Nomadland – Review

The pandemic of 2020 left a major impact on the film industry as a whole, but one of the least consequential effects is it’s impact on Hollywood’s desire to still honor the films of the past year.  Awards season, despite being mostly done remotely, has been going off without a hitch.  The one big difference of course is the much more sparse slate of choices from the last year, as most of the major studios pushed back their biggest contenders to later this year, with the hope that cinemas can return to normal business soon.  The Oscars and the Golden Globes did grant an extended period of eligibility for movies this year, with the cutoff date being the end of this month, which means that the public is just now getting the most likely contenders for the big prize nearly two months into the new year.  It’s a concession that we are unlikely to see happen again, as it’s likely that Oscar Season will tighten up again next winter, but it is interesting to see how the Academy adjusted it’s rules so quickly to adapt to these extraordinary times.  Strangely enough, last year’s Oscars happened just before the pandemic moved into full swing, and was one of the last mass gathering events to happen before the lockdowns began.  Though the Academy made the moves in the hopes that they could continue to hold a traditional in-person ceremony, that seems very unlikely as the pandemic is still raging in some parts of the country, including Hollywood itself, and holding a big mass gathering ceremony at this time would be irresponsible.  But, what we are still likely to see at this year’s Oscars is a lot of historic firsts thanks to the lack of competition from the major studios opening the door for independent movies coming from a diverse set of new and exciting voices.

One of the neatest things to have come out of the Awards circuit of 2020 so far has been the dominance of movies coming from groups otherwise overlooked by the Academy.  People of color are likely to see representation among the nominees at this year’s Oscars more than any year past, and that will be quite a gamechanger for Hollywood.  One of the historical milestones that we might see occur this year is the first time every acting category will have at least one POC in the running in the same year, with even an outside chance of sweeping as well.  And that kind of diversity even extends in other categories as well.  We may see a record number of women nominated for directing this year.  Keep in mind, there has never been a year where there has been more than one woman director nominated at a time, and in the 93 year history of the awards, only one woman has won the Directing Oscar; Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker (2009), and that was well over a decade ago.  It’s too bad that history at the Oscars seems to only be possible if Hollywood stays out of the way, but even still, the Awards are long overdue in giving out these kinds of honors.  And the reason I spotlight this is because emerging out of the Awards season so far has been the unlikeliest of front-runners.  Chinese born filmmaker Chloe Zhao has thus far become the most honored Director of the year with her new film Nomadland.  If she were to carry her momentum all the way to Oscar night, her win could really mark a turning point for a lot of other rising filmmakers from other underrepresented backgrounds.  The question is, now that Nomadland is finally making it’s debut to the public audience, is it a movie worthy of all the hype it had received thus far.

The movie Nomadland takes place in the aftermath of the Great Recession, where many small communities faced the harsh reality of economic hardship when the industries that once kept them afloat suddenly went bankrupt.  That is the situation that a middle aged woman named Fern (Frances McDormand) has found herself in.  The town that she lived in suddenly became unincorporated by the state of Nevada after the closure of the Gypsum mine dried up all the jobs that kept the community afloat, and this came after Fern lost her husband to a long battle with Cancer.  Instead of moving back in with family or finding a new home somewhere else, Fern instead converts an old delivery van into a mini-mobile home, taking all her worldly possessions with her on the road.  She soon joins a community of modern day nomads, all of whom help each other adjust to living on the road, finding odd jobs along the way, and exchanging goods through swap meets.  Fern develops a friendships along the way, but a part of her always keeps people at an arms length, preferring solitude over long term attachments.  This aspect of her personality is challenged once she meets another fellow nomad named Dave (David Strathairn), who has been flirting around with her for some time.  She does develop a special bond with Dave, especially when they work for a time in the same kitchen of a restaurant.  But, once Dave is called back to be with his family during an important time, it forces Fern and Dave’s budding relationship to be tested.  In this experience, Fern confronts what kind of life she believes she is destined to live, and how she can square that with the necessities of life constantly being a daily challenge.  Through it all, she tests her resiliency for independence, despite the promising invites to settle down and live quietly once again.  Thus is the life of a nomad, and Fern discovers through heartache and triumph if it’s the true life for her.

For Nomadland to emerge as an Awards season frontrunner is kind of a strange thing to witness.  The movie is a very quiet, low key tone poem of an experience that doesn’t exactly scream out for recognition.  It’s quite a change from your typical Oscar bait movie, which usually wants to notice how important it is.  Nomadland is, by contrast, a very unassuming movie.  It’s the kind of film that you would stumble across in an art cinema or late night or scroll past on a streaming platform without much thought, and yet still find it an absorbing experience.  That’s why it’s so weird that it is not only doing well in the run up to the Oscars, it’s dominating.  The movie took home two major honors already that are bell weathers of the Oscars, which are the Golden Lion from the Venice Film Festival and the Audience Award from the Toronto Film Festival.  Considering other Oscar juggernauts like Green Book (2018), Roma (2018), and Parasite (2019) have rode the festival honors to eventual big wins, it stands to reason that Nomadland is going in this year as the film to beat.  So, it becomes a little unfortunate that I was ultimately underwhelmed by the movie itself.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s not bad by any means, but it just didn’t grab a hold of me in the same way that other movies up for the major awards have in the past.  In a way I feel like the hype behind the movie did it a disservice and raised the bar too high to live up to.  I came into this movie expecting to be blown away by a modern masterpiece, and instead I found it to be a charming if a bit too languid of a movie to go on raving about.  Perhaps it’s just a first impression thing, and I may need multiple viewings to fully appreciate the movie as a whole.  But, going off of my first impressions, I’d say temper your expectations, because a game-changer that will shape cinema for years to come this ain’t.

Some of the response to the movie may be determined by the overall feelings one gets from the story itself.  Based on a novel from Jessica Bruder, and adapted for the screen by Chloe Zhao herself, The movie is overall a very intimate portrait of these people and the life that they lead.  One of the most interesting aspects of film is that it does break down exactly what modern nomad life is actually like, and it doesn’t pass judgment on these people either.  It removes the stigma of these people being transients or homeless.  The nomads in this movie have chosen this life purposely, and are content living on the road.  They work, earn money when they can, support each other, give back whenever someone has handed something out to them.  As Fern states within the movie, she isn’t homeless, she’s house-less, and there is a big difference.  And I liked the scenes where it breaks down how this community functions, as there is a support system in place for all these people as they communicate with each other even when they are miles apart.  Zhao does an excellent job of just letting the moments play out casually on screen; like we have just ease dropped into the lives of these characters.  I especially like how so much detail is put into the living spaces of these make-shift mobile homes, as they reveal so much of the personalities of these people.  Where I feel the movie falls short is that while the subject of the movie is fascinating, it’s also very surface level.  There is no greater purpose to the story; no theme that drives the narrative.  One missed opportunity that I feel the movie glossed over is the way that many of these people have been driven to this kind of lifestyle through an unfair economic structure.  There’s just the slightest hint of it in the way that job opportunities left to people like Fern, who has been displaced by the failure of outdated industries of the past, are now limited to places that devalue the individuality of the worker like an Amazon fulfillment center where Fern works over the holidays.  It’s a theme of displaced people trying to live outside of a society that has left us behind that I feel could have been explored better in the movie, and sadly is uncommented upon for the rest of the film.

What does hold the movie together though is Frances McDormand’s performance.  It is remarkable how well she does disappear into a role movie after movie, and Nomadland is no exception.  This is also one of her more subtle performances too, especially compared to her more showy performances that have won her two Academy Awards already; for Fargo (1996) and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017).  She manages to make Fern a believable everywoman who like all those around her is just trying to live day by day with no greater purpose other than to maintain her independence.  In the hands of a different filmmaker and a different actress, Fern may have been portrayed with a lot less subtlety, to the point where she may have been injected with some kind of mental problems that would have been exploitative for Oscar bait.  Instead, Fern is portrayed as a normal, every day person who has just chosen this way of life as her ideal situation, and that there is no shame in that.  There is an excellent scene where Fern defends her lifestyle to her more grounded, home-owning family who are concerned about her well being, and the movie expertly avoids turning it into an explosive moment that could have made the movie feel false and sermonizing.  Instead, it is a natural back and forth disagreement that defines who Fern is, but also doesn’t portray her family as ignorant either.  It’s honest and that is refreshing to see in a movie like this.  One other incredible aspect of the movie is that Frances is for the most part acting opposite people who are not trained actors, and are in fact real life nomads themselves.   Veteran actor David Strathairn is the obvious exception, and he is quite good too, but all of the non-actors do come across as genuine in front of the camera, and it really shows the incredible skill Chloe Zhao has in bringing out that naturalistic feel in her characters, no matter what level of acting experience they have.  Even with the movie’s lack of larger themes, it does pull you in with the genuineness of the lives it’s bringing to you through the lens of the camera.

And speaking of the camera itself, another area where the movie really soars is the fantastic cinematography on display.  Shot by cinematographer Joshua James Richards, who also worked with Zhao on her previous film The Rider (2017), does a magnificent job of capturing the wide open spaces of the American west.  For a movie that’s all about untethering oneself in order to see the country one road at a time, it does a masterful job of putting you on that road with these modern day nomads.  From the in the middle of nowhere campgrounds to the intimacy of small town life, it’s a wonderful kaleidoscope of the rarely seen parts of America; the areas that can still be called a frontier.  And quite expertly, Zhao also refrains from any sort of social commentary here, which Hollywood often will do with what is known as flyover country.  Zhao’s eye is directed to showing the little lives of these people living in this larger than life world.  There are some incredible shot of mountain ranges and coastlines throughout the movie, as well as a very character driven encounter in the Badlands National Park of South Dakota.  One of the most beautiful shots however comes close to the end, when Fern does return to the home that she left behind.  There you see this vast desert valley stretch out to the mountains in the distance, and the mountain peaks are shrouded by the cloud cover of an overcast sky.  It contrasts so perfectly with the emptiness of her old home, as we see the floor, wall, and ceiling of nature itself welcoming her into her new home.  If there was ever a movie this year that demands a big screen presentation, it is this one.  Thankfully, I got to watch this in a Drive-In, which is appropriate in itself as it’s a theater experience out in the open skies and in the moonlight.  And more importantly, it was on a big screen that really sold the majesty of the big wide open spaces that were so important to the character of Fern at the center of the film.

So, even with my misgivings about the tone and narrative of the story, I can understand why so many people are singing the praises of Nomadland.  It is an expertly crafted and beautifully acted movie that will no doubt transport many people that fall under it’s spell.  It just didn’t grab me as hard as I would’ve liked.  Perhaps if I didn’t go into this movie with the knowledge of it’s frontrunner status of this awards season, I may have been less judgmental of it’s shortcomings.  As of now, I expect it to a least do pretty well at this year’s Oscars, if not outright win the entire thing, but it probably won’t be my own personal pick.  At the same time, if it does win, I won’t be too upset either.  I felt the same way about last year’s winner Parasite; not what I would’ve chosen, but I was happy to see it win (no Green Book inspired outrage here).  Of course I’m saying this even before the nominations have even been announced, so it’s still up in the air.  At the end of the day, I’d say that Nomadland is a fine cinematic experience worth checking out.  It’s a fascinating look into a world that I wasn’t aware of before, and it is constructed with love by a filmmaker who is really starting to emerge as an impressive new voice in Hollywood.  Remarkably her very next film will be the mega-budget blockbuster The Eternals (2021) for Marvel Studios, a wild departure from what she has made in the past.  Hopefully, she doesn’t compromise her unique voice too much to work in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and hopefully she actually molds the Marvel formula more to her tastes, thereby adding a whole different kind of vision into that world.  If she ends up becoming the second ever female director to take home an Academy Award for her work, it will definitely add some clout to her name in Hollywood, and could allow her to make even more ambitious projects down the line.  With Oscar and Marvel on her resume, we may be seeing the emergence of one the true leaders of Hollywood for the next generation, and that’s something that’s been long overdue for a woman director.  Nomadland is a casual, visually stunning and charmingly performed film that while not groundbreaking is nevertheless an expertly crafted passion project for a filmmaker that is likely going to be going on to some very big things in the future.

Rating: 8/10

The Hippogriff in the Room – Separating Art from an Artist and What to Do With Cancel Culture

It is perhaps one of the most unexpected success stories of the last half century.  A down on her luck author manages to publish a novel that becomes a world wide phenomenon and turns her into the figurehead of a billion dollar franchise that continues to reap in the riches every year.  J. K. Rowling discovered that dream come true when she brought the adventures of Harry Potter to the world, making her not only a success within the literary world, but the world’s first ever billionaire writer.  Fueled by an equally successful film franchise based on her books, she entered the new millennium as the head of the biggest new intellectual property since Star Wars, and with the residuals continuing to come in, she has embarked on developing more and more projects based on her writing, both tied to the Harry Potter wizarding world and to her own separate side narratives.  But, in addition to being the mind behind a popular franchise, her fame has also turned her into a public figure; a figure whose voice suddenly carries much more weight in society.  And unfortunately for many, she has chosen to use her voice to put down a marginalized group in society.  In the last couple of years, Ms. Rowling has expressed some controversial opinions about the trans and non-binary communities, stating that she felt their growing status in the culture was a threat to the rights of women.  Her critical words suddenly were met with a backlash from the LGBTQ community, who shot back at her statements, labeling her dismissively as a TERF (trans exclusionary radical feminist).  And while Rowling remains defiant in her beliefs, she has had to face the reality over the last couple of years that her words matter, and that what she says may not be in the best interest of the empire that she has built for herself.

What we’ve seen play out with J.K. Rowling and her conflict with the trans community is indicative of a larger struggle with the limitations of free speech that we are trying to figure out in a society that is more media driven and also more polarized than ever before.  Rowling’s hardline stance on feminism to the exclusion of non-biological woman is indicative of how people have been driven to take stances on subjects these days that are increasingly partisan and closed minded.  Regardless of the merits of her position, it shows that politics and culture has turned far more tribal in recent years and that anyone who doesn’t pick a side in the fight is treated as problem instead of as someone with an open mind.  The problem, however, is that once a person like J.K. Rowling takes a clear stance on a subject, as controversial as that is, it suddenly reflects back on all the other things that she is associated with.  This is the dilemma that everyone associated with the Harry Potter franchise suddenly found themselves in after Rowling made her controversial statements.  To no ones surprise, most of the cast did not share Rowling’s opinions.  Harry Potter himself, Daniel Radcliffe, even publicly went out of his way to repudiate her statements and declare his own support for the trans community.  What’s more, all this friction suddenly makes things more problematic for Rowling’s relationship with Warner Brothers, the current rights holders to Wizarding World franchise that is the creative head of.  They have many future plans for the Potter WW brand, including a continuation of the Fantastic Beasts spinoff and a possible HBO Max series.  And with Ms. Rowling antagonizing a sector of the LGBTQ community, a sector of the audience that has been a loyal part of the fanbase and that Warner would like to continue to tap into, then it creates a conflict that puts the future of the franchise in an awkward place.  The problem is, where do we as a society draw the line at limiting what a person is allowed to say, no matter how powerful they are.

That is an issue that we face in a world where social media has made it possible for anyone to have a public platform in order to share their opinions.  Rowling is one of many public figures that has had to face the wrath of backlash for opinions they have made on their social media pages.   Some celebrities have experienced some benign pushback for making ill-informed statements or a poorly timed joke, but there are others that have also seen their careers and reputations abruptly terminated because of something they shared on social media.  Deserving or not, we are seeing high profile figures face consequences for their own statements or actions, and it has significantly increased the polarization of the discourse of ideas in our society, because people become more pushed into different teams for or against a person based on the fandom surrounding them.  In particular, what happens to celebrities who are “canceled” has been taking on a more politicized connotations, as one side sees it as a sign of persecution and the other sees it as justice being served.  This has developed into what people refer to now as Cancel Culture, where it’s become something of a sport to find anything a person has done that is deemed objectionable and use it as a means of de-platforming them or stripping away their livelihood as punishment.   The extant of Cancel Culture as a greater societal problem is debatable; in some cases it seems a little extreme, like trying to ban movies and books that are deemed objectionable based on modern sensibilities, while other times it feels like Cancel Culture is being touted by individuals who want to feed into their own persecution complexes and want to have a boogeyman to crusade against that actually doesn’t exist.

J.K. Rowling is just one of the cases of people that have become the face of the growing aura of Cancel Culture as a part of our societal dialogue. However, to say that she is being cancelled is a gross exaggeration.  She is a billionaire with a firm grip on control of the empire that she was instrumental in creating.  She is in no danger of seeing her livelihood come apart.  But other public figures lower on the pecking order can suddenly see their fortunes reversed with unexpected speed.   It’s emblematic of the way that we treat celebrities in the first place.  Regardless of the severity of their transgressions, we often give the celebrity with the higher public profile more of a benefit of the doubt.  Some of that firewall protection was thankfully dismantled when the MeToo movement gained speed and brought many abusive players within the entertainment industry to justice.   But what MeToo also started was this feeling of satisfaction in bringing down powerful people, and it did fuel the drive behind Cancel Culture to find the next big power player to take down.  In a way, Cancel Culture became trophy hunting, and it began to drift away from the actual purpose of holding people accountable for their actions and instead became about seeing the mighty fall.  As a result, Cancel Culture became a new flashpoint in the ongoing culture wars between left wing and right wing values.  The right believes that Cancel Culture is being used to silence conservative voices in the media, and that it is part of a new blacklist, reminiscent of McCarthyism.  Though Cancel Culture has led to some questionable actions, it is ludicrous to believe that it’s impact is the same as the censorship of the Blacklist era in Hollywood.

A little historical refresher.  When Senator Joseph McCarthy, a Republican from Wisconsin, started his crusade against what he believed to be an infiltration of Communist influence into all fabrics of society, it began a scary time in America known as the Red Scare.  McCarthy sparked the House Un-American Activities Committee to weed out suspected communist sympathizers from every sphere of influence in society, including Hollywood.  It led to what became known as the Blacklist, as those to be known or even suspected of Communist sympathies were barred from receiving work within the film industry.  This included anyone who supported anything deemed radical left, like support for the Civil Rights Movement or strong support for Union workers; basically anything deemed left of center.  People were also encouraged to name names, which also disgraced many people within Hollywood who were desperate to just hold onto their jobs.  It was a dark moment in American history, but to compare it to the Cancel Culture of today misses one crucial thing.  McCarthyism and the Blacklist were invasive measures to curtail freedom of speech enacted by the federal government itself, with the assistance of corporations and major studios.  Eventually, the Blacklist was broken by saner minds in the years after and McCarthy’s own paranoia eventually got the best of him, alienating himself from even his Republican colleagues.  Modern day Cancel Culture, as pervasive as it is, is entirely mechanism of the culture itself, and is not an overreach of government.  So to say that what we are seeing now is the same thing is really misreading the lessons of history.

I certainly don’t want to think that we are only one tweet away from facing censorship, and that the best course of action is to watch what we say and conform to a single way of thinking.  But those decrying Cancel Culture should also keep in mind that freedom of speech is also not freedom from consequence.  Just because we have the freedom to say what we want doesn’t mean that others can’t hold you accountable for what you say either.  The nature of the free market is that separate entities are able to operate the way that they see fit, and that includes setting their own standards of what kind of speech is acceptable.  While corporations can set their own expectations of conduct and speech within their organizations, it is constitutionally important that the Federal Government are not the ones setting those standards.  Do media companies have too much power over an individuals freedom of speech, which has made things like Cancel Culture so problematic; certainly, but as it stands, they have the constitutional right to cancel or de-platform anyone they deem a problem to their bottom line.  I find it a little ironic that the political figures that are currently decrying the power that big tech and media conglomerates have over the limitations of speech are also the same figures that granted these corporations those powers in the first place, with the defanging of regulation and ending of net neutrality.  It’s just unfortunate for them that media companies want to cast their nets wide and appeal to groups of all kinds, including the ones that people on both sides want to keep silent.  The power that media companies wield is problematic, but the fact that they are in the business of diversity makes the complaints of Cancel Culture being one sided politically a little moot.  What matters to these corporations is that their profiles remain free of controversy, and that is why they cancel some people the way they do; not because of their nature of their politics, but because of the hostile direction that some people take their speech.

There are plenty of celebrities that span the political spectrum who remain perfectly free of controversy, and that is mainly because they know to deal with their differences in a civil way.  For some people, their cancellation is more of a self-inflicted wound.  Take the example from this week with Mandalorian star Gina Carano, whose transphobic and anti-Semitic tweets finally became too much for Disney to handle and they decided to fire her from her high profile role on the hit show.  Naturally, she played the victim, and tried to get the American right on her side with the complaints of Cancel Culture, but the fact that she was able to immediately line up another project only a day after shows that her complaints of being blacklisted are a little nonsensical.  The truth is she was fired because her words and actions became increasingly threatening and hostile, especially after her co-star Pedro Pascal publicly supported his trans sister’s decision to come out, and also because of Carano’s unapologetic support of violent extremists who stormed the nation’s Capitol.  At that point, it became more than just talking politics; it became openly encouraging hostility, and Disney was not having it anymore.  It’s a dilemma that we face with the limits that we deem acceptable for free speech.  Where Cancel Culture seems to cross the line is when it becomes blurry when a person is joking or speaking with sincerity.  Comedians in particular walk the fine line, and often them falling victim to cancel culture is where the movement takes things too far.  We saw director James Gunn lose his job momentarily because of such a backlash, with 10 year old offensive jokes on Twitter coming back to bite him, and it was this example that did make people reconsider how militant they should be taking the Cancel Culture as a whole.  But as we’ve seen, accountability for what a person says, and more importantly what they do, reflects back on the public persona that try to procure for themselves and in the end, you get the fanbase that you deserve and what you do will determine what kinds of fans those will be.

We also have to take in the notion that everyone is flawed in their own way.  The best among us are the ones that can carry their flaws well enough and rise above them.  It’s a little unfair to expect that every celebrity has to be perfect in every way.  In some cases, underneath the exterior, a celebrity may in fact be a rotten person to their core, and it becomes more incumbent on the fan to decide whether or not they want to continue to support that person when they find what they do to be problematic.  Cancel Culture may just be a culmination of so many years of people getting away with abhorrent behavior because we’ve allowed them to, and now with social media, it’s become so much easier to hold the powerful accountable.  The unfortunate thing is, art has become more centrally tied to the people responsible for creating it.  If you are a fan of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter but also either a trans person or someone close to a trans individual, you’re having a hard time maintaining that fandom.  By supporting this franchise, you are financially supporting J.K. Rowling, and her financial stability is giving her the confidence to say whatever she wants publicly without consequence.  One can boycott as much as they like, but there comes a point that some individuals become so insulated that they will never face any backlash, and will continue to spread their controversial opinions, and that can be dangerous to society.  It ultimately comes down to the power of money, and the better way to hold people accountable for their hurtful actions is to hold the power structures that prop them up responsible.  Cancel Culture’s big mistake is probably believing that the individual needs to be uniquely made an example of, while the corporations and power structures that propped them up are taken off the hook.  In the end, we have to look at what the actions of the artist means for us.  If what they say overwhelms the good art that they make, then it’s within your right to refuse to support them.  The ultimate level of consequences that a person face should reflect the harm that they have inflicted on others, but freedom of speech is a two way street that we must respect.  People can say anything they want, but people who object to that speech are also within their rights to withhold support for that person, and the greater the numbers in that pushback, the more it may cause the other person to reconsider the power of their own words.

Focus on a Franchise – Toy Story

There’s no doubt about it.  The moment Computer Generated Imagery was adopted as a tool for filmmaking, cinema was forever changed.  Though visual effects had been around since the advent of celluloid, the digital age opened up so many more possibilities for filmmakers to make the impossible appear possible.  Of course looking back on early computer imagery compared to what is possible today, you can certainly see where even in the beginning there were limitations.  And yet, the technology took the industry by storm and is now an integral part of the filmmaking process, no matter how big or small the movie may be.  But, perhaps the most profound area in which CGI left it’s mark the most was in the field of animation.  What was once a tool to enhance traditional animation to make it more dimensional (such as with the ballroom sequence from Beauty and the Beast) evolved into the very thing that would drive the hand drawn medium to near extinction in less than a decade.  In the 21st century, practically every animated movie now is produced with computers; a far cry from the pencil and paper method of the previous century.  Luckily for the industry leader in animation, Disney, they saw the writing on the wall early, and made sure that they had partnered with the studio that was at the forefront of this new frontier.  Pixar, founded by software engineer Ed Catmull and former Disney Animator John Lasseter, with financial backing by Apple CEO Steve Jobs, quickly rose to prominence in the 80’s and 90’s as the leaders of the burgeoning computer animation industry.  Having picked up a couple Academy Awards along the way for their acclaimed shorts, they were approached by Disney to take the next step forward and partner up on what would be the first ever feature length animated movie.

But what would work as the subject for the first ever computer animated film.  The traditional Disney fairy tale would not have worked, as it was too complicated to animate given the limitations of the technology at the time.  And Pixar was looking to define it’s own identity outside of what Disney was famous for making.  The inspiration for what they would ultimately make would come from their 1988 Oscar-winning short subject, Tin Toy.  In that short, the main character is a little tin drummer toy that comes to life, something that CGI could give stunning, life like reality to.  From that, Pixar devised the idea of a story centered around what toys do when people aren’t around, and imagined if they come to life and play around on their own.  Thus, we get what would ultimately become the first ever computer animated film, Toy Story.  But even after devising that concept, making it a reality would prove even harder to pull off.  Pixar was about to push the medium of computer animation further than it had ever been before; both in environmental design and in constructing character.  New rendering programs would need to be invented on the fly, just to make the characters feel like they were actually alive.  And it had to work as a story as well.  A near disastrous first pass at the story almost got the movie canceled by Disney, as the movie was deemed too slow and it’s main character was viewed as too mean.  Ultimately, Pixar managed to figure it all out, and Toy Story not only managed to become a success, it also began a revolution in animation that continues to this day.  What’s even more remarkable is that even a quarter of a century later, Toy Story is still just as powerful today as when it first came out, and even managed to a continue on as a franchise where each new film is equally as celebrated as the first.  Looking at each movie in the franchise, let’s see how exactly each movie managed to build on the one before, and also display the incredible advances that computer animation went through over the same amount of time.

TOY STORY (1995)

The one that started it all.  You’d probably have to go all the way back to Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937) to find another movie that left as much of an impact on animation as this one did.  With Pixar founder John Lasseter at the director’s helm, and future Pixar titans like Andrew Stanton and Pete Doctor involved in crafting the story, Toy Story would become the standard bearer that would define every movie that would come after it.  It’s deceptively simple story, about a cowboy doll named Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks) being replaced by a space based action figure named Buzz Lightyear (voiced by Tim Allen) as the new favorite toy of a young boy named Andy, reveals surprising layers of emotion and complexity as it goes along; something that would be a Pixar trademark.  What is striking about Toy Story is just how well it all comes together.  Even with the primitive capabilities of computer animation at the time it is amazing how the movie still holds up all these years later.  I think it’s because that plastic-y look of early CGI just works for characters that are made of plastic, so even after over 20 years, the characters still feel authentic.  But as mind blowing as the animation was for it’s time, what really makes the movie work as well as it does is the dynamic between it’s two leads.  Woody and Buzz are a film duo for the ages, and their growth from adversaries to friends over the course of the movie is what carries the heart of the movie.  Hanks and Allen are also perfectly matched voices for these two as well, and their casting couldn’t have been more fortuitous for Pixar as by the time Toy Story hit theaters, Hanks had won back to back Oscars and Allen had the #1 sitcom on TV.  A well rounded supporting cast that included comedy legends like Wallace Shawn, Don Rickles, and Jim Varney also helped.

There is a universal story at the center of the movie that no doubt played a part in making it appeal to all audiences.  But it is surprising that it took a while for Pixar to find that heart at the center of the movie.  Initially, Woody was portrayed as a bit of a bully in the original pass of the story, as the filmmakers believed that they needed a protagonist with a little bit of an edge to him.  Unfortunately for them, it made the character too unlikable.  Apparently, Disney CEO Michael Eisner hated the original script of the story and threatened to shut the project down because of this hard cynical take on the character.  And thankfully, Lasseter and Company were in agreement.  They recognized that there was no place for a mean spirited character at the center of their movie.  They needed to soften the character in order to make it work, and that’s just what they did.  One thing that helped is that they centralized the movie more around both Woody and Buzz, with Woody’s fear of replacement driving him down a bad road and Buzz slowly realizing that he is indeed a toy and not a real space ranger.  As the movie goes along, that character dynamic drives the heart of the film, and we as the audience grow to love both of them, both for their faults and their strengths.  They are perhaps two of the most well-rounded characters that you’ll find anywhere in the medium of animation, and that’s saying something for characters that are essentially play things for children.   The thing that made the movie soar most of all was that the team at Pixar just followed their guts and made the movie that they would enjoy watching, which really gave it it’s universal appeal to audiences of all ages.  It’s funny and charming, and remarkably timeless in a way you wouldn’t expect from a groundbreaking experiment in new technology.

TOY STORY 2 (1999)

Naturally when one movie becomes a smash hit, talk of a sequel is inevitably going to follow.  Unfortunately for Pixar, the beginnings of sequel talk came at a time when Disney was deep into it’s Direct to Video sequel phase.  The studio was resoundingly criticized for it’s heavy reliance on cheap sequels to it’s beloved classics during the late 90’s and early 2000’s, and shockingly it was moving in that direction with Toy Story as well.  A follow-up to the box office hit was quickly put into production with the same team, but as development went along, it became clear that a movie like this shouldn’t go straight to video; it belonged on a big screen.  So, Toy Story 2 was spared the indignities of Direct to Video hell and was given the full blown sequel treatment.  And it’s a good thing too, because Toy Story 2 not only matches it’s predecessor, it surpasses it in every way.  The idea behind the sequel is a brilliant one; delving deeper into Woody’s character as he learns that he’s a highly prized collectors’ item with a long history.  Through learning more about his place in the world, Woody is confronted more with the fact that Andy will one day be too old to play with him, and that would be the end for him.  It’s strange to think that a movie about talking toys would involve a deep existential questions about loss and finding one’s purpose, but that’s what Toy Story 2 manages to include in it’s narrative.  It also expanded the story in a profound way, with the addition of a key new character in the yodeling cowgirl Jessie.  Jessie (voiced by Joan Cusack) is a vibrant, funny new addition to the cast, but she has a tragic backstory of abandonment that also defines her.  The highlight of the movie comes in the form of a song written by Pixar stalwart Randy Newman and performed by Sarah McLaughlin that shows how Jessie lost her favorite child owner.  In that singular song, Pixar would establish the one other trait that would define them as a studio; it’s ability to bring an audience to tears.  Quite a place for Pixar to be at with only their third ever feature (after the original and A Bug’s Life).  They were called upon to make a cheap, throw away sequel by Disney, and instead they made on of the best sequels of all time.

TOY STORY 3 (2010)

For the decade that followed, Pixar would spend it’s time building it’s reputation further with a flurry of brilliant original new features before they even entertained the idea of trying another sequel.  It would be a full 11 years after Toy Story 2 that a third movie became a reality.  By this time, the other two movies had become beloved and untouchable classics, so a third Toy Story seemed to some to be a little superfluous.  But, under the new guidance of director Lee Unkrich, Toy Story 3 would again prove that this franchise still had more surprises left up it’s sleeve.  One of the things that surprisingly worked in the movie’s favor is the lengthy passage of time.  Here, we find Woody’s worst fears finally coming to a head, as Andy is now all grown up and ready to give up all his toys.  Thanks to his growth since the last movie, Woody is more or less prepared for this inevitable day, but it’s the fate of the other toys that are his family that drives his concern throughout the movie.  The film theorizes the different kinds of fate that the toys might face when they no longer have a home.  There’s a preschool where the toys are treated more like inmates at a prison, and there’s a fateful near annihilation that they also almost face in an incinerator.  The toys are given a loving new home once Andy passes them along to a sweet little girl named Bonnie in the end, and the movie ultimately shows how to let go of a loved one in a way that ultimately feels fulfilling and hopeful.  The final note that the movie leaves on, with Woody and Andy saying their goodbyes is a perfect coda to the arch that they’ve been on for the past three movies.  That’s ultimately what makes Toy Story 3 so worthwhile in the end.  It also gives us the best villain in the series as well, with the subtle brutality of Lotso Huggins Bear (voiced brilliantly by Ned Beatty).  Toy Story had a passable heavy in the demented boy next door Sid, and 2 even gave us a trio of villains (Zurg, Al, and Stinky Pete), but Lotso comes with the most compelling backstory and most dominant presence within the series, and he is likewise the best new addition to the series.  Also of note is the hilarious performance of Michael Keaton as the Ken doll.  Even with all that, it’s Pixar’s unshakable ability to do right by their beloved toys that ultimately makes this third film a worthy addition to this franchise.

TOY STORY 4 (2019)

You would think that it would be crazy to go beyond the absolutely perfect final note that Toy Story 3 left us on, with the completion of Woody and Andy’s story.  But, for Pixar veteran Andrew Stanton, it’s not where he envisioned Woody’s story would end.  After another 9 years since the last installment in the series, we were given a follow-up to the adventures of the toy gang in Toy Story 4.  With director Josh Cooley this time at the helm, the story written by Stanton and newcomer Stephany Folsom brings a surprising new angle to the forefront, and that’s the underlying love story between Woody and Bo Peep (voiced by Annie Potts).  Bo Peep had been there for emotional support in previous movies, but here, she is given the full spotlight alongside Woody, and their relationship is focused on with more importance than ever before.  Her life outside of the world of Andy’s Room opened her up to more possibilities and she ends up sharing those with Woody, further showing him a different outlook on what he could be doing with his life.  As we see, despite trying to put the most positive spin on it, Woody is not being played with by Bonnie in the same way that he was by Andy, and Bo Peep ultimately shows him that life outside the play room is where he should be.  Remarkably, it manages to breath new life into a series that most of us long thought had exhausted all of it’s best tricks.  We thought that saying goodbye to Andy was where it should have ended, but the real true ending is Woody saying goodbye to the other toys.  I dare any of you to not tear up the moment Woody and Buzz have their final hug together.  It really honors the lengthy history that these two character have had together and shows that, yeah, this is a fitting ending to this story.  Toy Story 4 also shows just how far animation has come since the first film, as this is probably the most gorgeous looking film in the series.  The nighttime scenes lit up by carnival lights in particular stand out.  And even still, these characters still feel just the same as when we first met them.  Fun new addition include a hilarious daredevil action figure named Duke Caboom (with the inspired casting of Keanu Reeves as the voice) as well as Forky (voiced by Tony Hale), probably the strangest character in the entire series overall.  We all believed that a movie like this was impossible, but Andrew Stanton indeed showed there was more story worth telling, and we’re all rewarded for having it come true in the end.

A movie like Toy Story really is one of those once in a generation kinds of phenomena that changes cinema forever, so it’s even more remarkable that they’ve managed to make four of these movies of equal quality.  They not only managed to make a sequel that surpassed the original, but they made another one a full eleven years later, and even a fourth nearly as long after as that and in defiance of a near perfect ending.  There is no doubt that just like the original Toy Story stands as a pinnacle in the history of animation that the franchise as a whole is without equal amongst all other animated franchises.  Each one adds something overall to the franchise that is indispensable, and it largely has to do with the different emotional turns that it takes the characters.  I don’t think any of us would have cared this much about the lives of toys like this movie makes us do.  And that’s largely because through the eyes of Woody, Buzz, Jessie and the like, we see our own anxieties and passions reflected.  How many parents out there have connected with the journey that Woody and Andy go through in this series.  So many parents know that their time with their children is fleeting, and that ultimately there will come a time when a child grows old enough to live their own life separately, and Toy Story is ultimately about accepting that inevitable step in life with a positive outlook for the future.  It’s also a series about finding one’s family, even when it’s not the one you expected.  As it stands, Toy Story has concluded it’s tale on just the right amount of story, and anything after 4 would indeed be overkill.  There is, however, room for alternative takes on these characters, which is indeed what Pixar is working on now with the spinoff Lightyear, which is an in universe exploration of Buzz’s journey to become a space ranger, played in his early years by actor Chris Evans.  For what it is, the four films of the Toy Story franchise are as near perfect of a story arc as anyone could ask for with a story based on toys.  While Disney and Pixar set out to put computer animation on the map, the team behind the movie went to infinity and beyond and delivered more than one classic for the ages, all of which will stand the test of time and continue to hold the bar high for this legendary animation studio.