We’ve grown up watching the Toy Story movies, and while the third one may have ended in tears when Andy left his beloved toys to Bonnie before heading off to college, my recent visit to Pixar confirms that they have no plans to put the gang up in the attic just yet. “We love the end of three,” says Toy Story 4 director, Josh Cooley. “It ends Woody and Andy’s story perfectly, but we realized there was more to tell to continue Woody’s story.” So, the gang will return on June 21st, settling into life at Bonnie’s house and embarking on what is sure to be another lively adventure. This time the crew is tagging along on Bonnie’s family camping trip with plenty of new locations to explore, some new friends to help or, more likely, hinder them along the way. But a detour reuniting Woody with Bo Peep could mean big changes for the “rootinest tootinest cowboy” when he discovers that life as a lost toy may not be as doom and gloom as he’s always imagined.
Toy Story 4 begins with a massive thunderstorm (check out Scott Wampler’s CinemaCon coverage for a full description of the opening sequence), which is a benchmark Production Designer, Bob Pauley, and Global Technology Supervisor, Bill Reeves, use to illustrate how far the team has come since Toy Story in 1995. “We were designing within the limitations,” says Reeves about the lack of tools available to them back then, making it impossible to even render rain. Since the early days, when their short films acted as stepping stones to their dream of making a full-length feature, Pixar has learned to utilize the intervals between each film to expand their creative skills and knowledge, while also waiting for the technological advancements they required to incorporate ideas on a much grander scale. Sure, it’s nothing new to see the toys stepping outside the comfort of home into dangerous territory, but the details and locations in Toy Story 4 appear far richer and more complex than those we’ve seen before.
The upcoming film features two new and exciting locations. The first is the “Second Chance Antique Store,” a sort of purgatory for toys housing a villainous baby doll, her army of ventriloquist dummies, and a hoppin’ nightclub inside a pinball machine with plenty of opportunities for the characters to get into some trouble. It took the team two years to create the 8000 square foot space, featuring over 10,000 custom designed items, including a gramophone that spins the record “Remember Me” in a heartfelt nod to Coco. Director of Photography, Patrick Lin describes the store as, “The most complicated set I’ve ever worked in during my twenty-two years at Pixar.” Since everything is created in service of the story, this is a place Woody (Tom Hanks) enters in search of Bo Peep (Annie Potts) but ends up feeling lost in as he starts to doubt his instincts for the first time. From a toy’s perspective, the space feels like an entire city with plenty of nooks, crannies, and alleyways for them to traverse without being seen. Covered in dust and cobwebs, every digital detail enhances the atmosphere of this sprawling, cluttered space to set the scene for the characters to inhabit.
Likewise, the carnival located across the street looks like heaven to the toys watching from the store window. “We loved the contrast between life with the toys in the antique store and what was just outside,” says Producer, Mark Nielsen. “You’ve got all these kids running around and these toys that are trapped that don’t have a kid but desperately want one. And it’s just on the other side of the glass.” While the lights of the carnival may seem appealing from a distance, up close, things aren’t so glamorous. The carnival toys spend their days trapped inside the game booths, just as stuck as those in the antique store. No one’s escaping, unless someone comes along that can beat one of those impossible games, and even then, there are no guarantees you’ll be chosen. Thematically, Toy Story 4 seems to revolve around lost and unwanted toys. Combined with Woody struggling to find his place in Bonnie’s world, and Bo Peep showing him another way of life, the question becomes: Which road will he choose? Usually, these stories end with the toys banding together to find their way back home. But life beyond Andy’s room could mean big changes are in store for everyone.
In true Toy Story fashion, the most exciting changes are the new characters joining the fun this time around. Forky (Tony Hale) adds a somber, self-deprecating tone that promises to be both hilarious and relatable. Be sure to stock up on sporks, because everyone's gonna be making their own Forky this summer! Other characters we only saw glimpses of that I can’t wait to see in action are Canadian daredevil, Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves) and the plush carnival toys, Ducky and Bunny (Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele). Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) and her ventriloquist dummies add an eerie element of horror to the antique store, but I have a feeling there’s more than meets the eye in regard to this particular villain. Of course, the biggest mystery is what Bo and Woody’s reunion will mean for the future. Her perspective on life as a lost toy could potentially help Woody see things in a new light. As for what’s happening with the rest of the gang, all I can tell you is that everyone is present and accounted for. And, not to worry, Pixar pieced together enough audio from the late Don Rickles to ensure that Mr. Potato Head won’t be missing out on the latest adventure.
There’s no doubt that Pixar’s beautiful campus in Emeryville, CA is home to an expert team of visual storytellers, all of whom have a great deal of love for the Toy Story universe. “We wanna make sure that we’re doing right by the characters and the fans,” says Cooley. The fans never seem to tire of reuniting with these cherished characters. No matter how much time passes between each film, our old reliable friends never fail to reawaken the child in all of us. While Pixar continues to evolve with each resonant story they tell, we’re sure to keep tagging along with Woody and the gang, wherever their adventures may lead.