I love the Toy Story series because, like you, I am a human being with a soul.
In 1995, when the first film came out, I was 13, being young enough to recognize myself in Andy, yet old enough to also have some distance from him. It was probably the perfect age to come to Toy Story, since the series has always walked the line between childhood and adulthood. Though I liked it at the time, my appreciation has only grown over the years, as I think it has for many people. While the film was a huge hit and crowd-pleaser upon release, it was impossible to predict the impact the series would have on animation, and how much of a powerhouse Pixar would become.
When Toy Story 2 came out, fans were relieved that the filmmakers were able to go back to the well and deliver more emotion along with a fresh story. And with Toy Story 3, as we all know, Pixar created the Third Testament. Not only does 3 provide a clever and dark prison tale (set in a goddamn preschool), but it does so while taking its characters to the very brink of destruction and making them face true mortality. You’re not gonna see that happen in Happy Feet.
The conclusion to 3, with Andy’s relinquishing of childhood, the slow tilt to the clouds and the everybody’s-happy-montage, not only perfectly ended the film, but also the series, making it one of, if not the best, trilogies ever made. While many trilogies are beloved, very few have entries with no significant drop in quality between them. The Lord of the Rings and Back to the Future series would be two I would push for, and while the original Star Wars and Nolan Batman trilogies are revered, most fans would agree Jedi and Dark Knight Rises dipped a bit (though not unforgivably) in quality. Toy Story, though, is the odd case where not only is every film good, but each digs deeper into the characters’ emotional lives, providing a more satisfying overall journey.
This is the reason making Toy Story 4 worries me. Where can they go from here?
I am by no means anti-sequel. I recognize that when great characters and worlds are created we often want to revisit them. That said, I just don’t see a direction for a part 4 and I worry about the franchise beyond that. Recently, Pixar has been releasing Toy Story shorts as part of their short film series, along with two holiday TV specials – last year’s Toy Story of Terror and this year’s Toy Story That Time Forgot. As these shorts and specials developed I was really impressed with Pixar. Not only was each incredibly fun and clever (as we have come to expect from the series), but they were a way of keeping the characters alive without burdening them with a full cinematic narrative or the hurdle of the emotional climax of part 3. Pixar was having their cake and eating it too, and it was really good cake.
The announcement of Toy Story 4 is more worrisome than many sequels because these characters have gone about as far as they can go on an emotional spectrum, and with Andy gone and now the (incredibly adorable) Bonnie taking over, the danger is that there will be no forward progression and the film will end up treading old ground, or worse, doing away with emotion altogether.
I had been worried about a part 4 materializing after 3 was the mega-success that it was and after Pixar started getting hardcore into the sequel business. It’s not that I doubt their ability to tell good stories – Monsters University proved that money-machine or no, they still know how to make great films – but with Finding Dory and the only-desired-by-four-year-old-boys project that is Cars 3 on the way, it becomes very apparent that Toy Story 4 has very little to do with revisiting great characters and much more to do with that sweet, sweet green.
The film could be great. It could be eye-opening and revelatory. But how will part 5 be? Or 6? Pixar has always presented itself as a company that believed the story came before all other concerns. If that’s true, they should remember every storyteller needs to know when to say “the end.”