The announcement by Pixar that a fourth instalment of the Toy Story franchise will be released in 2017 has been met with what can only be described as a mixed response.
Before we get into the details of the announcement, let us pause for a moment to reflect on Pixar’s legacy. Toy Story (1995) was not simply a fantastic piece of storytelling, it was also the first feature-length computer-animated film. Fast forward to the summer of 2010 and Pixar were riding the crest of a goodwill wave. Acclaimed original and heart-warming features Wall-E (2008) and Up (2009) were followed by the final instalment in what is widely considered to be the finest trilogy in cinematic history. Toy Story 3 cemented the place of the franchise in the hearts of children and adults the world over.
And so it is that Pixar embarks into uncharted territory – the quadrilogy. In some ways, this has always been coming. The President of Pixar, Ed Catmull, has admitted that in terms of creativity, it is important for the company to produce one original film a year, with a sequel planned for every other year.
By way of context, we should remember that Disney and Pixar are not the only players in this space. DreamWorks Animation has had a startling rise since their first feature film Antz back in 1998. To date, the studio has made 29 feature films, including the likes of Shrek (2001), Madagascar (2005), Kung Fu Panda (2008), and How to Train Your Dragon (2010), which have earned $12 billion worldwide. Add to that the competition faced by Universal’s Despicable Me franchise, and you can start to see why Disney and Pixar have chosen to bring out the big hitters again.
With Pixar, Marvel, and most recently LucasFilm on their books, Disney is clearly mindful of maximising its market share. As Disney’s CEO said recently: “While there is no sure thing in a creative business, we believe the proven appeal of our brands and franchises reduces the risk and maximises our unique ability to create significant long-term value by leveraging successful content across our diverse array of businesses”.
Viewed in this dispassionate way, Disney’s creative decisions appear to make a lot of box office sense. In addition to a fourth Toy Story, Pixar is also working on Finding Dory, Cars 3 and The Incredibles 2. Now that Pixar has its first quadrilogy on its hands, can we expect to see a similar formula followed for some of its other assets? As with most sequels, the answer to this question will be provided by the accountants.
Speaking on Thursday after the announcement was made, Bob Iger said: “Toy Story 3 was a tremendous success generating wide critical acclaim as well as more than $1 billion in global box office and almost $10 billion in retail sales demonstrating that these wonderful characters are clearly just as relevant and beloved as ever”.
Yet if we were to use box office figures as a measure of the quality of a Pixar film, then Monsters University (2013) would be seen as their third best film. And yet we all know that this is not the case. If you need further evidence that box office takings do not equate with the enjoyment of a film, look no further than the top grossing film of the year so far, earning over $1 billion over the summer – Transformers: Age of Extinction.
But should we be surprised by any of this? Probably not. Sequels are common currency these days and it was perhaps only a matter of time before the Pixar model came to embrace the huge financial benefit that revisiting beloved characters can have.
We will have to wait until June 2017 to determine whether Pixar have made the right decision to revisit the world of Toy Story. A word of caution though – how many great fourth film instalments can you think of? One example is Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (2011), which was a surprise critical and commercial success, earning over $600 million worldwide, and providing the impetus for a fifth instalment, due for release next year. On the other hand, the two most recent Die Hard films have felt like mere contractual exercises garnering near universal critical contempt and ambivalence from audiences.
A quick glance on the Twitterverse will tell you that many are fearful that Toy Story 4 could damage the legacy established by the previous three films. For what it’s worth, I do not subscribe to that opinion. A poor sequel does not invalidate or in some way diminish the achievement of its predecessor. Every film has to be judged on its own merit and what it sets out to achieve.
Should Toy Story 4 turn out to be the animated equivalent of The Godfather: Part III (1990) or one of the ill-fated Star Wars prequels, I will still forever regard the initial trilogy with immense fondness. What is certain, however, is that Pixar is taking a big risk. One cannot help but wonder what Pixar really have to gain by making this film, besides a shed load of cash. Can they realistically expect to surpass the heights of Toy Story 3? Only time will tell.