I should explain something, first. For the last 7 months or so, I’ve been the Box Office Analyst for Atom Tickets, a fantastic ticketing app you can use for buying movie tickets on your phone. Every week, I break down the box office numbers for all the new releases on their news site Atom Insider, plus I do weekly previews of what’s coming out week to week.
It’s fun work, but I occasionally do features for them, as well. Recently, I wrote about the future of Pixar, which distills a lot of scattered speculation and news I’ve written about on this site. The piece should serve as a decent summary of what we know about the next decade of Pixar, and I also reflect on the studio’s past, mainly this decade in both financial and critical terms. I consider it a good read if you’re at all curious about what Pixar has in store for its fans.
And now, nine years later, we have Toy Story 4, which bookends a more curious decade for a studio that has undergone some dramatic changes. In that time, the studio’s co-founder and president Ed Catmull retired. Disney and Pixar’s Chief Creative Officer, John Lasseter, was gradually dismissed due to claims of sexual harassment. And the studio’s theatrical output has garnered more mixed reactions from fans and critics overall.
Pixar released just four original movies instead of eight this past decade, and only two of them — Inside Out and Coco — are widely considered to be among the studio’s better work. And yes, we’ve seen plenty of sequels and even one prequel. From the liked, but not necessarily cherished Incredibles 2, Finding Dory, Cars 3, and Monsters University, to the downright resented Cars 2.
Of course, this isn’t really a negative piece.
But if Pixar traditions hold true, Toy Story 4 might also signal a return to form for the studio when it comes to storytelling. One that is bolstered by some positive signs of change.
Make no mistake, Pixar has changed a great deal over the last 9 years. My piece hopefully illustrates how those changes appear to be for the better, and how they might result in some better movies in terms of consistent quality. You can read the whole thing here.
After my first viewing of Toy Story 4, I confronted a lot of the movie’s themes on a mostly surface level. I followed Woody’s journey to its completion, and I reckoned with some of the more basic, obvious lessons the film imparts when it comes to realizing our purpose later in life, reexamining long-held worldviews, and letting go of the past in favor of new possibilities.
But this is Pixar, so there are of course even deeper lessons to confront and maybe even challenge. I came across a noteworthy line of criticism from film critic William Bibbiani, which takes aim at the film’s handling of our main antagonist, Gabby Gabby (voiced by Christina Hendricks).
Warning: spoilers for Toy Story 4 follow. If you have not seen the movie, I recommend you come back after doing so. You will be spoiled on parts of the ending, otherwise.
From Bibbs on Twitter:
Bibbiani brings up an interesting point here about ableism and identity, specifically as it relates to Gabby Gabby. You could argue that his point also concerns Forky, but he’s not a character trying to change himself so others will love him. He simply decides to accept a new role as a toy because he’s already loved for simply being himself.
No, it’s Gabby who has the more complicated turn as a character. She calls herself “defective” right out of the box because her voice box doesn’t work, hence she tries to steal Woody’s, all for the sole aim of gaining the love and affection of Harmony, a child in the antique shop. Ultimately, she succeeds in repairing her voice box after rationally pleading with Woody, who voluntarily gives it to her. But…Harmony still rejects her.
As Bibbs points out:
I jumped into the conversation, as well:
This is an intriguing perspective from Bibbs because ableism is one of the least-recognized downsides for a lot of films, usually because filmmakers don’t understand or think about these implications when telling stories about people with disabilities. By his estimation, Toy Story 4 stumbles in how it unintentionally (at best) sends a message about kids needing to change their flaws in order to be accepted and loved.
At this point in the conversation, I was unconvinced either way. I could see Bibbs’ point, which is one I’ve personally recognized in a lot of other films that handle these ideas carelessly. So I rewatched Toy Story 4 with this criticism in mind, ready to come out with a fresh perspective.
The result? Now, I see Toy Story 4 in a new light. Because it’s saying something surprisingly relevant, at least when it comes to my own disability. Let me explain.
I was born with a genetic hearing disorder. Basically, the bones in my ears have been bad at vibrating sound since I was a baby, so as I’ve gotten older, my hearing in both ears has harshly deteriorated. If I can hear you, I probably have no idea what you’re saying, or I might only catch half the words. It all sounds like a garbled mess to me, and the ringing in my ears doesn’t help.
In a lot of ways, I’m about as “defective” as Gabby Gabby. I’ve had a lot of trouble over the years connecting with people, mainly because I can’t hear them. And few will give me the time of day because they either think I’m ignoring them, not listening, or am just aloof. It’s the kind of disability where people don’t realize you have it unless you explain it. My version of getting a new voice box was getting hearing aids for the first time. They changed everything for me.
So while watching Toy Story 4 the second time, I nearly broke down as Gabby explained this to Woody. She felt like deep down, her identity was a connection based on being herself, or how she feels she’s supposed to be. I was equally blindsided by the moment when Gabby is still rejected by the person she’s yearned to be loved by for years. Without getting too personal, this has happened to me multiple times on a similar level.
Toy Story 4 isn’t a movie about changing yourself for others. It’s a movie about lending validity to what you truly want out of life. If you want to be loved, you deserve to go through whatever it takes to bring your true self to others, using any advantage you can acquire, as long as it doesn’t harm others (Gabby learns this thanks to Forky explaining Woody’s backstory to her). If you want to help people and devote your life to service, that’s OK, too. Woody learns this lesson about it being OK to change your mind about your purpose later in life, rejecting long-held fears of becoming a lost toy.
My disability isn’t a monolith. Not everyone should interpret this movie as a validation of feeling like you need to be “repaired” if you don’t want to be or think you need to be. Woody doesn’t want to change himself in order to become Bonnie’s favorite toy and thus relive the Andy days. He simply moves on to a group of people who love him for him. And losing his own voice box doesn’t make him a lesser toy in anyone’s eyes.
If anyone told me that I shouldn’t have gone through what I did in order to get hearing aids simply because people should just love me for me…well, I’d politely tell that person to mind their own business. Granted, that doesn’t have to be the same response for someone else with a different disability. But that’s the point. The beauty I saw in Toy Story 4 was in its embrace of other worldviews as plausible and worthy, and the fact that not everyone will want the same things you do in life is a hard, but useful lesson to learn.
In the scene where Gabby is eventually accepted by a lost child, they are indeed at least partly connected by the voice box working. But I see this as a wonderful moment, because for the first time, Gabby is heard for who she truly is. Sadly, not everyone can easily fix something like this. Woody can’t force Bonnie to love him like Andy did. Eventually, he stops trying because he knows she’ll be OK without him, and he’ll be OK without her.
I’ve already come across people who find my hearing aids off-putting in some way, even if they try to keep it to themselves. I can’t do anything about that. But with these little devices, I can finally be who I really am around people when I’m not typing away, alone in a room. I can go into a movie theater and stop struggling to understand what the characters are saying. That’s a gift, not me giving something up in order to make other people happy.
All that said, I’m still keeping an eye out for how other people are engaging with this film, for better or worse. A movie can’t be all things to all people, and even the best ones can have messages that need to be analyzed in how they might diversely affect different groups of people. If you had any complicated feelings about Toy Story 4 one way or other, please share in the comments below. You deserve to be heard.
Tamara Fuentes, writing for Seventeen, mentioned the Pixar Theory in a recent article. She broke down the theory from its 2013 roots and finished with this interesting bit:
Negroni still hasn’t explained how newer movies like Coco and Toy Story 4 fit in, but we’re sure they fit in here somewhere. Until then, guess we’ll just have to rewatch all of our favorite Disney Pixar movies to see this theory unfold for ourselves.
I’ve been hard at work on the upcoming book based on the theory, which is being republished. And yes, Toy Story 4 and Coco, along with all the other newest Pixar movies that have come out since the original theory will be explored in my little conspiracy theory corner of nonsense. It’s a fun book, and I’m excited for you all to read it.
More than just a collection of theories, it’s a book about what it means to be a fan of Pixar movies, and movies in general. I know a lot of you have been asking about getting your hands on a copy, especially since the first book went out of print and is currently unavailable in all forms. In fact, not even I have a copy of the book (I gave them all away, mostly to readers requesting them).
In the meantime, I want to open up the comments section for something special. I want to know: what does Pixar mean to you? Answer the question in the comments below, along with the name you want credited, and it might show up somewhere in the book. It would thrill me to pieces to have even more fans of the movies involved with this project in some way.
We won’t have to wait long to see another new Pixar movie after Onward premieres next March. Disney just revealed that their “untitled Pixar movie” slated for June 19, 2020 (just a little over three months after Onward) will be called Soul, directed by Pete Docter (Monsters Inc., Up, Inside Out) and produced by Dana Murray (Lou).
Pixar hasn’t updated their “coming soon” section with information about Soul, but we have received a synopsis, starting with this Tweet from the D23 Twitter account:
Additionally, Disney released this tagline:
Ever wonder where your passion, your dreams and your interests come from? What is it that makes you … you?”
While reading these descriptions, my first thought was Doctor Strange, the Marvel movie that partially takes place in New York and features inter-dimensional realms that could be referred to as “cosmic.” I also wondered if this might be like Neverwhere, the novel by Neil Gaiman, where a mystical world exists underneath London. But after giving this some more thought, I’m pretty sure the journey they’re talking about simply begins in New York, then takes the characters “into” cosmic realms, as in space.
If that’s the case, I’m extremely curious how the cosmos might explain the idea of what makes someone who they “are.” We all have souls, but an explanation for what the soul literally is tends to be a more introspective, perhaps meditative process, not something external. In other words, how would we be able to explain human existence — presumably answering “life’s most important questions” — by going out into space? Think Interstellar, but perhaps with the whole “love is truth” thing toned down slightly.
I love the idea of Pixar returning to space, which they haven’t really done since WALL-E. There are so many stories they can tell around the universe, especially if alien creatures get involved, and if the whole “cosmic realms” definition is as fantastical as it sounds. I’m especially happy to see something so seemingly ambitious coming from Pete Docter, whose original drafts for Up were like something out of a swashbuckling cloud city fantasy.
As for the title poster, there’s not much to speculate on, yet. The color scheme is basic blue, with some orange and yellow flair. The “o” in the middle looks like it might be some sort of eye or pupil, but it would be a stretch to call this pattern anything “galactic” or “cosmic.” If anything, the font here suggests the film is quite playful, not as heady or operatic as the description might imply.
It’s also worth mentioning that Soul coming out so soon after Onward delivers its own set of challenges. Pixar has only tried to do two original movies in the same year once before, and it led to box office disaster. Inside Out was a huge hit, but audiences didn’t really bother with The Good Dinosaur, despite the film receiving a prime November/holiday release spot.
The gap between Onward and Soul is even smaller, which will make it difficult for Pixar and Disney to effectively market both movies within the same time frame. I get the intention, of course. Disney’s release schedule has morphed into positioning event movies that dominate every month of the year. So to them, it’s like releasing two Marvel Cinematic Universe movies within just a few months of each other. It works because the brand name is so strong.
But that assumes the Pixar brand name is strong enough to overcome both these films being non-sequels, and therefore new properties that will require more persuasive, noise-breaking advertising to get the word out. This is why Cars 3 releasing the same year as Coco wasn’t much of an issue (though to be fair, neither film was a major box office success by Pixar standards).
I worry about this because I don’t want to see original Pixar films fail at the box office. That affects how many resources get devoted to these films down the road, and if you’re sick of Pixar sequels coming out more often than originals, than you should be paying very close attention to the next few years, which will see several original films vying for attention in a crowded theatrical marketplace. That said, Pixar has one advantage that can’t be discounted. They have the Disney machine.
Over the weekend, Disney confirmed what many of us had expected for months: there would be no Pixar animated short attached to Toy Story 4 in theaters. Now, we have an actual explanation, courtesy of Mark Nielsen and Jonas Rivera, two of the film’s producers.
“The real reason is resources. The people at the studio were all needed to work on feature films at the time. There was a big demand to finish up the last few films, and there just wasn’t the people to make a short.”
This is in line with what I guessed might be the reason just yesterday. The animated shorts are there to give animators something fun to do in between feature films, but they’re not really a priority. If there are a lot of feature-length projects to work on, which are where Pixar makes its money, then shorts are inevitably going to fall by the wayside.
Thankfully, that’s not the full story. Rivera weighed in as well, promising the shorts will return:
“We love the shorts. And we’re continuing to do the SparkShorts, and all that stuff at Pixar, but yeah, it just didn’t line up for this one.”
The optimistic side of me wants to take Rivera at face value on this. I’ve met him in person, and he’s been very straightforward with the press for as long as I’ve followed these movies. But my worry remains: if it didn’t line up for Toy Story 4, then that could mean it won’t line up for some other Pixar films down the road.
Maybe we get an animated theatrical short every so often, but Pixar has a lot on its plate at the moment, and that’s not likely to change anytime soon. The box office success of Finding Dory, Incredibles 2, and assumably Toy Story 4 will strengthen the studio’s resources over the next few years, essentially financing the next four original, non-sequel films they have coming.
But as I mentioned yesterday, theatrical shorts aren’t known to be moneymakers. If Pixar can expend its resources on shorts and shows for Disney+, which they can get paid for, then who knows if they’ll have enough time or budget to properly develop a theatrical short good enough to place before their movies? Pixar probably knows, but for now, I doubt they want to raise any alarms unnecessarily.
My guess is that we will get a short of some kind before Onward, but maybe not the other Pixar film coming out in 2020. This might be the start of a more gradual phasing out of the short films, or perhaps a more inconsistent release schedule determined by how many animators Pixar hires or recently hired. These are details only they are keenly aware of at the moment and likely planning out for the next five or six years. So we won’t know what’s really going on anytime soon.
We’ve known for a while that Pixar has no intention of attaching an animated short of some kind to precede Toy Story 4, but a Disney representative recently made it official, per Slate:
Toy Story 4 will break with tradition by going without an animated short when it enters theaters June 21, a representative for Disney confirmed to Slate. That makes it the first Pixar movie without one since the original Toy Story in 1995…
Again, this isn’t a surprise. We would have had heard about a short premiering with the movie a long time ago, but there’s been no hint of anything, not even one of the Sparkshorts Pixar released on YouTube (some speculated they might at least show one of those for the sake of showing something).
I’m seeing a mix of reactions to this, with many Pixar followers assuming this to be an anomaly; surely, Pixar wouldn’t ditch a tradition they’ve held since A Bug’s Life, right? Others, like me, are less optimistic. Pixar now has a hand in helping Disney develop computer-animated shows for the Disney+ streaming service, and the Sparkshorts are a newer program meant to push boundaries and cultivate new voices in and around the animation community. Feature shorts might not be considered a necessary expense for a studio under new leadership.
I’m not implying that this was a call made by Pete Docter, who now leads Pixar creatively, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the company has decided to refocus their efforts on shows and cheaper shorts that will accomplish the same goals as the feature ones (they’re really meant to keep employees working in between film projects).
And it’s worth pointing out that Coco paved the way for gradual changes in how Disney and Pixar handle short films. In 2017, Coco was the first Pixar film to come with a Walt Disney Animation short: Olaf’s Frozen Adventure, which was met with severe disdain for its bizarrely long runtime.
Bottom line: short films don’t make much money, if any, for Pixar. But their animators can be put to good use helping Disney and other production companies with spin-off shows, like the upcoming Monsters at Work, though the extent of Pixar’s specific contribution to these and other Disney+ projects is a bit unclear at the moment.
But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe Pixar just didn’t have a short film ready in time for Toy Story 4, and for whatever reason, they’re downplaying this sudden change. We’ll know soon enough when more news comes in about Onward, their next film arriving in theaters by next March.
UPDATE: Pixar has given an official explanation for why they didn’t make a short. You can read their response here.
The Toy Story movies have always been filled with lots of toys, and rightfully so. But every film so far has mostly played around with the character of Woody the cowboy doll. His story has progressed both positively and negatively to some extent over the years, from his fear of being replaced in the first Toy Story, his fear of being thrown away in Toy Story 2, and his fear of being forgotten in Toy Story 3.
Almost a decade later, Toy Story 4 confronts a new fear for Woody that not very many family movies even attempt to tackle: a fear of no longer having a purpose.
You can read the full review here. I’ll be adding some complementary thoughts about the movie over the next few weeks and beyond. There’s a lot to think about, good and ill. But mostly good.