During the story-breaking process for Toy Story 2, producer John Lasseter created the Jessie character in order for the ensemble to include a female member more substantial than Bo Peep, who was generally unimportant to the story. So unimportant, in fact, that by Toy Story 3, Bo Peep had been completely excluded, her absence hand-waved away as a consequence of the fate which awaits all toys – something which Toy Story 3‘s plot directly addressed.
Andy passed-on the toys to Bonnie. The trilogy concluded by going full circle. The story was destined to repeat itself indefinitely. It was the perfect ending.
When Toy Story 4 was announced, there was natural scepticism – not just because of how perfect Toy Story 3‘s ending had been but also because of how trans-formative it was for the audience. It was an ending that had depicted the inevitable in the perfect way, as life’s impermanence writ large. It was a film about coming to terms with the knowledge that everything ends eventually for the simple reason that it has to. Toy Story 3 is a cathartic experience because it’s based on a bittersweet truth that the young adults of its generation, who’d grown up with Toy Story, hadn’t needed to confront before.
Your film doesn’t become a moment in history for a whole generation just because its ending is the perfect one for its franchise. Toy Story 3 has the reputation that it does have because of how trans-formative it was for its audience. It changed me as a person, as I’m sure it changed many people. Not to be hyperbolic, but a part of me died after seeing Toy Story 3, never to return – that’s not a statement I’d make about any other film. But then, wasn’t that the point of it? That the only way to grow as a person is to allow ourselves to die metaphorically in order for our new self to rise from the ashes stronger?
Toy Story 3 presented a line marking the beginning of adult world that once crossed-over couldn’t be crossed back over, then gave us all the strength and courage to do so. That’s what made Toy Story 3 like looking at the Sun: it distilled all the complex emotions involved in growing up into a single film and a result became a key moment in the development of its intended audience.
Watching Toy Story 3 puts my inner child at war with my adult self. Every time, I resist and every time, it ends with me accepting that I have to let the child die. That’s the true power of Toy Story 3: I’m crushed to death by my own mortality and I climb out of the rubble reborn.
This was only able to happen, of course, because Toy Story was produced by Pixar. The concept of toys coming to life when humans aren’t present and having unseen adventures is, on the surface, gimmicky. But Pixar’s strength has always been that it doesn’t produce surface. Pixar take fantastic ideas and use them as mirrors for our humanity, as films that express emotions we don’t even know are present until we watch them. Only Pixar could take the Toy Story concept and make it about the toys’ relationship with the child and the emotional importance of their place in the child’s life. Toy Story 3 is Pixar’s crowning achievement for revealing in its final scene that, the whole time, Andy had been us. His journey had been our journey.
Whereas Toy Story 4 lacks that kind of depth. The prior success of Toy Story lied in its ability to go beyond its simple premise and be about something much more, but Toy Story 4 is just about the toys on their own. The entire emotional dynamic of Toy Story was predicated on the toy-child relationship, yet Woody’s arc consists of him realising that he can live happily without the love of a child. This makes Bonnie irrelevent to the story because she has no stake in the outcome; Buzz’s emotional gesture to Woody at the end was his own recognition that Bonnie just doesn’t care about Woody anymore and Bo Peep was never one of Bonnie’s toys anyway, so the relationship between her and Woody has no connection to Bonnie, the audience surrogate.
There could’ve been a story here about Bonnie’s relationship with her own toys but the trilogy had covered everything that it would have to say. It would’ve been impossible to make a Bonnie-centred Toy Story 4 that wouldn’t have just repeated the original trilogy – something its ending stated perfectly with what it set up. There’s no organic core to Toy Story 4. It’s the kind of engineered scenario that Pixar are popular for specifically not doing. Even the flashback explaining what happened to Bo Peep is the re-insertion of a character, previously written-out for their irrelevance, back into an already-complete story. It’s the recycling of a disposable character nobody cared about as the catalyst for artificial continuation beyond natural completion.
And as a result of that continuation, the Toy Story films are now about something entirely different. They used to be about the relationship between children and toys and why that matters – and also why eventually letting that go matters. Whereas now, it’s actually about the relationship between Woody and Buzz, which is less interesting because toys are defined by their children. Woody and Buzz’s relationship had value because it was part of their own mutual connection to Andy. Everything they did together was because they both needed to be there for him. Their relationship was about that greater relationship between toys and children. But remove that context, and Woody and Buzz’s relationship just doesn’t matter anymore. Bonnie doesn’t care about Woody, so who cares if he’s with Buzz or not?
Woody and Buzz’s separation was a considered ending of Toy Story 3; that Andy would in fact take Woody with him to college. That would’ve had weight. It would’ve meant something, in the same way that Andy deciding not to do so also had weight and meant something. Toy Story 4 is trying to give us both endings, but neither Andy nor Bonnie are a part of that picture anymore – and if the child is the audience surrogate, that’s a felt absence. This is pretty much a forced afterthought.
Like I say, as an animated family film, it’s fine. But it’s impossible to separate Toy Story 4 from Toy Storys 1 – 3, and its opening montage reminds me of just how much better they really are.