“To infinity and beyond,” the spiffy new space soldier action figure Buzz Lightyear declares to a room full of enraptured playthings at the outset of 1995’s Toy Story. He then jumps off a bed, bounces off a ball, rides a matchbox car through an inverted loop and gets stuck to a plane hanging from the ceiling, spinning around wildly before falling gracefully back down.
It’s one of the most famous moments in one of the most famous animated film franchises, and it perfectly illustrates the boundless potential of the core concept. The Toy Story films take place in a world where toys are conscious creatures, springing to life when humans turn their backs. And Buzz’s attempted flight is exactly the kind of hijink kids would hope toys get up to in such a world — bold and determined and utterly unconcerned with any Old West sheriff doll that might say, “Can’t, can’t, can’t!”
But the scene gets deeper when you get older. Buzz is a toy who thinks he’s actually a space ranger, and his lucky flight, while wondrous to behold, is proof of a delusion that will soon crumble. Woody, the drawstring cowboy, knows he’s a toy, but he watches with envy as the newer and nicer Buzz shows up and shows out for the community he leads — or at least used to — as Andy’s favorite toy.
It’s hard not to relate. Which of us hasn’t hasn’t had our own grand ideas of who we are smashed? Or felt like the old model at work or elsewhere when a new person comes along?
Pixar, Disney’s famed computer animation studio, has long excelled with stories that land in the nostalgic neutral zone between childhood and adulthood — Up’s adventure tale turned rumination on aging, Inside Out’s high-concept examination (and personification) of emotions as they grow up. But it’s Pixar’s first feature concept that has proven inexhaustible. Toy Story 4 arrives this week, making it the only Pixar franchise to get a third sequel.
Adjusted for inflation, Toy Story is the only movie from the first three that didn’t earn more than $400 million domestically according to Box Office Mojo. (It brought in $395 million in 2019 dollars.) Even without adjusting for inflation, 2010’s Toy Story 3 is the second highest-grossing animated film ever at the worldwide box office, with its $1.06 billion trailing only Frozen’s $1.27 billion. (Either way, Disney wins.)
The franchise accomplished this in large part because it’s one you can grow up with. I was 7 when the first Toy Story arrived, and I was enraptured by the idea of toys coming to life, peeking back around the corner of the playroom whenever I left it to make sure I wasn’t missing anything.
By the time Toy Story 3 arrived, I had just graduated from college. I was still enraptured, but for totally different reasons. In the movie, Andy departs for college, and Woody is the only toy he doesn’t leave to be placed in the attic. The rest are mistakenly grabbed by Andy’s mom and taken out with the trash. Devastated, they jump into a box with donations for a local daycare. Woody follows, clamoring to convince them they weren’t thrown out. After a fraught few days spent trying to fit in with the daycare’s community of castoffs, they find their way back to Andy’s house. With a nudge from Woody, who writes him a note pretending to be his mom, Andy gives the toys to a little girl named Bonnie.
Yes, it’s a story about sentient playthings, filled with fun little details (such as a Barbie meeting her Ken). But it’s also a story about reaching the end of one phase of life and moving onto another. As an aspiring journalist jumping into the workforce in 2010, the toys’ travails at the daycare and their fight to escape embodied my fears about landing in the wrong job or struggling without one. That they eventually landed with Bonnie filled me with hope, even as Woody and Andy’s decisions to move on left my eyes brimming with tears. It was time for me to do the same.
If Toy Story 4 holds the score of 100 percent it had on the review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes as Free Times went to press, it would become the third in the franchise to own a perfect score. (Toy Story 3 sits at 98 percent.) And predictably, it promises plenty for adults to think about while their kids giggle and gape. Consider the plight of Forky, a toy Bonnie pastes together using a spork as a base.
“The adventure is spurred into motion by Forky jumping out of a car window because he knows that he’s a creature made of trash and thinks he deserves to die,” notes David Sims in a glowing review for The Atlantic. “At multiple points, Woody and Buzz discuss their own ‘inner voices’ (their consciences) and how those drive them to make selfless decisions, like rescuing an existentially compromised living spork. Toy Story 4 can have all the fun it wants, and it does, but it also throws these deeper concepts around with abandon.”
A kids movie that doubles as a meditation on existence — few franchises can pull that off. For Toy Story, it’s just another day in the playroom.