy’s Home and Avengers: Age of Ultron) at a piano where she works and, right in front of her husband, manages to woo her by singing with her. And the first scenes which show his woeful attempts to sell his multi-mixers demonstrate his gift of gab which is falling on deaf ears. I mean, his pitch was so good I was almost ready to buy one! But, alas, his potential buyers were noT so convinced. So you come to understand why, when he sees this extremely profitable “hamburger joint” his mouth starts watering and not just for the French fries. But for every one of the few interesting scenes there are several astonishingly bland ones, such as when he announces, as they eat a silent dinner at their kitchen table, to his all but ignored wife, Ethel, (Laura “Jurassic Park”  Dern), that he wants a divorce. She just puts down her fork, the camera pans back and away from her, the end. (Huh?) The audience pretty much knew this was coming, but instead of Beatrice Straight’s Oscar winning 5 minutes in Network where she reads her husband the riot act for walking out on her, we get something more akin to the emotional vacuum of Dave as he eats alone in the empty house in 2001.

This is a humorless look at the man. Kroc states as his personal philosophy to the McDonald brothers at one point – “If my competitor was drowning I’d stick a hose in his mouth.” So “business is business” is obviously a manifesto with Kroc. But that does not mean this arid POV has to be reflected in the way the movie is written. I can’t help but wonder how much better this movie would have been with a Cohen Brothers-style hero in the lead.

In short, this is a flat film whose basic moral could be stated as: “If you are persistent enough you can have everything you want and never have to suffer the consequences of your evil actions.” Kroc stole his partners’ business, his friend’s wife, and cheated the McDonald brothers out of hundreds of millions of dollars of royalties —- because he could. But we ultimately don’t care. We don’t know the abused well enough to empathize and we are givennothing with which to relate to the main character.  It’s an unpalatable story which wastes the considerable talents of Keaton.

So……….next time, Keaton wants to play a vulture, I’d much rather it be one in a Spiderman sequel.

JURASSIC WORLD: FALLEN KINGDOM – FLAWED BUT FUN VARIATION ON THE SAME LOVED THEME

SHORT TAKE:

Repeat of all the tropes from previous movies to create what is now a formulaic Jurassic Park movie – BUT I still loved it.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Anyone old enough to see the original Jurassic Park movie. Same scare level, no sex or nudity and very little profanity. These movies are a hoot and this one is just as much fun as the others, though nothing really very new under the sun. Just a variation on the same theme.

LONG TAKE:

I love the Jurassic Park franchise. Even the ugly stepchildren JP Lost World and JP III. I know they are derivative. I agree the first was the best – character driven as opposed to the far more special effects driven sequels. I understand they have become formulaic to the point where you can accurately and safely predict the characters who will and will not survive, and the general outline of the story. But I don’t really care. People who ride roller coasters are pretty familiar with how they work, know what to expect and are not especially surprised by the effects of free falls but they still ride them.

These movies are not Shakespeare, or Chekov, or even Woody Allen. They are "what if" stories about what would happen if you threw people and dinosaurs together. And they are a lot of fun.

Two of my favorite all time cinematic scenes are from the franchise. (click pic) One is the scene where Alan Grant, renowned paleontologist, reacts to his first encounter with a live dinosaur – a brachiosaurus. He is so overwhelmed he turns to Ellie, points and can barely get out the words – "It’s…. it’s a dinosaur," and then has to sit down on the ground. Makes me smile every time.

(click pic) Another of my favorite scenes is seeing Owen racing through the jungle on his motorcycle, hunting alongside raptors. After being oriented to how terrifying these critters are, through all the previous movies, all the way back to the first movie, to see a human as part of their pack gives me goose pimples.

The premise of JP Numero V is that the dinosaurs on Isla Nublar are facing extinction – again – because their island is about to be destroyed by an active volcano. Some think nature should reclaim these anachronistic Frankenstein monsters. Others believe we have a stewardship duty to save them despite the inherent extreme danger of the attempt. Another faction is in play with more mercenary motivations.

The actors re-create the characters we have enjoyed in previous movies.

Jeff Goldblum reprises his wisecracking, snarky and insightful Ian Malcolm, in a small cameo, offering his opinions to a Congressional committee on what should be done now that these creatures are facing an(other) extinction level event on their island. The movie cuts back and forth between his testimony and the adventures with Claire and Owen on Isla Nublar.

Chris Pratt returns as Owen, the dinosaur whisperer who is reluctantly pulled in to the rescue mission in order to help Blue, the raptor he raised.

Bryce Dallas Howard appears again as Claire, former executive assistant to the CEO who owned the destroyed park. She now runs an organization attempting to save the dinosaurs and whose primary job in this movie is to scream, escape from dinosaurs and be rescued by Owen.

The ubiquitous James Cromwell creates the character of Benjamin Lockwood, a heretofore unknown partner of the Jurassic concept’s inventor John Hammond (formerly played by the late Sir Richard Attenborough and appears only as a painting). The backstory is that for a previously undisclosed reason, which will become important to a subplot, they had a falling out.

Geraldine Chaplin – the oldest of eight children who Charlie Chaplin had with his wife Oona – appears in a small part as Lockwood’s trusted housekeeper.

Others fill out smaller bits seemingly just to fluff up the roster: Justice Smith as Franklin, the geeky tech guy who seems to have been hired for having a girlier scream than Howard and vaguely imitates Jake Johnson’s character Lowery from Jurassic World I. Daniella Pineda plays Zia, a tough talking self styled paleo-veterinarian (though she has never actually met a dinosaur up close). Ted Levine is the obligate bad guy, unnecessarily cruel to the dinos and callously dismissive of human life, much like Vincent D’Onfrio’s Hoskins from JW. Rafe Spall plays Eli, Cromwell’s assistant who is reminiscent of the lawyer Gennero (Martin Ferrero) from JP I. There’s the absolutely required kid (Isabella Sermon), of course who is cute then in danger. And so on.

Special mention must be made of BD Wong. He pops up once again as the "evil" scientist Wu, who is the embodiment of everything that alarmed Ian Malcolm when he admonished Hammond in the first JP movie that: (click pic) "Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should." It is interesting to note that Wong and Goldblum were the representatives of the dipolar opposite views in the original JP and are the only major recurring members from the original cast. And I give the filmmakers kudos for going out of their way to make this conceptual point obvious by the small but significant presence of these two characters.

The special effects are remarkable, recreating not only multiple dinosaurs but a volcanic eruption, and chases across a variety of terrain from forest to rooftops.

It is a satisfying thrill ride of a movie, make no mistake.

BUT….

SPOILERS FOR JURASSIC FRANCHISE MOVIES, GENERATIONS, SERENITY AND  LAST JEDI

All this being said I still have some issues with the movie.

The de rigeur between-movies "break" in the romantic relationship of the leads is particularly silly. It is literally explained as having occurred because Owen wouldn’t let Ellie drive his van. Huh? In JP III the break up of Alan and Ellie is heartbreaking and gracefully presented. Alan is shown playing with Ellie’s child. You assume it is his until Ellie’s husband shows up. Then you realize not only that they are not a couple any more, but guess at why – that Alan never wanted to settle down and start a family.

Lava is, at one point, everywhere. Claire and Franklin (Justice Smith) would probably have cooked just being that close to it in an enclosed space as they were. Minutes later they are fleeing from a pyroclastic flow which moves at 50 mph and is full of toxic deadly fumes. An old dilapidated gyrosphere wouldn’t have gone that fast and Owen, even running downhill, couldn’t have come close.

In another scene, an experienced hunter, Ken, (Ted Levine) goes into the cage of THE most dangerous dinosaur ever created for a souvenir tooth. It's an insult to JP I's Muldoon who was taken by a pack of raptors while trying to save other people's lives. It was pretty transparent Ken's death in JW: FK was only to set up the escape of the Indoraptor.

 There was really no reason to try to murder Owen or Claire. They were brought along because of their unique insight into the creatures then discarded as soon as one was found. This didn’t make a lot of sense. They try to commit murder of experts who can help them in order to cover up the theft of animals who have been left to die anyway. Huh?

The most galling problem I have is with the demise of one of the creatures. The very first live dinosaur we see EVER in the franchise is an brachiosaurus. Yes, it is pretend and CGI and no dinosaurs were harmed in the making of the movie because all the dinosaurs are actually….extinct! But because of its emotional impact of awed amazement in the iconic moment of the first JP movie when we first saw what a living breathing dinosaur might look like today, there is a vested connection which audiences over 25 years and five movie have earned. But when Owen and Claire are fleeing the erupting island we watch a brachiosaurus – maybe supposed to be the very one we saw in the first movie – die a prolonged agonizing death. There is a drawn out, extremely painful scene where Owen and Claire watch the creature as it moans at the end of the dock, abandoned, without help, is enveloped by the toxic smoke, becomes a silhouette in the light from the lava and is destroyed. Like the death of Captain Kirk in Generations, the disappearance of Luke at the end of The Last Jedi, or Wash’s demise in the movie Serenity, it felt like a deliberate sign off from the parent franchise. Whether it will signal a new successful batch of movies is another question.

As I pointed out, it is really just an audio-visual emotional roller coaster ride so I shouldn’t expect subtlety.

 Overall I enjoyed JW: FK and do hope this is not the last of their progeny. But I also hope care is take in the future with those characters – human and otherwise – of which we have become so fond.

STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI – IT’S…STAR WARS. WHAT MORE COULD YOU WANT???

 

Have you ever gone into your parents’ attic, rummaged around and found an old favorite toy – a Teddy bear, a plastic sword, a doll house or an old board game? Suddenly you are flooded with the warm fuzzy nostalgia of childhood and the uncomplicated excitement of an anticipated adventure with like minded companions.

In a slightly different scenario, but one which will tie in to the previous analogy, have you ever been to a foreign country which had a McDonald’s? Amidst all of the unfamiliar occasionally unidentifiable store front names, the Golden Arches stands out like a beacon. It doesn’t matter where in the world you go – if there is a McDonald’s, even with a variety of specials particular to the indigenous population, you will still be able to get the same Big Mac in Lesieux, France that you could get in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin or Lake Charles, Louisiana.

Sitting in a dark theater as the simple words “A long ago time ago in a galaxy far, far away” appeared on the screen in deliberate graphic print quality circa 1977 followed by the signature trumpet Star Wars fanfare I couldn’t help but laugh in delight. Now 58, when Star Wars first came out I was 18 years old. As I have repeated in my own cautionary refrain many times to my children – the only reason an 18 year old is now considered a legal adult is because of the Vietnam War. In short, when Star Wars premiered I was still a child.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi, arrived on the screen 40 years 6 months and 20 days after the premiere of Star Wars (later retitled Star Wars: Episode IV A New Hope much to the confusion of many inasmuch as there was no Episode 1, 2 or 3 for many years to come) but who’s counting, right?

During that time we have watched Luke and Leia   be born, grow up, and grow old. Many of us have grown up and grown older right along with them.

How does this all tie in? Simply.   Star Wars doesn’t change. Despite the moderate improvements in special effects the world of Skywalker and Obi Wan Kenobi and Yoda and Darth Vader, Emperor Pallapatine and the Cantina on Tatooine is the same now as it was when we were all much much younger. A few of the trimmings might be tweaked but it’s still the same Star Wars I came to love fresh out of high school.

Like the dusty rediscovered Teddy Bear or the Big Mac purchased in Tokyo, the opening scenes of Star Wars: The Last Jedi are familiar territory to those of us who have tread these paths for 40 plus years of 7 movies, dozens of Halloween Vader masks, uncountable action figures, Youtube analyses, spoofs, comic books, Yoda backpacks, Millenium Falcon bed sheets, fanzines, shipping theories and both canon and non-canon books. This is not strictly speaking a negative thing. Nor is it a criticism, any more than someone who is fond of vanilla ice cream might note that there is a gallon or two of Blue Belle in the freezer.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi breaks very little new ground, does not further the conflict between the dark and light sides of the Force much, or do more than mildly massage the dynamics of the characters we have come to know and love. Even those coming later to the party like Rey (Daisy “Murder on the Orient Express” Ridley), Finn (John Boyega reprising his role from The Force Awakens) and Poe (Oscar Isaac – the only really good thing in Suburbicon) fall into step with their predecessors – Luke, Leia and Han.

MAJOR SPOILER FOR ANYONE WHO HAS NOT SEEN STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS

The entire gang is here minus the significantly notable (and I continue the debate with my kids as to whether or no it was entirely unnecessary) exception of Harrison Ford as Han Solo. Mark Hamill is the aging Luke Skywalker, Anthony Daniels is C3PO, Frank Oz voices Yoda, and Peter Mayhew continues as Chewbacca. Princess Leia, too, has a major role to play, even though, ironically, the actress who played her, Carrie Fisher, has in fact, actually passed away. (Hail the bizarre technology of CGI which enhanced Ms. Fisher’s last screen moments into a fully fleshed out part.)

The premise of Last Jedi is that Rey, the street urchin who discovered her powerful Force sensitivity in the previous Force Awakens, tries to get an extremely reluctant, jaded and worn out Luke to rejoin the fight against the Empire. At the same time the last remnants of the rebel forces attempt to escape the pursuing clutches of the Imperial Fleet directed by Emperor Snoke (Andy Serkis) and lead by General Hux (Domnhall Gleeson), in a caricature of evil Nazi-like officer. Hux seems to have, through a kind of Peter Principle, risen through the ranks to the limits of his capabilities, probably because of the attrition resulting from the execution of previous failed commanders. This is a source of mild amusement to the audience.

Which brings us to the one singular added refreshing ingredient to this familiar but very welcome recipe – the sense of humor which has been incorporated into the characters. There has always been an element of comedy – mostly the droids banter and the snarky comments from Han. But for the most part the other characters were straight men. Now, with a certain seasoning, they have allowed characters like Luke to include a few one liners and humorous moments. guardians-of-the-galaxy-vol-2-1366x768-guardians-of-the-galaxy-vol-2-6474It seems that Guardians of the Galaxy has set the Gold Standard of humor, converting the likes of the Thor franchise from an almost medieval melodramatic fraternal conflict to a sibling rivalry which occasionally plants tongue firmly in cheek and wisely no longer takes itself too seriously, throwing in moments which might otherwise be considered bloopers. Star Wars has reaped the benefits of this informant as well, levitating the mood in much needed relief from its darker more sinister moments.

All in all Star Wars: The Last Jedi shows there’s plenty of steam left in this railroad or should I say fluff in this Teddy bear.

In short Star Wars: The Last Jedi is………Star Wars. And I wouldn’t want them to change a thing.