Is Toy Story 5 a Good Idea?

Disney and Pixar are officially making Toy Story 5 (as well as Frozen III and Zootopia 2). Should they?

Woody and Buzz in Toy Story 4
Photo: Disney / Pixar

Toy Story 4 grossed a cool $1 billion during the summer of 2019. This was achieved after a nearly decade-long hiatus following the previous film in the Buzz and Woody franchise, Toy Story 3 (2010), which also earned $1 billion. The lack of box office fall-off between installments was remarkable. So this week’s news from rechristened Disney CEO Bob Iger wasn’t exactly a shock: Toy Story 5 is on the way. Apparently with both Tom Hanks’ Woody and Tim Allen’s Buzz Lightyear, if Allen’s social media posts are anything to go by. Still…

Is this a good thing?

In what feels like the increasingly distant past, there was a time when Disney was reluctant to make “official” sequels to their works—which is to say theatrically released films produced by either Walt Disney Animation Studios or the company’s live-action film department. The company certainly spent the ‘90s exploiting the financial appeal of follow-ups, but these were cheap and quickie affairs, usually only acknowledged by the merchandise arm of the company, and the parents who had to endure watching these soulless cash-ins. Nonetheless, the legacy of Disney’s original movies seemed inexplicably untainted—perhaps because the company visibly didn’t care about the direct-to-video sequels it did produce back then.

Pixar changed that with Toy Story 2, a 1999 classic that is remembered as such largely because the filmmakers of the original Toy Story were horrified to learn Disney was going to make a direct-to-video follow-up to their work. So Pixar made Toy Story 2 themselves, a movie so good that Disney course corrected from its original plans to put it out only on VHS. Instead the sequel got a Thanksgiving ’99 release date.

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Since that fateful decision, Pixar—and even Walt Disney Animation Studios—have become less averse to making sequels to their beloved classics. Indeed, if you look at the future slates of both animation studios owned by the Mouse House, it’s a veritable sea of sequels: Inside Out 2, Frozen III, Zootopia 2, and now Toy Story 5. Most of those films were announced by Iger this week in nearly the same breath it was revealed the company is laying off 7,000 employees.

In the modern Hollywood climate—which has been largely defined by Iger’s IP-obsession in the 2010s—sequels are inevitable. That doesn’t mean they have to be bad. Indeed, the Toy Story franchise is a testament to that, from Pixar refusing to allow Toy Story 2 to be direct-to-video schlock to the studio taking around 10 years for each of the successive follow-ups. And yet, every one of those add-ons attempted to do something few other sequels seriously consider in the modern Hollywood model: end things for good.

In the case of Toy Story 3, it’s with a finale that many fans still consider the true conclusion of a story that began in 1995 with a boy named Andy introducing his spaceman toy to his cowboy doll. By the time of the 2010 threequel, Andy had been aged up enough to be headed to college, and he had been given the impetus by his mother (and director and co-writer Lee Unkrich) to put childish things away. So he gives up his beloved spaceman and cowboy toys, passing Buzz Lightyear and Sheriff Woody on to a little girl named Bonnie. It was intended to be the end of a trilogy. Andy grows up, the toys fulfill their purpose, and they say goodbye to the child they helped raise.

It was an unexpectedly powerful ending, even for Pixar. And this isn’t just purely a millennial writer’s nostalgia talking. Toy Story 3 made such an impact that even the animation-averse Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences nominated Toy Story 3 for Best Picture at the Oscars. It was as satisfying a trilogy closer as any we’ve seen in this century. So when Toy Story 4 was announced in 2014, there were many skeptical commentators, not unlike myself right now. However, Toy Story 4 found a graceful way to continue a story that already concluded. If Toy Story 3 was the final chapter about these toys’ stories, Toy Story 4 was a sweet epilogue about the saga’s most central character: Woody the Cowboy.

With Woody reunited with Bo Peep (Annie Potts), Toy Story 4 became a metaphor about parents finding a new lease on life after their child has flown the coop. Woody was like a divorced dad whose kids have grown up, rekindling an old flame in his middle age. If Toy Story 3 ended Andy’s story with these toys, Toy Story 4 ended Woody’s, giving him closure as he decides to say goodbye to Buzz Lightyear and the rest of the gang seemingly forever.

And that isn’t just a personal interpretation. While speaking to the press in 2019, including Den of Geek, Tom Hanks recalled what it was like recording the final scene in the film, which was also his last day of work on Toy Story 4. In the sequence, Woody says farewell to Buzz and begins the final callback of “To infinity and beyond.”

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Talking about recording that sequence in the same booth where he first started work on 1995’s Toy Story, Hanks said, “That’s where it all began and that’s where it was all ending… When it came to pass, I felt as though I was on the other side of the river waving to everybody that I had left back in the old country; it was pretty profound.”

When watched by itself, Toy Story 4 appears as resolute about walking away from Woody as the previous film was about saying goodbye to Andy. But maybe there is room for a Toy Story movie without Woody? That could at least creatively justify Toy Story 5, but Disney making a fourth sequel without the franchise’s most popular character already sounds like a stretch. And, in fact, Tim Allen has seemed to immediately signal otherwise by tweeting out Wednesday, “See ya soon Woody, you are a sad strange little man and you have my pity. And off we go to a number 5! To infinity and beyond!”

Ordering Toy Story 5 makes startlingly good sense to Disney’s bottomline. Multiple generations have been emotionally affected by these characters over the last 30 years. Hanks even called Woody “a three-dimensional piece of emotional baggage” children carry around with them. But that emotional baggage has already reached its final destination, beautifully. Twice.

Eventually, you hit the law of diminishing returns, and you wind up with the type of sequels Pixar originally wanted to avoid way back in the ‘90s; those that exist only to make money and have no story left to tell.