Toy Story and the world of Sheriff Woody and Buzz Lightyear have been part of Tom Hanks’ life for more than 25 years. Not even yet the Oscar winner of Philadelphia when Pixar first approached him about voicing a cowboy ragdoll, Hanks’ life has changed in subtle and profound ways in the quarter-century since Toy Story revolutionized animation… and Hanks began a series of hellos and goodbyes to Woody and the roundup gang. Now it may be farewell for the final time with Toy Story 4, which left Hanks fairly reflective when he sat before a theater full of journalists at a press conference in Disney World.
Initially amused at Pixar Animation Studios’ ambition to return to Woody and Buzz about once every decade, Hanks says with a laugh, “I have always been dazzled when they have come back and said, ‘We’re going to try another one,’ because the question always is, ‘Oh really? Well, ain’t you guys bold! You think you can match that last one we did? Well, good luck.’” But in the case of Toy Story 4, that boldness has paid off with Woody’s most personal movie yet. When we spoke with director Josh Cooley at Pixar earlier this year, he said they wanted to make Toy Story 4 the tale of “the most important day of Woody’s life.” The day Bo Peep stepped back into it after a nine-year absence.
And while the production process has been different on each Toy Story—Hanks also marvels that on the first film they had a screenplay, by the third one they were simply watching the film in animatic-form, and on this one, “I never read a complete script. I don’t think anybody did; we read the sequences that we were in”—the importance of it has not.
“Woody has been the great gift that I’ve seen play out again and again in my own family as well as around the world,” Hanks says. “Woody’s feel is this three-dimensional emotional bag that kids carry around with them.” But he also had to carry it around when it came time to record Woody’s final scene. Without spoiling it, it’s fair to say that like the two films before it in the series, Toy Story 4 ends on a bittersweet note, one that Tim Allen separately compares to watching a daughter grow up and get married. And when it came time to record that sequence, Hanks openly embraced the potential melancholy of it.
Rather knowingly going off his talking points—Hanks even later pulled out a sheet of paper with a blander answer about the ending, adding with a chipper tone, “Thank you, Disney Vertical!”—the actor more earnestly says, “We were all there, and when we ended up recording the very last line, there was a realization where I was like, ‘Oh, is that the last line?’ They all said, ‘That’s it.’”
That last line was recorded in the Disney Digital Studio Services’ Stage B, a legendary recording space on Disney’s Burbank lot. It’s also the same where Hanks first began recording Woody back in the ‘90s with dialogue mixer Doc Kane, and where he now potentially says goodbye to the pint-sized sheriff for the last time with Kane still overseeing the recording.
“That’s where it all began and that’s where it was all ending,” Hanks says with a hint of wistfulness. “Usually you have the mic stand, and the stand and the mic, and they’re all at a table in front of you, and I asked if we could turn it around so my back was to them, because I didn’t want to have any self-consciousness for what I knew was going to be certainly the last few hours I was going to be spending on the movie, but also meant recording the last scenes. 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.”
Waving goodbye to Woody though is something Hanks knows he and many future generations will always be doing. Recalling an earlier visit to Disneyland in California, Hanks shares an anecdote about seeing the Fantasmic Show and Fireworks there with his adult children.
“The closing of the show is the Mark Twain Steamboat comes by and all of the Disney characters are dancing on this steamboat,” Hanks says. “Belle and Sleeping Beauty, and Mickey and everyone. Mulan is there. They’re all there… I was there with my family, and my daughter, who’s in her 30s, burst into tears, and I said, ‘What’s wrong?’ She said, ‘Look Dad, look, look, look at the end of the boat,’ and it was Woody and Buzz. And she said, ‘Dad, you will always be on that boat dancing for the rest of time as long as Disneyland is here.’ That’s more than just a cool thing; it’s actually some sort of talisman, I think, that we all get to carry with us.”
Just as anyone who ever grew up watching a Toy Story movie will be carrying Woody’s legacy with them, like Hanks does, to infinity and beyond.
Toy Story 4 opens on June 21. This article was first published on June 11.