The Arc and the Epilogue

In the beginning, Pixar made Toy Story, and it was good.

Then Pixar made Toy Story 2, and it was very good.

And Pixar made Toy Story 3, and it was good enough until the last twenty minutes, when it became very good.

And Pixar said, “Let us make sequels, for therein lies boatloads of easy money, plus we have no ideas on the drawing board except one about a ‘newt’, which is apparently a lizard that looks we assume much like other lizards, except the ones that prey on tourists in Australia.” And so Pixar made Toy Story 4.

And Toy Story 4 was …

… Good.

And this was surprising.

I had no faith when Toy Story 4 was announced. I marked it, without any particular emotion, as another sign that Pixar had sold its birthright for a mess of pottage. Nonetheless, I went to see it when it came out. Even Pixar’s mediocre efforts are solidly pleasant, and just because I know their game of nostalgia doesn’t mean I won’t play. I got more than I came for; I thoroughly enjoyed Toy Story 4. It is true, though possibly faint praise, that Toy Story 4 is easily the best Pixar movie since Inside Out.

I have two principal convictions regarding Toy Story 4, not entirely congruous or contradictory. The first is that Toy Story 4 is a genuinely good movie, more enjoyable in most ways than Toy Story 3. The movie is bright, spirited, clever. Forky, its most ingenious creation, perfectly binds existential dilemmas with sunny humor – a flash of the old Pixar brilliance. It reuses ideas from the older Toy Story films, notably the villainous unloved toy and the sinister organization of Sunnydale. Yet it reuses the ideas with such virtuosity that the earlier incarnations seem like first drafts of this final, perfected version. Toy Story 4 possesses a fleetness that even Toy Story 3 lacked.

My second conviction is that Toy Story 4 demonstrates conclusively that the arc of the Toy Story films is finished. More, it demonstrates that the films, in moving beyond Andy, have lost something central and irreplaceable. The toys spent the first three films on adventures away from Andy, but the point was always to get home to him. What united the three movies into a trilogy was a thematic idea and an emotional arc. Toy Story drew the first, straightforward line: the purpose Andy gave to his toys, and the love they returned. Toy Story 2 drew the curve: the purpose would inevitably end; the love, probably also. Toy Story 3 finished the arc: the purpose completed, the story ended.

Toy Story 4 throws nostalgic glances back at the story, but it can’t connect to it. It can’t continue the arc. A better movie than Toy Story 3 through most of its runtime, it never achieves the emotional power of that movie’s best moments. It even seems a testimony to the orbital pull of Andy’s love that in this, the first film without him, the toys drift away from each other. Toy Story 4‘s disconnection from the arc of the preceding Toy Story movies might not be a loss. But it is a lack.

If you view it in the right mood (probably a generous mood), you can take Toy Story 4 as a kind of epilogue to its predecessors. No, there won’t be another Andy for Woody. But there will be other things. Whatever view you take, the cleverness and sheer fun of Toy Story 4 are winning. I enjoyed it, and that’s all you can really expect from the theater.

Still, I have a conviction that if Pixar makes Toy Story 5, it will not be good. It’s time to let Toy Story rest in peace. Even the epilogue has been written, after all.

Mary Poppins, Second Verse

When Disney released Mary Poppins Returns – a sequel 55 years coming – I had such faith that I waited to see the film until it had been released on DVD. If I had realized how closely and consciously the sequel paralleled the original, my faith would have been even less. It is, then, with some astonishment that I report that the parallelism worked and was, in fact, one of the film’s best aspects.

You should understand that this is contrary to my instincts. Of all the things that make sequels a bore, the tendency to retread the original leads the pack. As for remakes, there is no point to their existence if they retell instead of revise. Yet Mary Poppins Returns built itself by the plumb line of Mary Poppins, and in that decision it succeeded. This unlikely success was, I think, made by two principal factors.

Crucially, Mary Poppins Returns threads the needle of paralleling the original without mirroring it. As you know, parallelism is the art of pleasing correspondence. There can be a fine line between that and repetition, especially in parallelism’s more elaborate forms. Mary Poppins Returns stays on the right side of that line, with much credit due to the fact that it has the flavor of emerging from the same universe as the original Mary Poppins. I don’t know enough of the P.L. Travers books to know whether Cousin Topsy, the leeries, and the adventure “in china” are inspired by them. But they feel as if they might have been. You feel, within the films, that they are similar because they belong to the same world, where London’s cobbled streets twist into nooks where relatives defy physical laws and proper Victorian nurseries contain worlds hidden in plain sight on the mantelpiece.

Emily Blunt’s delightful performance gives significant support to the movie’s cause. Wisely declining to imitate the inimitable Julie Andrews, Blunt offers a different interpretation of Mary Poppins: less sugar, more spice. Yet it is still Mary Poppins, more of the books than of the classic movie. Blunt adds the distinction, retains the similarity. Mary Poppins still glides through – and over – the world with command and self-possession. And if she is sharper now than when we first met her, still that sharpness was present before; if she was more tender then, that tenderness is yet found now.

The primary reason that the parallelism succeeds as it does is that it is an eternal part of the idea of Mary Poppins. In the first movie, Mary Poppins archly reminds Michael and Jane of all the children she has said good-bye to. Bert – ever canny in the ways of Mary Poppins – is no more surprised to see her go than he was to see her come, and he closes the movie with his farewell: “Don’t stay away too long.” This is simply what Mary Poppins does, simply who she is: alighting where she pleases, working magic and chaos, and all in the spirit of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children. Bert assures us that what is about to happen in Mary Poppins has all happened before. Mary Poppins Returns shows us it all happening again.

Mary Poppins Returns succeeds in its imitation because it does not repeat the original film; it rhymes with it. In well-executed rhyme, the sameness of structure and certain sounds is a pleasing thing. We understand, moreover, that Mary Poppins doesn’t really end or begin. We have, in these two films, neither beginning nor ending, but two verses in a song that plays mostly outside our hearing.