Five years ago, I wrote a plea to Pixar not to make Toy Story 4. The movie, I argued, would only undercut the power of the perfect ending to a perfect trilogy about a boy named Andy who grew up with — and grew out of — his toys. In the years that followed, each piece of news about the movie only heightened my sense of dread: In 2017, Rashida Jones and her writing partner Will McCormack left the film and issued a statement that Pixar didn’t afford equal opportunity to women or people of color. The movie’s onetime director, former chief creative officer John Lasseter, stepped down from Pixar after he was accused of inappropriate workplace behavior later that year. Then a new creative team was installed, and reports surfaced that the movie would focus on a spork with a face drawn on it. None of this was promising.
But here’s the thing: After a bumpy start, Toy Story 4 debuted this week. And it doesn’t suck. In fact, it is weird and unexpected and…kind of great? I will go so far as to say that Toy Story 4‘s unique take on the franchise could save the moviegoing experience from certain death by sequel. Hyperbole? Perhaps. But bear with me.
We are currently experiencing a cinematic crisis of sorts. Every summer, studios churn out a series of terrible sequels and remakes and reboots — the kind that make Toy Story lovers like me fear the mention of another entry in the series. And every year, industry analysts ask whether this will be the year Hollywood realizes the franchise model is broken. It never is. And this summer has been particularly grim.
Sure, Avengers: Endgame staked its claim as the biggest movie of the year back in April. But just about every other sequel, prequel or reboot to a major franchise this summer has fallen abysmally short of critical and box office expectations. Just in the last few months, Shaft, Men In Black: International, X-Men: Dark Phoenix, Godzilla: King of the Monsters, The Secret Life of Pets 2 and The LEGO Movie 2 all underperformed — or outright bombed — at the box office. Spider-Man: Far From Home and Fast and Furious spinoff Hobbs and Shaw could, and likely will, save the summer box office. But those franchises are the exception, not the rule.
There’s no end in sight: Next year we will be treated to new additions to some of Hollywood’s most successful properties — James Bond 25, Top Gun: Maverick, Bad Boys for Life, Suicide Squad spinoff Birds of Prey, a Black Widow prequel. But studios will also foist upon us a handful of sequels absolutely nobody asked for, including new entries in the Murder on the Orient Express, Olympus Has Fallen and Now You See Me series.
There have always been good summer movies and bad summer movies. But in the summer of 2019, we are standing at a cinematic crossroads.
The three most valuable franchises in the world, Avengers, Star Wars and Game of Thrones (which aired on TV but was a bigger money-maker than most films) are all theoretically “ending” this year — but it’s no secret their IP is too valuable to give up. Iron Man may be gone, but Captain Marvel is poised to take his place in a new series of Marvel films. The Skywalker family saga is almost over, but several Star Wars TV shows and at least two more trilogies are in the works. Cersei’s rule ended on Game of Thrones, but a prequel is coming, and it’s safe to bet the Iron Bank’s coffers that some Lannister ancestor plays a central role.
These sequels and prequels and spinoffs could bolster the original stories or they could squander them. They could become the highest-grossing movies and TV shows ever or they could replay the slow-motion car wreck that was Solo: A Star Wars Story. So here’s a piece of advice for these filmmakers as they figure out how to build out a beloved world for a new era: Consider Forky.
Forky (voiced by Tony Hale) is a radical new addition to the Toy Story universe. He looks different from all the other toys and challenges the very idea of what a toy can be. A spork constructed by his owner Bonnie from trashed art supplies on the first day of school, Forky can’t quite understand why he’s walking and talking rather than resting in a cozy trash bin. His pipe cleaner arms quiver as he asks Woody, “Why am I alive?” With that existential question, Toy Story 4 introduces itself as a thoughtful, philosophical, completely bizarre new direction for a beloved children’s franchise.
This isn’t so much a sequel as it is a side-step, a wise decision for a franchise that pretty conclusively ended Woody and Buzz’s story in Toy Story 3 when Andy, headed for college, handed the toys off to Bonnie. Forky’s question forces Woody to consider his own life philosophy: For three movies, he’s been repeating his Ted Talk about how it’s a toy’s duty to remain loyal to their kid. That was an easy enough position for Woody to make when he enjoyed status as Andy’s favorite toy. At Bonnie’s house, he’s often left in the closet during playtime. He assigns himself the job of protecting Bonnie’s new favorite, Forky, nominally to help Bonnie but also because he’s barreling towards an existential crisis of his own. It’s only when he encounters onetime love interest Bo Peep at a children’s fair that he learns there may be a different way forward for forgotten toys.
That message simultaneously subverts and builds upon the previous three films. But that’s okay. Pixar spent three movies building a world, and now they can finally play in it. Toy Story 4 largely leaves old favorites like Slinky Dog, Rex, Mr. Potato Head, Jessie and even Buzz Lightyear behind in order to introduce a new setting and new characters, including Keanu Reeves‘ scene-stealing Duke Caboom and Keegan Michael Key and Jordan Peele’s comedic duo, Ducky and Bunny. And it’s not so precious about the past as to refuse to change retrograde characters: A new and improved Bo Peep is (thankfully) given a pare of pantaloons rather than a skirt and her own crew of toys to lead after years playing damsel on Woody’s adventures.
The movie strikes the perfect balance between respecting what came before and not being afraid to explore new directions, characters, side stories and, yes, ideologies. That’s radically different from most other franchises that simultaneously have deep reverence for their source material and yet cannot resist mucking up the canon.
Take the Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them franchise, which initially offered the same pitch that studios are offering for Star Wars and Game of Thrones spinoffs: Same universe, but totally different characters and a different story. In theory, the movies would follow a 1920s era Magizoologist as he, well, found fantastic beasts. But the series has morphed into a tale about two important characters from the original Harry Potter series, Dumbledore and Grindelwald, and offered a startling piece of information that completely upends fans’ conception of not only the characters but all the events in the original Harry Potter series for the sake of shock-value. Fans are not happy about it, and who can blame them?
Other movies simply try to replay or remix the old formula with predictably boring results: Men In Black: International tried to retell the Men in Black story without the irreverent charm of Will Smith; Dark Phoenix set out to redo the plot of X-Men: The Last Stand but forgot to add personality to its characters; Solo: A Star Wars Story spent most of its runtime answering questions that would have been better left a mystery, like who gave Han his last name, or how Han got his first blaster. Answering these is akin to explaining to audiences how a toy manufacturer decided on the design of Woody’s hat rather than exploring the larger themes set up by the series.
So the biggest franchises of our time have a choice: They can retread old ground or they can innovate. They can insist upon rehashing the same beats and themes and stories of the Lannisters and the Skywalkers, or they can create something wholly new and interesting. The mere existence of IP cannot justify a film’s existence. But there is hope in a movie like Toy Story 4, a kids’ movie about existential dread. Pitches for sequels should always sound that weird.