Even though I wasn’t expecting a whole lot when I walked in the theater to watch “Toy Story 4,” I was still pleasantly excited.
No, I wasn’t expecting a lot. We all assumed that the franchise was over with “Toy Story 3,” and I was hit with almost a sense of foreboding when number four was announced. Kind of like how “Shrek” went beyond the sequel -- it didn’t work and fell out of favor. It seemed to me like Pixar was making the same mistake as Dreamworks and not knowing how to quit while they’re ahead.
I also wasn’t floored with “Toy Story 3.” To be completely honest, I couldn’t relate to everyone sobbing into their hands when I saw it in theaters in 2010 and had to review the major plot points before going into “4.” I was anticipating a sentimental albeit mundane storyline. I mean, you can’t go wrong with the Tom Hanks/Tim Allen duo, especially after introducing Keegan Michael-Key and Jordan Peele into the mix. But still, I worried it was past its prime.
Like I said, though, I couldn’t help but be enthusiastic upon hearing “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” during the opening credits. I grew up with Pixar, after all! And that is ultimately what’s saving the “Toy Story” franchise from biting the generational dust: It’s able to burn through whatever lines we think are drawn.
Part of that, it turns out, comes from the fact that the people behind the computers creating Woody, Buzz and Bo Peep are the same who consumed the first “Toy Story” films as members of its target demographic. As the LA Times reported, “Toy Story 4” director Josh Cooley was a 15-year-old aspiring animator when he experienced the 1995 original in the theaters. He joined the team that included veteran Pixar big shots like Andrew Stanton (screenplay and story writer on every installment) and Pete Docter (writer and head animator then, now chief creative officer).
“This movie definitely bridged that gap,” Cooley said. “We had people on this film that worked on the original ‘Toy Story,’ like my production designer Bob Pauley, who designed Buzz Lightyear. Then we have artists on this film that actually showed us pictures of themselves when they were 6 years old dressed as Buzz Lightyear for Halloween.”
“Toy Story 4” is Cooley’s debut feature-length film with him in the director’s chair, and his ranks are filled with people like him who grew up with these characters. Producer Jonas Rivera, for example, was an intern on the set of “Toy Story” in 1994.
“When I met Tom [Hanks] for our first session with him on this film, he said, ‘Haven’t I met you?’” Rivera said. “I said, ‘Well, way back on the first one I brought you a cup of coffee. Would you like a cup of coffee now?’”
“Toy Story” was the first feature film (you know, ever) to be entirely computer animated, and this new film is a testament to just how far that technology has come since a 15-year-old future director was blown away (“It was unlike anything I’d ever seen,” he said) by the end result. For example, I had no idea that Bo Peep was a porcelain figurine until this latest film -- the way her face shined was a welcome addition. (Maybe I’m just clueless.)
The same kids that watched “Toy Story” are still flocking to go see “Toy Story 4,” and while this is true for other sequels after a number of years go by, the difference here is we’re not leaving disappointed. “Toy Story” was always witty, its sarcastic humor appealing to both young and old, but the films are growing with its audience, thanks to the team behind them.
“It’s a great blend of new and old,” Docter said. “All the knowledge and wisdom that we painfully, slowly accrued over many years, and then a bunch of new people who don’t know why you can’t do it -- and they do it anyway.”