The Art of Moving On: Toy Story 4’s Storytelling Magic
In a season of disappointing sequels and finales, Toy Story 4 reminds us what good storytelling feels like
The year was 1995 and it was a time of many remarkable movies. Apollo 13 came out, and so did Seven among quite a few notable films. Others were more forgettable and either didn’t end up in the annals of cinema history (more people would likely mention 1964’s Goldfinger as a quintessential Bond flick than 1995’s GoldenEye) or found a spot they hardly wanted (being the most expensive movie ever made at the time didn’t work out too well for Waterworld).
And then there was a movie that was not quite like any other. Any other ever made, for that matter. It wasn’t just because its main characters were talking toys, perpetually concerned about their secret (or rather, real) lives being discovered by humans. The first feature-length fully computer-animated film presented moviegoers with something they had never seen before and ushered in an era of computer animation that gave us Lightning McQueen, Shrek, the “Let It Go” sequence, and that acorn-obsessed cataclysm-triggering prehistoric squirrel from Ice Age. But there was more to the movie than the novelty of computer animation, the heartwarming soundtrack, and the talents of the actors who lent their voices to the plastic heroes. There was a secret sauce that eventually made the animated adventure the highest-grossing domestic film of 1995 and earned it three Oscars. And the name of that secret sauce is spelled right in the movie’s title.
It’s called Toy Story for a reason.
And because the creative team behind Toy Story never compromised on the quality of its storytelling, the adventures of old toys continue striking the audience’s emotions to this day, a quarter century after Woody and his friends first appeared on the screen.
Now it’s time for a spoiler alert. This, being a Storius review, is not exactly a review of a movie. Rather it’s an in-depth look at its most fundamental component — storytelling. Which means it is full of spoilers. So if you haven’t watched the movie yet and have been considering seeing it, please stop here, enjoy 100 minutes of storytelling magic in a movie theater, and come back after watching it. Consider this a chat by a cozy fireplace about shoes and ships and sealing wax … or in this particular case, about the storytelling principles that make Toy Story 4 work so well.
Let’s dive in, shall we?
If You Are Writing a Love Story, Make Them Choose
Woody and Bo have more chemistry going on between them than many non-animated on-screen couples, and not only because of Tom Hanks’ and Annie Potts’ amazing voicing. From the moment they meet, we know there is a tough choice looming in the distance. We may not think about it — just like they don’t — but in the back of our minds, we know all too well that the only reason Woody is not with his beloved owner is that he wants to bring Forky back — and go back himself. He knows a toy’s purpose and that purpose is certainly not roaming around in the wild.
On the other hand, we have staff-wielding, roof-jumping, skunk-car-driving Bo, who has discovered the big dazzling world outside kids’ bedrooms and is determined to live her life as a true adventure. She is wild, she is wise, and she is not about to go back to a toy box. Or is she? Will she put her immense love of free life aside to be with Woody? Or will he become — gasp! — a lost toy in order to be with her?
We know that eventually, someone — or both — will have to make a choice between their worldview and being with their miraculously rediscovered love interest. Moreover, thanks to the movie’s opening scene, we know what choice Woody made nine years ago, and have no good reasons to believe he will choose any differently now. And so with every furtive glance of adoration, with every tender smile, with every spark flying between Bo and Woody, the inevitability of that moment of truth glues us a little more to our seats.
Go All the Way in Your Theme
Toy Story (and Pixar movies in general) has never shied away from exploring serious themes. No matter how silly or funny their characters have been, Pixar stories always have a serious message and deliver it in a strong show-don’t-tell way. In Pixar movies, a Parisian rat dreaming about becoming a chef can show how to go after one’s dreams against any odds, and a talkative clownfish can teach a lesson or two about overcoming one’s fears.
In the first three installments, Toy Story explored friendship, loyalty, bravery, and, among other things, the theme of dealing with change. New toys come along, kids grow up, times change, but toys … toys always stay the same: attached to their new kids, knowing what their purpose in life is, not questioning their own motivations. Just like many of us, as we grow up and settle into our busy adult lives. But in the fourth movie, the storytellers question the status quo and don’t let go until Woody, along with the audience, faces the challenge head-on.
Woody’s philosophy has always been crisp and clear. “Being there for a child is the most noble thing a toy can do,” he says, and we know he means every word. But what if you’ve already seen one child leave for college and the other one doesn’t really need you? What if you’re spending your days hoping that eventually you will be picked up for a play, and yet know in your heart that that day will never come? And what if there is a different life, life with someone who you thought you had lost forever? Are you really clinging to your familiar way of life because of your loyalty? Or because change is too scary to embrace?
With every scene, the movie gently (and occasionally not so gently) pushes Woody one step closer toward facing his fear of change and questioning his motivation. And the closer he gets to that point, the more adults in the audience see themselves in the old loyal sheriff. They see the hard choices they have been shying away from or have made in the past. The choices of letting go, of breaking the mold, of moving on, of embracing — or being in denial of — change. And as the old battered toy makes his choice, who knows how many adults in the theater think to themselves, “That’s what I’m going to do. Just like that.” Or not. Woody’s choice is not everyone’s cup of tea. But what matters is that storytellers have gone all the way. And that’s what separates good stories from great ones.
Use Powerful One-liners to Express the Essence of a Character
In stories, just like in life, we always prefer to know who we are dealing with. Is this person trustworthy? Smart? Impulsive? Are we dealing with a good guy here? A bad guy? A monster?? We look for cues in the words and actions of a person and eventually we form an opinion — though sometimes a wrong one. Where stories differ from life is that a master storyteller always has an option of expressing the entirety of a character in a one-liner, whereas in life such gems are much rarer.
These one-liners are not quite catchphrases, though they certainly can be. They can be said by the character they describe or by others. They typically appear in the second half of a story, sometimes even close to the end. And once they are uttered, they illuminate everything — all the past and future action of the character, making the story much more memorable. There’s a reason such one-liners often end up being the most quoted lines from a movie or a book.
Every great story has one or more of these.
“You can’t handle the truth!”
“My name is Neo.”
“I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.”
“I could have got more out.”
They could be even a single word. Both “Rosebud” and “Always” have become storytelling landmarks in their own right. Often said in a moment of a realization or at the peak of emotions, they confirm (or sometimes blow up) everything we thought we knew about the character and set the stage for things to come. Toy Story 4 has such a one-liner and it works brilliantly.
“Woody always does the right thing.”
When Bo exclaims these words before rushing back to the place she just barely escaped alive, they not-so-subtly put everything in place. Woody’s unshakable adherence to his “no toy left behind” principle. Bo’s attraction to him, strong enough to risk her life again for his cause. The choices Woody has made throughout the story. And the choice he is about to make — whatever that choice will be. He may not be always right, but when it comes to actions, he always does the right thing, no matter how hard it is. And that’s, more than anything else, what makes him Woody.
Connect the Dots
In a well-told story, no scene, line, or detail is random. Every story element matters and has its place. And the more all these elements connect together, the richer the story becomes. This is not about placing Easter eggs in a movie (though they always add a nice touch, and in Toy Story 4, Pixar outdid itself, making the Second Chance antique store perhaps the biggest collection of Easter eggs in Pixar’s history). This is about creating connections between story elements and making the audience go “Aha!” when a connection becomes evident.
Ranging from silly moments to full-scale-drama, these connections work for the benefit of the story. When Buttercup the unicorn suggests framing Molly’s dad so that “he goes to jail!” in order to buy the toys more time, we laugh and dismiss the idea along with the rest of the toys. Little do we know that some moments later, Woody’s friends will arrange a real encounter between Molly’s bewildered father and a very real (and not too happy) police officer. For a minute or so we even find ourselves thinking, “He is going to jail because of them!” And had it not been for that unicorn’s suggestion, the effect of the car chase in the middle of a carnival would have been weaker.
In another instance, Woody talks to Buzz about his inner voice only to discover that Buzz, in fairly typical fashion, does not appreciate the subtleties of Woody’s explanations. For him, voices — inner or not — must be truly heard. It’s a funny scene, but there isn’t anything special about it. But then, some moments later, another dot gets connected to their chat. Woody’s words help Buzz discover his own (very audible) inner voice, which unlike the inner voices of humans and some toys, can be activated at any moment by a simple push of a button. And suddenly, what could have been an unremarkable moment, almost a cliché — after all, there are hundreds of movies where characters reference conversations with their conscience — becomes a powerful plot device. Buzz’s voice box has enough preprogrammed phrases to give him guidance in any situation, and every time Buzz replies on his outer-inner voice’s advice, his actions can be traced back to that dialogue with Woody.
But the most powerful connection is between the opening and the last scene of the movie. Mirror versions of each other, they show us the same tough dilemma, but with very different outcomes. In the opening scene, we see Bo offering Woody a choice between staying with his kid and the rest of the toys, and leaving with her. “Sometimes a toy gets placed into a wrong box,” she says, making Woody forget for a second about everything else. This is the moment he fully realizes how much Bo means to him. But the moment of doubt doesn’t last long. Woody knows what box he belongs to and makes the choice. He doesn’t know he will rethink it over and over again for years, but he knows it’s the right decision.
Fast forward nine years to the last scene. Bo offers Woody essentially the same heart-wrenching choice. It’s a powerful scene, yet its true power comes from the foundation laid in the first five minutes of the movie. This time, Woody knows what it means to lose Bo. This time, he has a different child, and that child doesn’t need him that much. And this time, Woody is ready to embrace change. So he stays true to his character.
He does the right thing.
For an example of what happens when storytelling principles get ignored, see this review of Game of Thrones.
A new online magazine about the art, craft, and business of storytelling, STORIUS is a publication for everyone interested in how stories are created, discovered, distributed, and consumed.