Toy Story is the franchise that launched Pixar back in the 90s. It’s also the franchise that launched many childhoods. But things are different now. Those who grew up with Woody, Buzz and the gang are grown up themselves. That made Toy Story 4 something of an interesting prospect, not only because it needed to appeal to viewers, both young and old alike, but because many of us thought we had seen the last of these characters, and were perfectly fine with that. Yet, director Josh Cooley managed to craft something that worked in a big way.
Taking over for franchise helmer John Lasseter, who has since left Pixar entirely following a sexual misconduct scandal, Josh Cooley had some big shoes to fill. The results speak for themselves. Critics and audiences alike praised Toy Story 4 and turned up in droves to see it, to the tune of more than $1 billion worldwide. In honor of the movie’s upcoming home video release, I had the chance to speak with Josh Cooley all about bringing these toys back to the big screen. So, without further adieu, here’s our chat.
People seem to love the movie. It made a ton of money. This is a franchise that people, like me, grew up with. How much did it change from the time you got on board to the final product?
Josh Cooley: Thank you for the compliments by the way. I was on it from the very beginning. I was fishing Inside Out and I was overlapping onto Toy Story 4 but from the very beginning, I’d say that speaking about the ending, I think the ending is the thing that probably changed the most. The movie always started right after 3, and Bo Peep was always a part of it. In fact, our codename for the movie was Peep internally. Her return was always there. But the ending was the biggest thing that changed. In the first version, all the toys came back to Bonnie’s house, including Bo. So it was like we went on adventure, got Bo and brought her back. It wasn’t very emotionally satisfying. So we tried, just to see what would happen, what if they love each other still, but we did like a Casablanca ending where they split up at the end. Be kind of rediscovers her purpose. There was some interesting things about it, but it ultimately didn’t satisfy either. And, so I was like, “Well, what if we went to 11 and pushed it, just to see what happened?” And whenever I thought about this ending we have, I would get emotional just even pitching it to the producers. Ending on the lines “To infinity and beyond” just felt like thing that felt like, that’s something. That could be powerful. We tried it out and figured out there’s something here. Now we had to go back and set it all up to make sure we earned that.
I apologize. I just meant when you took over as director of the project. You were talking about endings. I think for most of us, me included, I think a lot of us thought Toy Story 3 was it. That’s the end. That’s the perfect ending. But you guys somehow managed to totally justify this thing. But why do you think now was the time to bring these characters back?
Josh Cooley: We tend to one every 10 years? Like you said, a lot of us grew up watching these movies. The amount of investment that people already have in these characters is huge, which is a double-edged sword for me because there’s already love invested in it, which is great. You want the audience to be invested, but at the same time, now there’s a lot to live up to. You want the audience go, “Yeah, this is the same character I up with.” People are very protective of it. It was very interesting to see people with their arms crossed at the beginning going, “Well, what’s this? I don’t know If I like this. I thought it was over, it’s got a bow on it and it’s perfect. Why are you doing this?” And then it was kind of like Christmas morning to be there for opening day and people to go, “Oh, now I see why this exists.” Ultimately, it was worth it.
Oh, totally. Because I was very much like what you just explained, it’s what happened to me.
Josh Cooley: I totally get it.
Pixar has this just incredible track record of just hit after hit, after thing after thing. Having worked with them some of their biggest things, what is it that you think sets Pixar apart?
Josh Cooley: Definitely story. We are willing to be wrong for most of the journey on these films. Then just acknowledge that we’ve made mistakes internally on the story, and fix them. Try and make it better. We never hit it out of the park on the first go-around. It never happens. There’s just a lot of work and effort put into it for years ahead of time so that when it’s finally released it’s as good as it can be.
Kind of digging into the same idea that Toy Story 4 was something nobody thought was ever going to happen. You wrote Inside Out. That feels like a very self-contained thing. But I also feel like with Pixar, it’s one of those never say never things. Have you ever thought about a sequel to that and what it might look like?
Josh Cooley: Because of the way my brain works yeah, I have thought about that. But I don’t think it’s anything just past thinking about it.
This one did well. Is there, maybe not even Toy Story 5, but a spinoff or any sort of continuation?
Josh Cooley: We have the Forky shorts. They’re gonna be on Disney streaming. I didn’t write them or work on them but it was consulted on them, and those are hilarious. They’re so great. It feels like a great continuation of that character. So that’s possible. But in terms of like for a film, I think for me anyway, I just want Toy Story 4 to land. I just want it to land on his feet. You like this is the finale of Woody’s arc as a character. So that’s as far as I’ve thought for features.
Toy Story, live-action, animated or otherwise, has one of the biggest treasure troves of great characters of any franchise I can think of. Coming into this as a director, what character were you most excited to work with?
Josh Cooley: Woody. It was all about Woody for me. We’d watch, one, two and three constantly and it’s all about Woody and his character and what he’s going through. I really love that character for a couple reasons. He’s very real. He has very real emotions. But if you watch the first movie, he’s pretty pissed off most of the time. And he’s very angry, and he’s very sad. And he’s fearful. If you really break it down, that first movie is about a guy who doesn’t want to lose his job. It’s a real emotion. And Tom Hanks can play it perfectly. There’s nobody else who could do that with such entertainment. Especially when he gets frustrated. You just want to see more and more. The other thing is that we treat these characters like parents. They’re not wacky, goofy toys. They have a job to do, and they care for their kid and for Andy. And it’s their job. And they’ll go to all ends of the Earth to be there for him. They’re adults. They’re adult characters.
Pixar, you’ve worked with them for a while. They tend to like to keep people around. Have you had any discussions about what your next thing might be with them, if it’s with them? or are you just kind of happy to take a breather after Toy Story 4?
Josh Cooley: I just took a vacation and a kind of coming back slowly from that, which is great and I have some original ideas I want to pitch and see if any of those takeoff. So we’ll see.
Toy Story 4 arrives on Digital HD on October 1 and on Blu-ray/DVD and 4K Ultra HD on October 8 from Disney and Pixar.