Time is supposed to give us greater perspective. And since we don’t have a whole lot more to do these days than sit and overthink just about everything in our lives, I’ve been reflecting a bit on Toy Story 4, and how my opinions have evolved since I first wrote about it last summer.
Toy Story isn’t the only thing that’s been on my mind, of course, but that’s the focus of this blog, so that’s what I’m going to deal with here. And the reason the sequel is on my mind is there’s never been anything else in the whole franchise that’s left me quite as conflicted. I’ve kept some of my thoughts about it to myself in the past year, or glossed over them – never being dishonest, more like guarding what I said as I continued to process my perceptions. I meant everything I wrote about Toy Story 4 in the past, at the moment it was written, and a good bit of it still holds true. But if there’s one thing that my social media break has taught me, it’s that nothing matters more than authenticity. So many people post only what they think their followers want them to, because they’re terrified of seeing their numbers fall. Once you’ve spent some time away, however, without worrying about that constant validation (or lack thereof), after a while it means less to you. And I’ve come to realize that what’s really important is being true to yourself – the people who matter will accept you as you are and stick around, and the rest are no great loss in the long run.
So here we are, over a year later, and I’m still trying to make sense of my feelings about Toy Story 4. It’s hard for me to figure out how to express them, because I don’t like being a critic. I know that a ton of great, hardworking folks worked on the film, and I would never want to insult them or show them any disrespect. And by no means do I think it was a bad movie as a whole – there are parts I genuinely enjoy, and I understand a lot of the choices that were made. I still have absolutely no time for trolls who comment simply “This movie sucks!” on any social media post referencing Toy Story 4, either. There is a big difference between hating something just for the sake of being hateful, and voicing your opinions about it in a constructive way. Being a fan doesn’t mean you have to blindly approve of everything that happens within a series; you can support a franchise you love while observing things that you wish had turned out somewhat differently. That’s where I’m trying to come from in this post.
Oh, Jessie. My best cowgirl is still on my mind. Months ago, before I took a break and when I was still unable to deal with writing much of anything, this video was shared with me. A conversation with Toy Story 4 writer Stephany Folsom, it touches upon many aspects of the film. The entire thing is worth watching, but I was drawn to the quotes about Jessie especially.
What was your reaction when you first saw on screen Woody give Jessie the sheriff’s badge, turning it over?
That was another little bit of a battle. That was my idea as well – myself and Valerie LaPointe’s. We were very much like, Woody has to put Jessie in charge next, and she kind of needs to be the next generation that’s going to be leading all the toys forward. And there was a bit of debate going on, because they were like, you know, toys can’t give up their accessories. And we were like, well, he gives up his voice box; he can give away his badge.
Bonnie earlier gave Jessie the badge…
Yeah, but Jessie gives it back, too. And I think that’s also just showing how his friends are trying to still make him fit in to this place where he doesn’t quite belong anymore. And I think him giving her the badge is just kind of like the ultimate act in kind of paying off their friendship.
Everyone knows I love Jessie. Heck, I’ve even been openly mocked for it by some pretty big names in the Pixar fandom scene, but I’ve never let that deter me. She is special to me, for personal reasons, and I refuse to apologize for my loyalty to her. So naturally, it was quite a disappointment when her role in Toy Story 4 was so small, even if they did make an effort to give her significance in little ways. Ever since the movie came out, I’ve made a concerted effort to be at peace with the scenes she got. And sometimes I am… then on other occasions I’ll be sad that she didn’t have more. I am proud that Woody passed the torch to her, and that she’s Bonnie’s new favorite toy. But will she ever be given a chance to shine in that spotlight, and be the new leader that Folsom intended, beyond her brief moment introducing Karen Beverly (which barely counts)? I would love to see her get to be the next generation!
Personally, I’ve always thought that a huge opportunity was missed in not letting Jessie accompany Buzz in his search for Woody. I understand that her staying back at the RV gave her a chance to demonstrate her leadership skills, which justified the badge scene at the end. But in a movie that was supposed to celebrate strong female characters, the franchise’s first strong female lead was largely overlooked and cast aside. It would have been amazing if she and Buzz had worked together as both a couple and an adventuring team, sort of a toy-size version of the Incredibles. Their romantic relationship only got a few small nods, when it would have also been nice to see some more glimpses of how they’ve grown as a couple since Toy Story 3. For those of us who were captivated by their love story back then, it was a pretty major letdown to not have much of them interacting in the latest sequel. And then there’s the fact that Jessie and Bo weren’t given any chance of a Woody-and-Buzz type friendship on screen, at least not for more than a couple minutes. It’s a shame, too, because with their now-similar pasts, they could have shared so much in common, even though they ultimately chose different paths in life.
The absence of Jessie in the majority of the promotional material and merchandise has also been a big bummer. As the movie’s release drew closer, I couldn’t wait to see interviews with Joan Cusack again – but she ended up not being included in anything; she wasn’t even present at the premiere. The same proved to be true when products started to hit the shelves in stores – although Jessie popped up on the occasional item, there was very little overall that included her (which saved me money, at least). My expectations about Toy Story 4 stemmed from my experiences during the summer of Toy Story 3‘s release – a time with no Instagram, no relying on influencers to spread the word, when there was so much more of everything put out to build excitement for the new film, and just about every character had a presence. Last year, however, I had a brief conversation with someone who worked for a company that sold licensed merchandise for Toy Story 4. They told me that they had been specifically instructed to focus on Woody, Bo, Buzz, and the new characters only in their designs – as in, Jessie was pretty much forbidden. Even if you consider that the movie-specific marketing was supposed to showcase Bo as the star, having been a year ago, there should have been a shift to more balance between the characters by now. Yet I’m starting to see Jessie left off of the majority of things commemorating Toy Story’s 25th anniversary, and it’s a shame for her to be largely ignored when in past movies she had a practically-equal footing with Woody and Buzz. I don’t expect her to outshine the boys, when they founded the franchise; but I do expect there to be fairness in how the two main girls are promoted. I know I’m not alone in wishing that Jessie would get better representation.
I’ve never understood why Toy Story 4 being Bo’s story meant Jessie had to be excluded. If the new female characters were worthy of attention, why not Jessie? Wasn’t there a whole song and storyline back in the day about her being forgotten? And yet, it’s like she got shoved back under the bed. Even so, I don’t hate Bo, because I don’t see it as needing to be an either/or situation – both lead girls can and should be equally important. So with that, let’s move on to…
It’s taken me a long time to process how I truly feel about Bo as she is now. And what I’ve narrowed it down to is, I love old Bo, but I’m not so sure about her newest iteration. To clarify, that doesn’t mean her appearance – I think her redesign is beautiful, and was much needed in light of advancements in the technology of animation. I can even live with her new fashion choices (although I prefer her old-fashioned dress). It’s her personality that made the most drastic change, and one I can’t say I entirely agree with.
Yes, Bo always had a quiet strength about her. She was the one who could best rein Woody in when he started to flip out about something; there was a calmness and a poise about her that balanced his tendency to panic (Buzz and Jessie also share that balance). I don’t take issue with the opening flashback scene; I can see her as managing Molly’s room in the past, and having that leadership aspect in common with Woody. I can even accept that she would have had to toughen up a bit due to her life on her own. But what bothers me most with the new-and-improved Bo is that there’s so little trace of the softer side of her that we saw in the first two films: the flirty, feisty Bo who was always trying to steal a kiss and find someone to watch her sheep so she and Woody could have some time to themselves. The love of her life comes back into the picture, and she just puts up this wall. The first time I watched Toy Story 4, I left wondering if she truly cared about Woody, after the way she had treated him. I realize she’s probably keeping her guard up after all she’s been through (knowing they could separate again), but in the end it just left me feeling concerned for him, and hoping that she’ll treat him right after he gave up literally everything for her. It was completely unnecessary to erase her romantic side in order to create a strong female character. Both can coexist. There is no weakness in being in love.
It wasn’t until the end of the film that you see perhaps a glimpse of who she once was. When she and Woody embrace, and she hugs Jessie, maybe old Bo is still in there somewhere? Maybe Woody can help rekindle that side of her? I sure hope so. Because I miss her for who she used to be. Which brings me to…
I don’t have a ton to say on the subject of Giggle… except that I am NOT a fan. I’ve never really brought up my feelings about her before, because I knew there were a lot of people who liked her. (Were there, though? At least I assumed there were.) But me, nope, no way. I’ll take tyrannical Dolly over her any day. And that’s mainly because there are a lot of red flags for me in her friendship with Bo.
My primary issue is how manipulative she is. She’s constantly trying to influence Bo against Woody, instead of being encouraging and letting her best friend be happy that her old love has come back into her life. It doesn’t come across to me as her trying to protect Bo from being hurt – instead it seems as if she’s trying to control her and keep her to herself. Has she been the one who’s led to so many of the changes in Bo’s personality? Everything just strikes me as a pretty toxic relationship. And I can only imagine what a disaster it would be if Jessie and Giggle met in the future – Bo’s new best friend would have no time for her old one, and would unleash her jealousy as badly as she did about Woody. It’s just bad news all around.
Stepping away from the movie for a moment, there’s also Lamp Life to consider. Why is Giggle even there, at the beginning and end, when Bo is telling Woody her story? Are they never allowed to be alone together, without her third wheeling and interfering? Can Jessie just be Bo’s bestie again, please? Bo deserves someone more unconditionally supportive. I really wish Giggle had stayed eaten by the cat… just long enough to have been left behind.
Buzz… and beyond
Buzz is my second favorite character in the series – I adore him for his good heart. I’m protective of him, too, and I’ll admit I have mixed feelings about his “inner voice” storyline, even though I’ve tried to rationalize it before. I can totally understand both sides of that debate. I don’t see him as stupid at all; by the end, he seems to come back into his own, and proves himself to be a kind and intuitive friend to Woody. But I can see how others were put off by the running gag, and thought that he deserved better. Buzz was a gifted tactician in Toy Story 2, planning Woody’s rescue from Al’s. We got a glimpse of that in Toy Story 3 as well, before Demo Mode and Spanish Mode kicked in. And in Toy Story of Terror, he was again confidently calling the shots as they tried to solve the mystery that was unfolding. So it can seem a little odd for him to be confused about how to go about rescuing Woody and Forky, when rescues have come so naturally to him before and he’s proven himself on numerous missions in the past.
I always mention Jessie, but Buzz’s role was also painfully small in Toy Story 4 – as were the roles of all of Bonnie’s (and Andy’s former) toys. I know some of this was remedied in the Forky Asks A Question series, but still, we didn’t get to see any more of Buzz or Jessie… or Slinky, just to name another toy who was missed. And if there’s one complaint I’ve seen resurface more and more over the past fifteen months, it was that there wasn’t enough old gang, and too much new. Andy’s and Bonnie’s toys were relegated to the sidelines, serving as secondary players when in the previous movies they were an integral part of the story. I personally didn’t find the new characters quite as appealing as the classic ones (except for Forky, maybe Duke, and the three Combat Carls – but do they even count as new since Carl was in Toy Story of Terror?), so I wasn’t crazy about the imbalance of screen time between the two groups. The moments I enjoyed most in the film were those that involved the toys we’ve known and loved for years. The way that core ensemble plays off of each other – Forky included, I think he’s meshed well – is what makes their world so endearing, and it’s that kind of content that people want to see. I’ve heard it so many times.
Speaking of the old gang, it still feels surreal (and hard to accept) that Woody isn’t with them anymore. I know that his purpose was fulfilled, and it was time to move on to new things. Even so, I can’t help but wish there’d been some way for them to at least not be separated indefinitely. I’m not saying I think all the lost toys belonged at Bonnie’s – that ending would have seemed forced, and considering my feelings about Giggle, I wouldn’t wish that scenario on the others. But figuring in some way for Woody and Bo to keep in touch – like making Sunnyside or some other nearby location their home base – would have at least lessened the blow. Several other recent animated films had their protagonists say their goodbyes in the end (Wreck it Ralph 2 and Frozen 2, which friends have pointed out to me – seriously, what’s with all the separation lately?), but in both of those instances there was still the ability to visit. I hope that maybe someday, somehow, the toys can all come back together.
The complicated thing is, even though Toy Story 4 wasn’t exactly everything I had hoped for (and so many of my friends hoped for), I still wanted it to succeed, both in the box office and in the awards season. I didn’t want it to be hated. I wanted it to be loved, even if it wasn’t as much my cup of tea as the other Toy Story movies and shorts had been. I have so much love for these characters, and I would never wish failure on anything with them in it, because success paves the way for more in the future. And I’ll always want more – I’ll always be willing to give something new a chance (although I might do so now with a little more trepidation than before). I don’t want these characters to ever go away. I want there to always be that possibility that we’ll see more of them, in some form, down the road.
I’m a very emotionally-driven person, so I think what it boils down to for me is the emotional reaction the films evoke in me. It’s really difficult to spend five years floating on the wings of anticipation, and then come crashing down when it turns out differently than what you’d expected (to paraphrase a line from one of my favorite novels*). When I watch Toy Story 4, I’m reminded of the initial letdown the first time I saw it – even though I fared better in later viewings – and all the social media contentiousness surrounding it. But Toy Story 3, those opening frames transport me instantly to a happier time, and a happier movie, which I spent a decade fangirling over and building friendships based on a shared love for the masterpiece Pixar had created. That film left us all secure in the hope that the toys would have a good life with Bonnie, their second (or in Jessie’s case, third) chance at a happily ever after.
It’s kind of funny… I was recently searching my Tumblr archive, and stumbled upon old posts my friends and I made when the Toy Story Toon Partysaurus Rex came out. We were all upset that Jessie had hardly any role in it, and that the toys making fun of Rex seemed out of character. But then what did we get a year later? Toy Story of Terror, which featured Jessie front and center! In hindsight, Partysaurus Rex doesn’t bother me at all now – I enjoy watching it, and appreciate it for its own story and humor, because the things we thought were lacking then were more than made up for in later content. This is my hope right now, that someday, I’ll be able to have the same perspective when looking back on Toy Story 4, and see it in a different light. Isn’t hope what we’re all clinging to these days, anyway?
Images © Disney/Pixar
* The quote I was referring to, which pretty much sums up fangirl life:
“When I think something nice is going to happen I seem to fly right up on the wings of anticipation; and then the first thing I realize I drop down to earth with a thud. But really, Marilla, the flying part is glorious as long as it lasts… it’s like soaring through a sunset. I think it almost pays for the thud.”
~ Anne of Avonlea, L. M. Montgomery