The Toy Story movies have each arrived at critical points in the ongoing 24-year-plus history of Pixar Animation Studios. The first Toy Story in 1995 quite literally revolutionized animation, and its massive success led to another movie for the studio, A Bug’s Life, as well as faith in a sequel hitting theaters instead of a direct-to-DVD release (the norm for Disney films at the time).
Toy Story 2 would go on to achieve similar acclaim as its predecessor, but it also notably set the tone for Pixar’s most prestigious decade ever. They produced hit after hit with original stories that would go on to define their now undeniable brand identity. Monsters Inc., Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Cars, Ratatouille, WALL-E, and Up all came out within just eight years of each other, cementing the studio’s reputation as an arthouse that could supposedly do no wrong, or at least no worse than Cars.
Then came Toy Story 3, one of the first Pixar films to emerge after Disney purchased the studio. Despite the worries of many fans who thought the franchise might end on a low note, Pixar surprised everyone with a universally beloved entry into what is now considered by many to be a near-perfect trilogy. They became known as the studio where even the sequels can be as heartwarming and mindful as the original stories.
And now, nine years later, we have Toy Story 4, which bookends a more curious decade for a studio that has undergone some dramatic changes. In that time, the studio’s co-founder and president Ed Catmull retired. Disney and Pixar’s Chief Creative Officer, John Lasseter, was gradually dismissed due to claims of sexual harassment. And the studio’s theatrical output has garnered more mixed reactions from fans and critics overall.
Pixar released just four original movies instead of eight this past decade, and only two of them — Inside Out and Coco — are widely considered to be among the studio’s better work. And yes, we’ve seen plenty of sequels and even one prequel. From the liked, but not necessarily cherished Incredibles 2, Finding Dory, Cars 3, and Monsters University, to the downright resented Cars 2.
But if Pixar traditions hold true, Toy Story 4 might also signal a return to form for the studio when it comes to storytelling. One that is bolstered by some positive signs of change. Pete Docter — director of Monsters Inc., Up, and Inside Out — is now Chief Creative Officer of Pixar, with Jennifer Lee (Frozen) overseeing Walt Disney Animation, marking a clearer separation between the studios.
Pixar has also announced the release of five original movies in a row. The next one will be Onward, a suburban fantasy road trip movie directed by Dan Scanlon (Monsters University). Just months later, Pete Docter’s fourth film for Pixar will be Soul, yet another introspective adventure about “life’s most important questions,” set in New York City and the “cosmic realms.”
We don’t know as much about the other three Pixar films to be released in 2021 and 2022, except that one of them is being directed by Domee Shi, who wowed audiences last year with Bao, the bold and creative short film that preceded Incredibles 2. Fans who’ve wished for Pixar to return to its riskier, more audacious roots have a lot to be excited about come 2020 and beyond.
One year from today, Pixar Animation Studios will take you on a journey from the streets of New York City to the cosmic realms to discover the answers to life's most important questions. Disney & Pixar's "Soul" arrives in theaters on June 19, 2020. pic.twitter.com/D3VP8Tw4RM
— Pixar (@Pixar) June 19, 2019
There’s also a sense that Pixar has settled into a more stable groove with their upcoming projects. At the beginning of the last decade, Brave was in the middle of being completely retooled, Newt was unceremoniously canceled, and The Good Dinosaur was delayed several times from its original 2013 release date for similar story problems. To be clear, the studio has never missed a step when it comes to evolving their animation and art direction.
But with just a year to go before the release of two consecutive Pixar films, we’ve heard nothing substantially negative concerning their ongoing development. In fact, the last few Pixar films have lacked a lot of the apparent production issues of the past (with the exception of Toy Story 4, perhaps) signaling a turnaround that will hopefully result in a string of terrific releases. And as of this writing, we don’t know if any upcoming sequels are even in the works. If they are, we likely won’t hear about them for quite a while, with Incredibles 3 and Inside Out 2 being the most likely candidates.
While this last decade hasn’t exactly been Pixar’s most critically favorable, it has far and away been their most financially successful. Finding Dory and Incredibles 2 each amassed over $1 billion worldwide, and Incredibles 2 happens to be the second highest-grossing animated film of all time. All signs point to Toy Story 4 becoming yet another juggernaut sequel for Pixar, giving them the creative freedom to carve out a new generation of original characters, voices, locations, and ideas. Pixar has done it before, and it looks like they’re getting ready to do it again.
Toy Story 4 is in theaters now.