This is Part One of a three-part series. Don’t forget to read Part Two and Part Three.


Early in Toy Story 4, Little Bo Peep, returning to the screen for the first time since Toy Story 2, mentions her faithful sheep — Billy, Goat, and Gruff — and Woody gasps, “They have names?!” She laughs and replies, “You never asked.”

It turns out that there’s a lot that Woody still doesn’t know about his own Toy Story world. There’s quite a bit that we still don’t know, too.

And that’s fine with me. I like unknowns. I like stories that haven’t filled in all the blanks, that leave room for me to wonder. (I wish Star Wars  had remained a single trilogy — Episodes 4, 5, and 6 — for the ways in which the limitations of that story inspired imaginations and made that galaxy far, far away seem full of boundless possibilities. Prequels and sequels have reduced that universe to a cosmic round of “It’s a Small World.”)

Bo Peep has a lot to teach Woody in Toy Story 4. (Disney)

For that very reason, I didn’t want Toy Story 4.

I didn’t want Toy Story 4 like I didn’t want Blade Runner 2049.

Two very different stories, sure. Two entirely different genres. But my objection to the announcement of both sequels was based on the same principle: The Toy Story trilogy (1995, 1999, 2010) and the original Blade Runner (1982) have that rare status of having classic status by satisfying their audiences with something close to perfect storytelling. By fulfilling the promise of their ambitious concepts, by developing compelling characters and meaningful narratives, and by achieving a brilliant balance of closed story arcs and promising loose ends, these movies left almost all moviegoers saying “Let’s watch that again!” instead of “Make more!” Both were the fruit of ideal collaborations of innovative imaginations. Adding another chapter to either world, screenwriters would probably propose answers to questions that were a strength of the originals.

Buzz Lightyear and Woody in “Toy Story.” Disney — Pixar, 1995.

It happens several times a year: I find film critics arguing over which franchises are the greatest, and what the proper ranking of the episodes might be. The Toy Story trilogy almost always places near the top of the list, and critics seem to separate almost evenly into camps in choosing which of the three is best.

The secret to the trilogy’s consistent quality? Curious, I signed up for a Pixar “Masterclass” in storytelling several years ago, and I was impressed. They know what they’re doing, and I bring a lot of their strategies into my own fiction-writing classes.  Their three-film Toy Story series, imagined by an innovative dream team of storytellers, is Exhibit A when it comes to gold-standard all-ages entertainment. In concept, context, and characters, it’s a perfect three-part progression.

But for all of their talk about architecture, I’m being serious when I say that it was love. Pixar’s best artists lavished attention on every detail of these stories, slow-cooking them over fifteen years to near perfection. (That’s a longer calendar than the original Star Wars trilogy!) They took their sweet time, and that time yielded sweetness. Together, Toy Story, Toy Story 2, and Toy Story 3 cohere into one epic story about cultivating a faithful and inclusive community; about finding purpose in being who you were made to be; and, about the meaningfulness of dedication to serving someone else.

You remember it well, I’m sure: The floppy-limbed Sheriff Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks) served his child Andy loyally and kept his toy-box community focused on their people-pleasing priorities. Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) learned to be a team player. The supporting cast—Mr. Potato Head, Slinky Dog, Rex, and the rest—learned how to use their distinctive talents in complementary ways; how to make meaningful memories for the children who played with them; how to resist the temptations of becoming collectors’ commodities; and how to overcome their fears—even their fears of annihilation by incinerator!

In an unexpected and deeply moving denouement, Toy Story 3 concludes with a vision of a perfect future for the toys beyond Andy, the boy whose love had given them life. We watched Woody and the gang find a new home with a new child—Bonnie—where they would be preserved, loved, and well-played-with. The band would stay together… forever, or something close to that.

The life-and-death stakes of Toy Story 3 made a successful sequel difficult to imagine. What could top that?

Why press your luck and go further, Pixar? Why start a new story when the first three form an ambitious arc that satisfies so completely?

And why not learn from the mistakes of other Pixar series? Remember how Cars 2 and Cars 3 seemed to make a lesser thing of the original? Or how Finding Dory and Monsters University became shrug-worthy footnotes to the classic status of Finding Nemo and Monsters Inc?

So, that’s why I responded with dismay to the announcement of Toy Story 4‘s development. The teaser trailer didn’t encourage me—in fact, it upset me. (More on that later.) In short, I’ve been dreading this movie’s arrival.

But then came Blade Runner 2049.

Ryan Gosling dares to follow in Harrison Ford’s footsteps in Blade Runner 2049.

Surprise, surprise — somebody figured out how to do this well.

Our return to the world of Philip K. Dick’s dystopia and the renegade Replicants turned out to be a strong standalone experience. While I do feel that the original Ridley Scott masterpiece, arguably the pinnacle of ’80s sci-fi cinema, is somewhat diminished now that we cannot talk about it without talking about its lesser sequel (I especially cringe at how the humble heroes I loved in Blade Runner returned as icons of religious significance in the sequel), I’m surprised to find myself grateful for director Denis Villeneuve’s vision of a larger Blade Runner world. His narrative wisely focuses on new characters, new locations, new and upsettingly relevant questions about a frightfully plausible future.

Best of all, Blade Runner 2049 doesn’t do anything that forces us to re-interpret the original or experience it any differently when revisiting it. I watched Blade Runner: The Director’s Cut again recently, and if anything it seemed even more enthralling, its hand-crafted special effects proving even more astounding in view of the extravagant digital animation that was used in the sequel to recreate that world. The two films don’t really feel like a series—they’re separate stories set in the same world: more like The LEGO Batman Movie is to The LEGO Movie than Avengers: Endgame to Avengers: Infinity War.

The strengths of Blade Runner 2049 have made me second-guess my anti-sequel inclinations. Still, I resisted the idea of bringing new imaginations, new ideas, and new risks into the Toy Story series—the only Disney animated series in which three episodes stand shoulder to shoulder among the greatest animated films ever made for anybody.

Now, after a lot of hand-wringing and lament among film critics, here’s Toy Story 4.

And, lo… it seems to have shut down cynics like me and given us yet another reason to rejoice that Pixar still has some genius in the house.

“Yes we Canada!” The triumphs of stunt motorcyclist Duke Kaboom (Keanu Reeves) are just a few of this movie’s many flashes of good old-fashioned Pixar genius.

Toy Story 4 is, like Blade Runner 2049, an adventure that takes place adjacent to, rather than within, the world of the first three stories. Sure, Sheriff Woody is the leading man, but his role as Community Organizer is no longer the central point of conflict. In fact, the original trilogy’s community is almost sidelined in this episode—Buzz Lightyear has surprisingly short screen time, making room for a fantastic new cast characters, all of them matched with an inspired supporting cast of voice actors—including Annie Potts, Christina Hendricks, Ally Maki, Keegan-Michael Key, and Jordan Peele.

What’s more—this is the funniest Toy Story yet. And it launches us in a whole new narrative direction, suggesting that this could turn out to be the beginning of a new trilogy. I end up reassured that there are still plenty of meaningful stories to tell in the Toy Story universe… so long as the writers don’t circle back to revise our understanding of the original trilogy.

Pixar’s achievement here is even more impressive when you look at how many cooks were working in that kitchen. The final screenplay was composed by Andrew Stanton and Stephany Folsom, but the story was pieced together by no less than eight collaborators: Stanton and Folsom with John Lasseter, Valerie LaPointe, Rashida Jones (!!), Will McCormack, Martin Hynes, and Josh Cooley, who has moved up from Pixar storyboard artist to directing this episode.

A writer list that long is usually a bad sign.

But there’s a sense in Toy Story 4 that the whole team was well aware of the stakes.

In fact, there’s something clever going on in the opening scene, when Woody and the gang work together to rescue a toy car from drowning in the rushing muck of a storm gutter. It’s as if they’re admitting up front that, thanks to their talking cars, they’re going to have to pull their reputation for sequel-making out of the mud.

And they do. I hope Andrew Stanton, in particular, feels great about this movie. After being unfairly punished for the record-setting box-office failure of John Carter—which was a failure of marketing, not a failure of filmmaking—he’s more deserving of a substantial “comeback” than any filmmaker I know. And with the help of an inspired team, he completes a stunt here that few would have thought possible (not unlike one of the jumps completed by Duke Kaboom, the stunt motorcyclist perfectly played by Keanu Reeves in this episode). Can we restore Stanton now to his rightful place in the pantheon of Great Family Filmmakers?

Instead of focusing on Woody’s community and their chemistry, Toy Story 4 is the first story in this world to focus on the children as much as the toys. And in this, it finds three important new questions to explore:

First: What happens in this world when a child goes beyond loving the toys she’s been given and applies her imagination to making toys of her own?

Introducing… Forky!

It’s surprising to realize how little attention was given, in the original trilogy, to what a child brings to imaginative engagement with toys. In the first three movies, Andy and Bonnie played with what they were given. But my memory of childhood was all about improvisation,  repurposing what I was given into crazy new inventions. With the introduction of Forky, Bonnie’s first homemade toy, the Toy Story universe has exciting new questions to consider.

And that leads us directly to this story’s second important question: Can someone who has been taught they are trash be redeemed and given a sense of their true value by someone else’s love?

Third: Is a person’s value ultimately defined by having found someone who loves them, or is their value defined by finding a way of showing love?

In Part Two, we’ll dig into some trash-talking.

And then, in Part Three, I’ll consider a major complaint against Toy Story 4 that’s been voiced by my favorite film critic.

Stay tuned…

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