I wasn't ready to love Toy Story 4

I wasn't ready to love Toy Story 4

I don't remember much from 1995, but I do remember seeing the original Toy Story. I remember the scene when Buzz Lightyear showed up in Andy's room for the first time. I remember, "To infinity... and beyond!" Or how about that first "flying" sequence when he bounced off the famous Pixar ball, did the loopty loop on the Hot Wheels track, and ultimately stuck the landing back on the bed. I remember Woody being unimpressed. "That wasn't flying. That was falling with style." 

I remember at six-years-old thinking, or maybe hoping, that the Toy Story world was a real one. That when I left my own bedroom, maybe toys did get up and come to life. I tested it once, placed a green Playmobil dragon on a penny to see if it moved at all. (He stayed put).

I remember four years later seeing Toy Story 2 and thinking it was better, or at least funnier, than the original. This would have been back in November/December of 1999, putting me at 10-years-old. At 10, you don't believe toys can get up and move around anymore. A lot of the fairy tale magic of being a kid is starting to wear off. Santa Claus is no longer real. Playing with toys becomes playing with video games. And off in the distance, the middle school monsters of puberty, acne, and voice cracks smile their mischevious grins. You don't have a friend in me, kid.

I don't remember any time between 1999 and 2010 thinking to myself, "I wonder how Woody and Buzz are doing. Will we get a Toy Story 3?" But when I heard about it, I was excited. It was like getting a victory lap with your childhood.

It's interesting to me, from 1989 to 1999 I went from being a newborn baby to being a fourth grader. That doesn't seem like too much of a jump. But from '99 to 2010, going from 10 to 21, man, that's a crazy amount of change. Puberty. Driver's license. Going off to college. Your first beer. Your first legal beer. When Toy Story 3 hit theaters, I was halfway through college and that feels a lot closer to the world of adulthood than it does to the world of putting a toy dragon on a penny and hoping it moves.

But in June of 2010, that whole transition to adulthood thing could go on hold for at least one hour and 48 minutes. All of us of a certain age walked into that movie theater, put our lives on pause, and were just excited to see the old gang. It was a family reunion. These were the toys we grew up watching.

And good Lord was Disney and Pixar ready to go right for the emotional jugular! They knew our emotional walls were down and were not wasting any opportunity to get the tear ducts flowing. I don't know if I'm proud or ashamed to admit that I cried three times during Toy Story 3. Three times! That's getting to It's a Wonderful Life territory.

The first Pixar punch is when they're all in the trash pile heading for the incinerator. All of them desperately climbing up, trying to escape. Rex falls down and Woody reaches out to grab him. Jesse looks at Buzz. "Buzz, what do we do!?" Remember Buzz's face at that moment? He goes from a look of sheer terror to mustering up this tiny bit of, "It's gonna be alright" courage as he reaches out for Jesse's hand. Jesse for a split second has this, "No, we can't give up," look before she accepts. Jesse reaches out for the still struggling Bullseye. Slinky Dog for Hamm. Hamm for Rex. Rex for Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head.

And there's Woody still desperately trying to climb upwards. Always fighting. Never one to give up without a fight. He looks at the ol gang and right as you're ready for one more Tom Hanksian, "Come on guys! We can't give up!" Woody, too, accepts their fate. Reaches for Buzz's hand then puts his arms out to try and protect everyone the way a mom does making a hard stop.

There are so many incredible moments of animation in the Toy Story films, but I'm not sure any can top this one. With no lines of dialogue after Jesse's, "Buzz, what do we do?" the artists communicate so much with each facial expression and small changes in the characters' eyes. And they're doing all of this, not just with computer animation, but with plastic toys! It's an incredible achievement and there was this very real moment in the theaters where it felt like this might be it. Pixar's going to do this, aren't they? They're going to send the toys into a blazing inferno. And then what? Just some text on the screen at the end: Sorry kids, life's tough.

But the giant claw swoops in just in time. Once they're all safe and sound in the pile of trash outside, we get the perfect Don Rickles' line of comic relief.

You know all that bad stuff I said about Andy's attic? I take it allll back.

It's both a brilliant twist and great tie-back to the first film (and much easier to cope with than the "life's tough" alternative ending). At first, it does feel a little like a Deus ex machina solution, but there are two moments that foreshadow the claw. The first is when they all arrive at Sunnyside Day Care, the three little green aliens see a construction truck with a claw. Second is when they arrive at the actual dump, the green guys make a run for the claw they ultimately use to save the day. The Claw! Leave it to Pixar to not miss any little detail in the story.


(Images from Toy Story 3. Owned and copyright of Disney.) 

But Pixar wasn't done with the emotional boxing match. Oh no, they were just getting started. Cry #2 is when Andy's room is finally packed up and Andy's mom looks around at the emptiness. She has this moment of reluctant acceptance just like the toys did moments earlier heading toward the fire. This is it. It's over. Andy goes to comfort her. "Mom, it's ok."

The camera perspective changes and goes inside the box. Woody is looking out the hole. The word "College" written in Sharpie underneath.

"It's just, I wish I could always be with you," Andy's Mom says. Puts her arms around Andy.

"You will be, Mom," Andy replies.

Woody is conflicted. He looks at the photo in the box of him and Andy then his focus zeroes in on Buzz and the rest of the gang. Again, no dialogue. No voiceover explaining what's going on in Woody's head. But, as an audience, you know that Woody has just heard: "I wish I could always be with you." "You will be," and knows it's time. He doesn't need to go off to college with Andy. He's meant to join Buzz, Jesse, Slinky Dog and everyone else in the other box.

Cry #3 is the big one. The knockout punch. The kind of cry that turns you into Ron Burgundy in a phone booth. Andy takes the box over to Bonnie's house and gives away all the toys. Bonnie spots Woody in the box and Andy, at first, looks ready to say, "Whoops, sorry, that one's mine," but then he finally hands him over (but not before one final play in the front yard). You feel like you're in Andy's shoes this entire scene. It's time to say goodbye to childhood and drive away.

I think there was something special about seeing that scene at 20-years-old. The move off to college was still fresh in my memory. Just like I was the perfect age for Toy Story 1 and 2, I was also the perfect age for Toy Story 3. Pixar was giving us this friendly nudge to go from childhood to adulthood; letting us know, "It's ok. It's time." That scene, that movie, it was all the perfect ending to the perfect trilogy.

Or so we thought...

When I saw the first ad for Toy Story 4, I wasn't thrilled about it. "Oh come on. No. We don't need this." I had the same reaction I did when Tim Duncan came back for another year after his 5th title or recently with Tom Brady deciding not to retire after his sixth Super Bowl. As a fan, it doesn't make sense. Why wouldn't you just go out on top? 

We like the nice clean ending. We'd rather not see another Toy Story movie than see a dud. My cynical side also kicked in. I couldn't help but feel like this was a giant money grab. I mean they did just open the Toy Story park at Walt Disney World. The whole thing felt like an executive marched into the Pixar office and said, "Look, we need a billion dollars. Make it happen."

Ashley and I went to see Toy Story 4 here at the Landmark Theatre in Chicago. And my cynical side was still at the wheel.

The movie opens up with a flashback scene from nine years ago and I softened up a little bit. I leaned over to Ashley. "Wait, Toy Story 3 was nine years ago??" Where does the time go?

I'm torn because I don't want to give away too much about the movie for those who haven't seen it yet but, at the same time, I want to make enough of an argument for anyone who is still on the fence or is protective of how things ended with Toy Story 3. Please, go see this in theaters. And you don't even have to go in with an open mind. Go in reluctant. Arms crossed in front of your chest. Go in like me; not wanting to love Toy Story 4.

Because Forky makes it all worth it.

How Pixar breathes life into their characters

A few years ago, I read Creativity Inc. by Pixar's former President Ed Catmull and I love studying Pixar's creative process. It's served as a major inspiration, both for me as a writer and now starting the storytelling company Long Overdue. One thing that stands out to me about their creative process is how terrible they say their first drafts are. And this isn't false modesty. This isn't the artist who says, "It's terrible, isn't it?" and you look down to see something that belongs in the Art Institute of Chicago. No. The Pixar team assures you when they say bad they mean really really bad.

But it's just the start. Getting something down on paper to work with. From there, they begin rebuilding, editing, chipping away until the story is perfect. Toy Story 4 is a great example of this. The team ended up throwing 75% of the story out really late in the process. You don't do that if it's just a money grab. If it's about money you just settle with good enough. But, for Pixar, good enough has never been good enough.

The belief at Pixar is all about the team over those initial attempts at a story. Here's my all-time favorite quote from Ed Catmull:

“If you give a good idea to a mediocre team, they will screw it up. If you give a mediocre idea to a brilliant team, they will either fix it or throw it away and come up with something better.”

The process reminds me of the great improvisers at iO or Second City. The crowd can shout out anything, anything at all, could be the worst idea imaginable, and it doesn't matter. The best improv teams will turn it into the funniest 90-minute show.

It's a completely different perspective on the creative process. We don't need a great idea to get started because if Pixar's first drafts suck, talk about taking the pressure off of our first attempts!

So this idea of Woody literally in a trash can tossing a spork, googly eyes, some pipe cleaners onto the table for Bonnie to turn these into a beloved toy kind of feels like Pixar making a movie about how they make a movie. All those scenes of Woody telling Forky over and over, "You're not trash, you're a toy," not only does it work from the Pixar storytelling perspective, but it reminded me of how a great parent, teacher, mentor can inspire someone to see way more value than what they originally put in themselves.

And it helps that Forky is hilarious. And that Key & Peele's characters are also hilarious and provide maybe the funniest sequence in Pixar history. The new Bo Peep is better than the old Bo Peep and Duke Caboom is another great addition. Toy Story 4 isn't just a cool philosophical concept for a movie, it's also as funny, heartfelt, and action-packed as the other three films.

The whole story fits together, too. I went back and did a re-watch of the previous three films and in Toy Story there's Woody telling Buzz he's just a toy not a real space cadet, mainly out of jealousy. He wants to bring him back down to earth. Toy Story 2 Buzz shouts the same thing to Woody. "You're a toy!" to snap him out of this grandiose plan to be on display in a museum. Toy Story 3 you have a different twist, the evil Lotso tells the gang they're just toys and toys are meant to end up in the trash. In Toy Story 4, it comes full circle. You're not trash, you're a toy. Being a toy is now the highest possible calling, except its one that Woody is finally ready to move on from. The first three films were about saying goodbye to Andy. Toy Story 4 is about saying goodbye to his friends and moving on with his true love, Bo Peep.

The other thing that stands out in the rewatch is how much Bo Peep is involved in the first two films. The very first scene of Toy Story is Andy playing with the toys and Woody rescuing Bo and her sheep. Toy Story 2 ends with Woody and Bo standing side by side as Weezy goes Frank Sinatra on You've got a friend in me. And then she's gone. Completely absent from Toy Story 3. 

I didn't worry about the characters from 1999 to 2010, or from 2010 to 2019, but I know the Toy Story writers absolutely did. There had to be this feeling that Woody's story was still incomplete. Either he would be tossed aside in Bonnie's room (the most likely path) or, even if she was still playing with him, that wasn't the right ending either. He would just be trying to recapture the glory days with Bonnie now instead of Andy. There had to be something more. Toy Story 3 may have been the perfect ending for us as fans, but I can just picture the writers agonizing over the story. "What about Woody? What about Bo?"

Toy Story 3 felt like a movie made for us, to help fans say goodbye to Woody and the gang. Toy Story 4 felt like a movie made for Pixar, to help their team finally say goodbye to these beloved characters who kicked off the incredible Pixar journey two and a half decades ago. You get to these final scenes of Toy Story 4, and again, I don't want to spoil things for anyone who hasn't seen it yet, but this time does truly feel like the end. Just listen to interviews with Tom Hanks and Tim Allen, they talk about being extremely emotional reading those final few pages. We're at the finish line.

I remember sitting in the Landmark Theatre for that hour and a half, slowly going from the defensive, "We don't need a Toy Story 4, this better be good," to, "Ok, this is good." To: "Ok, this is really good. Ok, wait, this is over? Wait, wait. Go back!"

And maybe that's the right way to experience Toy Story 4. Go in reluctant, go out saying, "That might be my new favorite one." On the walk home you think about what just happened and, granted we said this before, but it does feel complete. "They can end it there." But in the back of my head, I can't help but thinking, "I don't really know how they'll do it, but I hope we get a Toy Story 5." 

I'll have a new post up on Monday, July 22nd, it will either be, "The Stomach Steps into the Spotlight" or, "Feeling overwhelmed? Try giving it 79%." 

And to see what's going on with the new storytelling company, Long Overdue, check out the website here. As you can tell from this post, I'm on a bit of a Toy Story kick so if anyone has an article or memories about these movies you'd like to share, email it to me at library@longoverduestories.com or connect with me on LinkedIn and I'd be more than happy to publish it on the Long Overdue site. Thanks for reading and see you next week!

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