“The Pixar Theory” has moved with the times. The baroque and tenuous but well-documented concept that each Pixar movie takes place in the same timeline started out in the same margins that many such theories do; Shared among fan forums, reasoned out half-jokingly by people who obsess over the movies and want a deeper understanding of them than the average viewer. Soon, though, the mainstream conversation began to shift towards these obsessives, and someone realized that the Pixar Theory was that most valuable of modern resources: Content.
In the age where the layman is expected to speak the language of the fan, the Pixar Theory has just become one more part of the cultural vocabulary. Do I think it’s true? Do the writers at Pixar? At this point it hardly matters now that there’s a sizable group of people watching each new Pixar movie – like the latest from the animation institution, Toy Story 4 – through that lens.
I lead off with the Pixar Theory because that’s what the ad campaign for Toy Story 4 did. There were trailers and posters and plot details and all the rest, but the clear focus wasn’t on Woody or Buzz Lightyear: It was on the existential quandary that was posed by the existence of “Forky”, a little spork with googly eyes that has the same weight of existence as any other talking, moving, thinking toy. Voiced with characteristic wretchedness by Tony Hale, Forky is terrified and revolted by his very existence1 in such a way as to directly invoke the Pixar Theory to any moviegoer who has it in their frame of reference.
It goes to show that everything has to move with the times. The first Toy Story was beyond state-of-the-art when it was released nearly a quarter-century ago, and placed the tug-of-war between the old and the new at the center of its narrative. Now, to use that A:B :: B:C format so beloved by the Internet, that original Toy Story is almost as old as the moon landing was when it came out. Just like Woody, the series has to adapt to a new generation of kids…
…and also just like Woody, that doesn’t change what it is philosophically, for better and worse. The movie never delves into the philosophical problems or practical particulars of its long-standing premise of living toys: Just like the other three movies, it’s far more interested in marrying classical cartoon comedy and adventure with harrowing emotional torment. It probably doesn’t live up to the dizzyingly high standards of the previous three movies in these areas, but it’s far more worthwhile than it might have been, particularly with regards to how it manages to move with the times in subtler but more interesting ways than catering to the fan theory crowd.
For a start, the Toy Story films have always been ensemble movies anchored by the mismatched Woody/Buzz duo. 4, though, reduces virtually the entire secondary toy cast to a single body of Greek choristers. None of them have very much impact on the story at all: not Jesse, not Mr. Potato Head, not Kristen Schaal as the dinosaur from the last movie, not even Buzz himself, who slides into a much smaller role until it’s time to start the waterworks going.
Is this a departure? Certainly. Is it a problem? That’s tougher to say, especially as the reason for the sacrifice becomes clear: This is a singular character piece, charting the emotional journey of Woody and only Woody. Far from the usual Pixar duo setup (see above), this movie is plotted closer to Paul King’s much-heralded Paddington movies: Woody, for all his self-doubt and indecision, works as an inevitable force of emotional growth on the people around him, helping everyone he meets find fulfillment and direction in their lives.
This is a clever way to maintain the series’ reputation for devastating emotional impact, but changing the formula of the series has a ripple effect when the formula is so tightly-constructed. The series’ signature action setups – trapped toys, separated groups, precarious obstacle courses, humans that the toys need to manipulate – don’t have the same tenor in a movie where Woody ends up resolving every issue through sheer force of empathy and will. The problems the toys face have always been fairly minor in human terms – taking an elevator, catching up to a car – so the stunt spectacular that forms the spine of the movie’s action feels somewhat contrived considering how separate it is from the emotional narrative.
I say “stunt spectacular” for a very specific reason. Besides the estimable Forky, the marquee new toy character is Keanu Reeves as Duke Caboom, a toy stuntman complete with bike who needs to be recruited for the flashier physical feats. Keanu is not the most obvious screen actor to cross over into voice work – he’s well-known for his degree of physical dedication as an actor – but the role plays to his strengths, playing both capability and sadness in a way that reflects the larger theme of having to deal with loss and aging the same way that all toys do.
That theme is woven through other characters’ journeys, like Christina Hendricks as a toy that was defective out of the box, Key and Peele as a pair of toys literally joined at the hip, and a returning Annie Potts as a capable but not de-feminized Bo Peep, but ultimately it’s about Woody, and the emotional ending that everyone knows is coming is very much his ending, in a way that seems like it’s definitively closing the door on the world, no matter how popular Forky’s G-rated existential crisis becomes.
That’s not to say they couldn’t make a Toy Story 5 that’s a climate change allegory where phones are killing the entire toy population, or something along those lines, but part of moving with the times is accepting that you can’t keep moving forever.