It’s been nearly 16 weeks since Toy Story 4 opened in theaters, and though the Pixar fourquel is still playing in a handful of second run theaters nationwide, its box office destiny is more or less set in stone, especially with the film now available to rent on demand.
How did Woody and the gang do? As I noted in the weeks following the film’s release, Toy Story 4 fell a bit under expectations for a Pixar sequel when compared to the opening weekends for Finding Dory and Incredibles 2. Nevertheless, it had a strong summer in light of few other animated family films coming out to play.
The results speak for themselves. Toy Story 4 made $1.068 billion worldwide, which is just $2 million higher than Toy Story 3 earned in 2010 (unadjusted for inflation). It’s now the second highest grossing Pixar film of all time behind Incredibles 2.
When you do adjust for inflation, however, the results are murkier. It’s not an exact science but films like Finding Nemo and Toy Story 3 easily breeze past Toy Story 4 despite having smaller releases worldwide.
Domestically, these numbers are similarly salt-graining. Adjusted for inflation, Toy Story 4 (which has made $433.3 million) is only the fifth highest grossing Pixar film in North America behind Toy Story 3, Finding Dory, Finding Nemo, and Incredibles 2 at #1. It’s also worth pointing out that Toy Story 4 wasn’t even the highest grossing animated film of the summer, because The Lion King ended up grossing $1.6 billion (which makes it the highest grossing animated film of all time).
Now this may all seem like silly numbers to parse out. Who cares if Toy Story 4 wasn’t the best box office success of all time? Beyond general curiosity, I find these numbers incredibly important, because they signal a limitation for these Pixar sequels. They’re still successful, don’t get me wrong, but Disney and Pixar have to see what is clear and obvious.
They can’t keep banking on films like Incredibles 2 and Finding Dory to be massive, billion dollar films with more sequels churning out, and the studio has to reaffirm their commitment to original films in the coming years. We already know the studio has seen this coming as an inevitability, because their next four films are, in fact, originals. That fresh intellectual property will prevent Pixar’s roster from growing stale with what feel like cash grabs, even though Toy Story 4 was a well-received film by and large.
But Toy Story 4 feels like the minor dip pointing to a larger trend. Because it didn’t outgross the last major Pixar franchise sequel (with a decade or longer wait in between), Disney and Pixar have no choice but to double down on bolder, richer films based on new stories. The kind that made this studio a trusted, household name in the first place.
In less than 10 months, a new original Pixar film will hit theaters, and we’re only just starting to get a detailed glimpse into what Soul is really about.
The film was announced this past June with scant explanation. We’ve known since then that Pete Docter would direct the film with Dana Murray as producer, and the vague synopsis hinted at a story about “what makes you YOU” and “a journey from the streets of New York City to the cosmic realms to discover the answers to life’s most important questions.”
Aside from false rumors about the voice cast, we’ve had almost nothing else to go off of when it comes to Pixar’s followup to Onward, which will release next March. Soul comes out June 19, just three months later, which is the same release date as Docter’s last film, Inside Out. And that’s not the only clear comparison between both films, as we now know a bit more about Soul coming out of the D23 Expo.
First, there’s the voice cast (for real this time). Jamie Foxx voices Joe Gardner, a middle school teacher with “a deep passion for jazz.” Tina Fey voices 22, a “soul” who has been stuck at the “You Seminar” for 100 years. Questlove voices Curly, a drummer in Joe’s band. Phylicia Rashad voices Joe’s mother. And Daveed Diggs voices Paul, Joe’s neighborhood nemesis.
The film will explore the You Seminar, an academy where souls learn how to build passion within themselves before graduating and inhabiting a newborn child. Foxx plays Joe Gardner, a man with a deep love for jazz, who is stuck as a middle school music teacher. After years of longing to perform onstage rather than teach, Joe finally gets his big break after an open mic at the Half Note Club that impresses the other players so much that he gets a gig.
But as he celebrates, an accident separates Joe from his soul, and his soul travels back to the You Seminar, where he meets other souls-in-training that help him find his way back to Earth. Among them is 21, played by Fey, a soul who has spent eons at the You Seminar and has a dim view of human life.
I have to admit, I feel a little bit silly for not making the connection between the movie title Soul and “soul music” (aka jazz) when we first heard about this film taking place in New York City. Also, The Half Note Club is a real location there, but other media reports have called this setting “The Blue Note” or just “The Half Note.” Another discrepancy is disagreement over whether or not the character is named “22” or “21,” but “22” is likely the correct name.
The premise above certainly rings of familiar Pixar, as it centers around two mismatched characters having an existential adventure in a fantastical setting. Only this time, both the setting and the themes are existential. This movie is essentially “full Pixar,” or as Docter put it at D23: “who would make a cartoon about metaphysics?” Jacob Hall from SlashFilm has also noted that Docter asked the question: “Have you ever noticed that babies already have a personality?”
For another spin on the synopsis, here’s a version by Polygon:
The main character is Joe Gardner, a middle school band director with a love of jazz. He dreams of playing at the Half Note, New York’s prestigious jazz club. Then, after 20 years of trying, he gets his wish. In a trailer, we see him emerge from a subway and rehearse on the piano at the club. When he nabs the gig, he’s beaming, and walking back down the city street … where he falls down a manhole and dies. His soul separates from his body and goes to the great beyond.
The film revolves around You Seminar, a otherworldly location where souls are trained with quirks, abilities, and interests. “All the things that make you, you,” Doctor said at the presentation. Once ready, the souls graduate from You Seminar.
Finally, here’s Jacob Hall’s take on the clip shown at D23, writing for SlashFilm:
In the clip, Joe runs through the streets of New York City, making his way to a jazz restaurant to play piano. Joe believes his purpose on this planet is to play, declaring, “It’s what I was meant to do, and nothing’s gonna stop me.” When he finally gets the gig of his dreams, Joe gets on his cellphone to brag, narrowly avoiding getting hit by cars and construction, only to fall down a sewer opening. When he opens his eyes, he’s surrounded by blackness and finds himself back in the You Seminar and himself colored all blue. “If this place looks familiar, it’s because you’ve been here before,” someone tells Joe, as the place becomes filled with pavilions where different personality traits are held.
Here, Joe meets a new soul named “22” — the last digits in a number in the billions. Because 22 doesn’t yet have a person, she looks like a big green creature with a big head, no body, and white buckteeth. Joe discovers that in order to return to Earth, he must travel to the impossibly vast cosmic realms. Through this journey, he will learn what it’s like to have a soul.
A Pixar film with a ton of music also needs some talented musicians behind the scenes, so it’s heartening to see Jon Batiste from The Late Show with Stephen Colbert writing the jazz songs, plus Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross are composing the score. Just listen to The Social Network soundtrack for an introduction into what those two are capable of when it comes to film scores.
Overall, Soul appears to hit all the right notes for an original Pixar film with heartfelt ideas and lovable characters. It also happens to be the first Pixar film to be led by a black character, and much of the cast we know about so far includes people of color, similar to 2017’s Coco.
I’m still feeling a bit cautious about the film’s quick release after Onward, but my hope for now is that the film was simply delayed from 2019 due to the shakeup of John Lasseter’s departure from Pixar (and Pete Docter’s subsequent promotion as his replacement). We can certainly see from its release date that Pixar and Disney have high hopes for Soul being another Inside Out. That is, an original animated film beloved by critics and audiences alike in a heated summer full of sequels and franchises.
We’re still a few months away from the full release of Disney+, a brand-new streaming service that will start at $6.99/month (with just one ad-free option, similar to Hulu). It’s like Netflix, but with tons of newer Disney and Pixar films, short films, new original content, and the entire Disney Vault.
I’ve mentioned the service plenty of times before on this site, but it’s worth reminding just how enticing this service will be for Pixar fans. Next year, Disney+ will debut Monsters at Work, a spinoff series of Monsters Inc. with some of the original voice cast returning (of course, Mike and Sully aren’t the main characters).
Upon launch, it looks like some new short form content from Pixar will debut, including Forky Asks a Question, a series of clips highlighting the confusion and curiosity behind everyone’s favorite utensil from Toy Story 4. Later, the service will release Lamp Life, a short film about what Bo Peep was up to in between Toy Story 2 and Toy Story 4. It’s probably safe to assume Disney+ will also contain Pixar’s entire collection of short films and maybe even SparkShorts.
But what about all the movies? The service will include 18 out of 21 Pixar films at launch, excluding the three most recent ones: Toy Story 4, Incredibles 2, and Coco. According to Disney, those films will come along later. And there will be two more exclusive streaming series in addition to Monsters at Work, but we don’t know much about those yet.
It’s easy to compare Disney+ to Netflix, but it will probably feel more like the experience of using Hulu, especially if you pay for the version with ads. It’s also strange to see Disney fully embracing Pixar as one of its crucial content branches, perhaps on the level of Marvel and Star Wars. Their in-house-mouse animation arm is still intact of course (lest we forget the release of Frozen 2 this year), but Pixar’s healthy catalogue of beloved characters and stories is looking more and more like a contained universe of branded content Disney wants to expand even further, perhaps in an attempt to bridge the gap between entertainment for kids and adults.
And we can already see the ways in which Disney+ might be impacting Pixar as an animation studio. Toy Story 4 didn’t have a short film attached to it, breaking tradition, and though this was downplayed by the filmmakers as incidental, it’s easy to wonder if resources for short films are being stretched to other places. Pixar isn’t producing the content for these new original series, but they are contributing, apparently.
This makes me curious. Would you rather see a short film from Pixar, or a season of a Pixar-adjacent show on Disney+? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below, because until we see one of these shows, any guess is as good as mine.
Throughout the movie, we watched Bo take charge. She gave orders, figured out solutions, and looked out for herself and others. There was still the story of lost love, but she didn’t just follow her heart. Bo proved that you can be smart, adventurous, and caring all at the same time — and these are all positive traits in a young girl.
In the lead up to Toy Story 4, I had a hard time wrapping my head around the writing for Bo Peep, a character who had been relegated to the background in previous films, now elevated to a major role in what is essentially a romantic comedy starring her and Woody.
Ingham perfectly outlines the core traits that bring out the best in this previously underwritten character, without making her feel like a totally different entity. This is still Bo Peep, voiced by Annie Potts. She’s just grown up a bit, as have we.
While Woody and the gang had been so fearful of being lost toys, Bo found a freedom within it. There was excitement, and she shared all about the fun of the adventure. She offered this message that it’s okay to step out of the nest. It’s scary, sure, but there are so many reasons to head out and explore. You’re missing more by restricting yourself.
Toy Story 4 is doing well at the box office. Three weeks into its release, the sequel has earned over $650 million worldwide, with a good chunk of that being made domestically (which means higher profits for Disney and Pixar).
Soon, Toy Story 4 will surpass Finding Nemo and Inside Out at the domestic box office, but it might only just barely catch up to Toy Story 3. It stands no chance of making the same amount as Finding Dory and Incredibles 2, which are two of the highest grossing animated films of all time.
This is a bit…unexpected. Box office prognosticators like myself predicted a much stronger showing for Toy Story 4, one that would at least keep pace with Finding Dory. Why? It’s a summer release, Toy Story is a beloved franchise, reviews have been stellar, and it’s been almost a decade since the last film. These were all factors that contributed to the massive box office success of Incredibles 2 in 2018 and Finding Dory in 2016.
The same just isn’t happening for Toy Story 4.
To reiterate, the film is doing extremely well by Pixar standards. Just not Pixar sequel standards (disregarding Cars 3, of course). The film should be outperforming Toy Story 3, taking into account inflation. What was $1 billion in 2010 amounts to a far greater sum in 2019. Pixar made Toy Story 4 with the hopes that it would make more profit, not about the same or slightly less.
It’s hard to pin down what’s precisely contributing to this underperformance. It’s been a weak year for animated movies overall at the box office, especially sequels. How to Train Your Dragon 3, The Lego Movie 2, and The Secret Life of Pets 2 have all done far worse business than their predecessors, even with good reviews on their side.
No matter the exact reason, at least one thing is clear. Pixar and Disney now have to reckon with the reality that the sequel gravy train isn’t as long-lasting as they might have hoped. New Pixar sequels won’t necessarily be huge moneymakers, for reasons that are admittedly nebulous and unpredictable. There’s a ceiling to how many movies Pixar can deliver within a single franchise before moviegoers get bored. Audiences just don’t seem to be as invested in a fourth Toy Story as they would be a fourth Avengers film, apparently.
But this is good news for Pixar fans. By and large, we want more original films from the studio, and the underperformance of Toy Story 4 lends credence to artists who want to challenge resourcing decisions. They can now argue that a slew of original Pixar films is badly needed in order to refresh their existing IP in the years before we get an Incredibles 3 or Inside Out 2, which are probably the only sequels most audiences would be curious to see anytime soon.
That said, there’s also a downside to Pixar rethinking their lineup of films in the latter half of the next decade (keep in mind, their next four films are already originals). Yes, they have new incentive to focus on original films because sequels to existing sequels simply aren’t guaranteed hits, but this unearths a new problem. What if Pixar stops making as many original films that don’t have to be franchise starters?
Put more simply, Pixar might stop making films like Coco and WALL-E because stories like that are too standalone in a cinematic landscape where franchises practically rule the box office. Why green light the next Ratatouille or Up when more resources and effort can be put into the next Incredibles, which is a film with so much spectacle, you can’t help but want it to continue.
My worry is that the next truly great original idea for a Pixar film might be tossed aside in favor of something more financially feasible. Or worse, an original idea might be tampered with in order to fit a sequel paradigm outside its intended draw. This is all speculation, and we simply don’t know what Disney and Pixar are truly considering for their next creative output. But we know they’re paying careful attention to what is making money at the box office right now. And they’re not films with satisfying conclusions. They’re films that never really end.
This post contains spoilers for Toy Story 4 and Avengers: Endgame…obviously.
At the end of Avengers: Endgame, one of the series protagonists chooses to end a long career of service to his community of friends and allies — including a longtime rival known for having multitudes of gadgets — after fulfilling one last mission in order to finally renew a life with the woman he loves, whom he thought was lost to him forever, thus saying goodbye to his old life and bestowing an old-fashioned symbol of his heroism and leadership upon someone who isn’t a white male.
At the end of Toy Story 4, one of the series protagonists chooses to end a long career of service to his community of friends and allies — including a longtime rival known for having multitudes of gadgets — after fulfilling one last mission in order to finally renew a life with the woman he loves, whom he thought was lost to him forever, thus saying goodbye to his old life and bestowing an old-fashioned symbol of his heroism and leadership upon someone who isn’t a white male.
Let’s break that down in case you don’t believe me.
At the end of[Avengers: Endgame/Toy Story 4], one of the series protagonists [Steve Rogers/Woody Pride] chooses to end a long career of service [being an Avenger/being Andy’s favorite toy] to his community of friends and allies — including a longtime rival known for having multitudes of gadgets — [Iron Man and the Avengers/Buzz and the other toys] after fulfilling one last mission [saving half of all existence/saving Forky]…
…in order to finally renew a life with the woman he loves [becoming lost in time in order to be with Peggy Carter/becoming a lost toy in order to be with Bo Peep], whom he thought was lost to him forever [his main duty to save the world forced them apart/his main duty to be there for Andy forced them apart]…
…thus saying goodbye to his old life [serving the needs of the world/serving the needs of a kid] and bestowing an old-fashioned symbol of his heroism and leadership [the Captain America Shield/the Sheriff Woody badge] upon someone who isn’t a white male [Sam Wilson the Falcon/Jessie the Yodeling Cowgirl].
Toy Story 4 and Avengers: Endgame released in theaters within two months of each other.
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.