Just shy of a quarter of a century ago an animated film told the story of children’s toys that had the ability to think, interact with the world, and most importantly, feel. That is the tale of “Toy Story”. After its revolutionary animated beginnings in 1995, the film series has continued to live in the hearts of new fans, years after the original generation of viewers grew up and had their own children.
Propelled by its intriguing perspective of the world from a playthings angle, the “Toy Story” franchise has been one of pop culture and film’s undeniably classic stories. With the release this June 21 of “Toy Story 4”, Pixar aims to bring new emotional scope to the world of Woody and Buzz, by introducing new environments, new friends and foes, and the return of a memorable character that has the potential to uproot everything the toys believe in.
Recently I was able to attend the media day for “Toy Story 4” at Pixar Studios, in Emeryville, California. I had attended several times before but this specific time it would be a truly awe-inspiring trip. We were going to get a look at the new sequel for what can be described the foundation for what we know as Pixar Studios is now.
Not just in its technical advancements in animation, but behind the tech, the stories. The heart and soul that could be brought to inanimate objects, in a 90’s animation style that beforehand had been less close to human emotions and more creepy shiny dolls moving about. Pixar came with “Toy Story”, and with it, imagined a world full of opportunity and life. You could be an RC car, or a Cowboy from a TV show, in the world of “Toy Story”, your parts don’t matter, just your character.
During a press conference at this event, Director Josh Cooley and Producers Jonas Rivera and Mark Nielsen gave us some insight into what exactly began the idea for a new “Toy Story” after the main protagonist Andy gives his toys away to a little girl named Bonnie at the conclusion of the third film.
Well, it happened. In “Toy Story 4” Bonnie is entering kindergarten and during a preview day in class during arts and crafts, the lonely and miserable Bonnie sits at her own table and builds a spork friend, naming it Forky. Lo and behold, Forky becomes sentient and is freaking out because he’s alive, and not just in the waste bin after being used for his purpose as a food tool. The googly-eyed, red pipe cleaner-armed Forky is introduced to Woody and the gang at home, and although Woody is kind and accepting of him Forky continues to hate his new situation as a plaything.
Bonnie’s family goes on a road trip and Woody and friends are brought along. As is with most of these films, something goes wrong or some toy gets lost. In this case, Forky falls out of the RV, and this spurs Woody and others to jump out and find him. As they explore the world around them and try to figure out how to get back to the RV, they arrive at a little town and find out that an old friend, Bo Peep, has managed to make a life out here.
A Spork, and the “Midi-chlorian Question”
When answering questions about the introduction of a character that’s essentially a child’s school art project made out of inanimate objects, Producer Jonas Rivera began explaining the first ideas for Forky, describing a situation where a kid at Christmas would open a toy and then play with a box instead of the actual contents inside. “If you were a toy it would be the worst insult.”
That’s really what drove one piece of the concept of identity for “Toy Story 4”.
Director Josh Cooley says of the inanimate objects having life, “It’s the truth of it, our kids do make craft projects, and they would be alive in this world”. Adding to that, once Bonnie writes her name on Forky, “it seals the deal.”
Asked about what prompted them to choose what is alive and what isn’t in the “Toy Story” universe, Cooley says, “Even in the first “Toy Story” where they say, “Oh well the lawn gnome across the street hasn’t seen them.” There are things in the world that are alive, but we just don’t see them. I kind of feel that it’s a little like a “Midi-chlorian” question.”
Cooley references the “Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace” film from 1999 which retroactively tries to explain what “The Force” is – intelligent, tiny particles in the body. It didn’t go over so well with fans, but in essence, having to go back and overexplain what and why things have life in “Toy Story” would be like the Midi-chlorian situation.
Forky is a new toy and discovering what that means, plain and simple.
The Return of Bo Peep
Bo Peep is introduced as a porcelain shepherdess figurine in “Toy Story” and a romantic foil to Sheriff Woody. In the second film, she has short appearances and isn’t featured in the third. So why bring her back?
For the crew behind the “Toy Story” franchise, Bo Peep had always been an intriguing match for Woody’s character, one that the creators felt was worthy enough to bring back and create a payoff for in a new story.
Cooley says, “Woody and Bo have this relationship from the previous pictures, so there’s definitely an element of that. But it was clear it couldn’t just be that. It would become a tiny people movie as opposed to a “Toy Story” film. There’s a ton of adventure in it. I think of it as, “Raiders of the Lost Ark” isn’t a love story but it has that great romantic element in it.”
Producer Jonas Rivera adds, “She represented something that would challenge his place in the world, and just lean into that. It was almost like a “Lady and the Tramp” analogy, one’s out in the world, “Why wouldn’t you want all this?” The other just wants to be at home. Woody is that. So [Bo] became this catalyst. All this change she’s done over the years, we thought she had the potential to change more than anything ever has.”
Woody’s worst fear, to be a lost toy, has always permeated the film’s storylines. For Bo Peep to become the thing Woody has always feared was an interesting proposition for the crew of “Toy Story 4”.
“We rallied around the idea of just keeping Bo as a [really] special and unique standout character that didn’t fall into tropes or anything that you typically see in an action film. It was very important to us that Bo had a different world view than Woody,” says Producer Mark Nielsen.
In fact, Bo Peep is so critical to this movie that in the end, I won’t be surprised if she has a huge effect on this franchise, even if it ends with “Toy Story 4” or continues on in the future.
As Cooley adds, “If you were to ask Woody as a character, ‘What was the biggest moment of your life?’ He would say, ‘It’s when I met Bo Peep for the second time.’ And that was our goal with this film, to make this meeting with her so powerful that it was deserving of “Toy Story 4”.”
So, “Toy Story 4” brings in these new and evolved characters to bring new motivation to these toys, and a new understanding of the world around them. I, like Pixar and many fans, hope that this leads to a wonderful conclusion to the story of Woody and the gang, a journey that began in 1995.