It may be the greatest film series of all, but do we need a fourth instalment? A trip to Pixar reveals why they (quite rightly) say yes. By Jonathan Dean.
I love Italian food!" bellows Tim Allen, voice of Buzz Lightyear, down the phone at me. He says a lot of random things during our chat, about the time he raced Ford cars, for instance, but this outburst quickly comes to make sense. "I know several Italian families, and they have a meal that starts pasta, bread, vegetables... then you eat. It is never-ending flavour — and that reminds me of these films. A huge feast."
He's not wrong, and two key things at the start of Toy Story 4 exemplify this. First, photorealistic rain pours, hinting at film-makers showing off how well they can programme water now, always tricky. Second, we see what happened to the lamp shepherdess Bo, who left before Toy Story 3 and made Woody sad. Both signpost the visual and emotional depths that follow in the new film, which knows its audience has grown up and suggests toys can grow up as well. It is also funny, but from the reality check for Buzz in the first film, echoing Philip K Dick's inquiries into the mind, to the romantic Brontë-esque riff here, there is little about all this that is cartoonish any longer. Just think of that third film, when all the toys nearly died.
Toy Story has arguably become the most flawless film series of all time, which is staggering, given that one of its working titles was Plastic Buddies. Toys in the Hood was also mooted by a fledgling Pixar, which clearly got better at names. The company employed 129 people in 1995 for the debut of Woody and Buzz Lightyear, and from those scrappy days with slow computers, Toy Story has leapt so far that this week's sequel, Toy Story 4, has a crew of 475. Some are on the team only to perfect on-screen dust. Yes, dust. It isn't just rain that they obsess over now, and nothing suggests that lavish care, and cash, is being spent more than people paid just to do dust.
Toy Story 4 has the toys on their most ambitious adventure yet, a road trip that never forgets the reason people enjoy Pixar films is its characters. No one cares about eye-popping pixels if the heroes are flat — I've seen last year's Peter Rabbit — so, to that end, the stuntman Duke Caboom is the new Buzz. Think an Evil Knievel pullback motorbike from the 1970s, but from Canada and depressed, and you have Keanu Reeves's rousing debut in voice work.
Bo, meanwhile, like a refugee from the old Eastern Bloc, has discovered the joy of being free from ownership. And there's a boisterous pair of soft toys, Ducky and Bunny, plus Forky, a speaking spork who questions if, just because he thinks, he is. We've all been there.
"The emotional range of these movies has become more profound," says Tom Hanks, whose Woody shares a lot of screen time with said utensil. "Everyone involved invented a special collection of movies that hits each one of us in an individual way."
"This has been emotional for Hanks and me," Allen says. "For a grown man, like myself, to sob? Well, this film dives in deeper than ever, questioning what a friendship is. What does it mean to let go? Toy Story 3 got frightening, but this is another beat. Tom and I had a hard time. In fact, I had a terrible time — I had tragedy in my life as a kid [his father, Gerald, died in a car crash when Allen was 11] and I've always thought about loss. But this isn't losing. It is evolving. And that affected me greatly."
The ending of Toy Story 4 reminds Allen of the recent Avengers: Endgame, where beloved icons died, but I disagree. That saga has nothing on this one, and those superheroes, not these toys, are the real cartoons.
Last month, I visited the Pixar studios outside San Francisco as they were putting the finishing shine on Toy Story 4. What a place to work, I thought, as I walked past a statue of the bendy lamp, in through the front door, to be greeted by models of The Incredibles and a cabinet filled with Oscars. The place is scattered with memories from one's own life, from films I enjoyed as a child, like A Bug's Life (there is a seat in the shape of Heimlich the caterpillar) to those I watch with my children, such as Finding Nemo (there is a model of the shark by some loos). The site also has an outdoor pool.
Up in the main offices, past walls filled with concept art, I meet Josh Cooley, director of Toy Story 4; Valerie LaPointe, the story supervisor; and the producers Jonas Rivera and Mark Nielsen. Their combined CVs include Inside Out and Up; all are very relaxed.
Yet this film is a risk. Not financially — it might make a billion dollars at the box office, while selling merchandise from teddies to Monopoly sets — but historically. The first three stories are nearly perfect (100%, 100%, 98% scores on the reviews site Rotten Tomatoes; voted the greatest children's film ever last week in a survey of British adults), so why, money aside, come back? Why test that legacy?
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"We certainly feel pressure," says Rivera, showing no signs of pressure. "But then," Cooley chips in, "that became the answer. What's next? Why keep going? The end of Toy Story 3 is the end of Woody's time with Andy [his previous owner]. Toy Story 4 is a continuation of Woody's tale."
"Each of these movies is about how Woody changes," Rivera continues. "From selfish to selfless in the first, while the second is understanding that this isn't going to last for ever, the third about letting go. The fourth? It's second chances. We talked about when we met our partners. What happens in life when you're hit with something you don't expect?"
"The returning Bo is an example of that," LaPointe says. "You take Woody's greatest fear for the first three films, which is being abandoned, and she redefines that as something great. It turns Woody's world upside down, his whole way of perceiving life and relating to a kid."
In fact, I say, Toy Story 4 questions if toys need children at all. "Yes," Rivera agrees. "'What are we, actually?'" With that in mind, could Toy Story 5 be like The Birds, but with playthings attacking humans and taking over? "How did you know our plans?" Rivera yells, laughing, which leads LaPointe to ask "What is the lifespan of a toy?" before we talk about eternal life and vampires, and I realise I'm not going to work at Pixar any time soon.
Such imagination, though, lies behind Toy Story. Rivera, a man paid to think these things, says the characters don't see themselves as toys. They believe they have purpose and, when not used for that purpose, they are afraid. They feel anxious. "It's very human," he says.
At the heart of the films is the idea that a toy is the one thing in children's lives that never lets them down or tells them off. Children have power over toys in a way they have power over nothing else, and the toys comfort them. In some ways, they are their best friends. One theory about Toy Story takes this further, claiming that Woody belonged to Andy's dad, but Andy's dad is dead — he is never in the films — and his cowboy is his son's memory of him. The one toy he wants to take to university.
"We also look at the toys like parents," Cooley says. "Their job is to be there for their kid, which is what a parent's job is — to support your kids."
Pixar was founded in 1986 and grew to its imperial phase thanks in large part to the money of Steve Jobs and the brain of John Lasseter. Lasseter directed Toy Story and Toy Story 2, and was involved in the inception of Toy Story 4. Last year, however, he left Pixar because, in 2017, allegations of sexual misconduct were made against him. He admitted to "mis-steps" and apologised to those he had let down. Thanks to his pioneering use of computer animation, his influence on the film industry is set in stone. His reputation, though, is in tatters.
How much did he have to do with the new film? "When it was announced, he was the original director and I was co-directing," Cooley says. "Then he said he was too busy, so asked me to direct. It was a huge honour, and terrifying, because it's Toy Story, but Jonas and Mark were on board from the very beginning..."
Nielsen steps in to help. "It's been about a year and a half since we've had contact with John," he says bluntly, before adding, even more bluntly, "And the film's changed a lot. It really came together in this past year."
Yet the alleged indiscretions mean it is hard not to see aspects of Toy Story 4 — the return of Bo as a kick-ass porcelain Lara Croft, Woody pinning his sheriff's badge on Jessie — as a reaction to Lasseter and the #MeToo movement that development was tied up in.
"It never came up in a meeting," Cooley says. "Like, 'We need to make a stand on feminism.' It was more a question of what the right way to tell the story was, and we wanted to make Bo stronger than before. When Woody is insecure in the old films, she gets him back on track, and we decided to elevate that. And the Jessie thing came from watching my daughter. She has a Woody and a Jessie, and Jessie is her favourite. Things like that came naturally, and we started five years ago, so had no idea how times might change."
Either way, a lot of effort has gone into Bo, which is clear from the team of six women (including LaPointe) I meet who are responsible for updating the stuffy character, making sure their male colleagues avoid certain tropes in doing so. Bo is athletic, feminine, and her mood board includes Rey from Star Wars (Daisy Ridley), a gymnast and, curiously, Geena Davis in the baseball film A League of Their Own. Why? For her posture and respect. Charts reveal that, contained by her dress, "Classic Bo" was "Feminine and Reserved", while "Modern Bo", now in trousers, is "Independent and Comfortable". They flick through binned designs. A black cloak. Armed with a fidget spinner.
I am just sad nobody finessed Señorita Cactus like this. She existed in an alternate Toy Story 2, but, over and over, the detail in Toy Story 4 astounds. It is similar to a Bruegel painting. You would miss the intricacies if they went — a yellow dress on a doll, sun-bleached as she has been stuck on a shelf, the AI spiders programmed to weave webs. Someone even came up with a logo for the manholes in the made-up town of Grand Basin. It was decided, back in the time of the Wild West, that rival settlers came across a rooster and an armadillo on a road, who were getting along. So the humans decided that if the animals can, we can too. They put down roots and the emblem — which you probably won't notice — is of a rooster riding the back of an armadillo.
All well and ridiculous, but it is never the technical stuff we remember from our favourite films. Technical brilliance is just a blank canvas that needs a painting, one that moves viewers. And, for the final 10 minutes of Toy Story 4, I completely forgot I was watching a story about toys. Nothing is overplayed. It is quick and does not linger. It shows these toys' lives are still not their own, despite their emotions. They just have to get on with it. Will we see them again? Well, four films in a franchise is rare. Once you have broken out of a trilogy, sequels tend to keep on coming.
"If we decide Toy Story 5 is there for us," Allen tells me, "we'll figure a way. Tom and I have been doing this for 25 years, and I identify with Buzz so much... It's surprising how much emotion can come out of these animated characters."
Toy Story 4 opens in New Zealand on June 27.
Written by: Jonathan Dean
© The Times of London