It’s been nine years since Disney’s Pixar released a “Toy Story” film — and many fans of Buzz and Woody assumed the animated franchise had come to its logical conclusion.
After all, Andy — the devoted owner of the beloved astronaut and cowboy — shipped off to college, passing on his box of toys to a little girl, Bonnie.
But the team at the animation studio decided they weren’t ready to leave Woody and the gang behind, and began to ponder: “What if we could take Woody — after everything he’s been through — and put him in a new situation? A new world where he’s questioning everything, even his own purpose.”
Per producer Jonas Rivera, that’s the plot of “Toy Story 4,” which Disney showcased the first 17 minutes of at CinemaCon on Wednesday. The film begins with a flashback, jumping back in time nine years ago to when the toys are still Andy’s. Some of his toys are being given away, including Little Bo Peep, who last showed up in 1999’s “Toy Story 2.” Woody tries to intervene, sneaking her out of the donation box, but Bo Peep responds she’s no longer Andy’s toy and that “it’s time for the next kid.” She invites Woody to go with her, but just as he’s considering the offer, he hears Andy searching for him and decides to part ways with his love interest.
Cut to modern day, where the toys now belong to young Bonnie. Unlike Andy, though, Bonnie doesn’t treasure Woody, often opting to play with a female cowboy toy instead of him. Bonnie is in the middle of a play session when her parents come in, alerting her it’s time for kindergarten orientation. She protests and begins to cry, begging to bring just one toy along for comfort. Her parents refuse, but Woody, realizing Bonnie needs a friend, sneaks into her backpack.
At school, Bonnie initially has a hard time, sitting alone at a table as another boy steals her craft supplies. Woody escapes from the backpack to rummage through the trash, finding some makeshift materials for Bonnie to make her art project with.
Using a spork, pipe cleaner and some googly eyes, she creates Forky — a new character voiced by Tony Hale — and is praised by her teacher for her creativity. She brings him home and is promptly introduced to the group of toys by Woody, though he’s baffled by what they are, referring to them repeatedly as “trash.”
Hale is not the only addition to the voice cast — the fourth installment will also feature Keanu Reeves, Keegan-Michael Key, Jordan Peele and Christina Hendricks.
It was somewhat of a surprise that “Toy Story 4,” which will be released June 21, got the biggest push from Disney in Las Vegas. The studio will also release “Frozen 2” and “Star Wars: Episode IX” before year’s end, but declined to showcase any footage from either of the highly-anticipated titles.
Instead, Sean Bailey, the studio’s president of production, spent the majority of the presentation touting Disney’s live-action titles: “Aladdin,” “The Lion King” and “Maleficent: Mistress of Evil.”
The reason that live-action remakes of popular animated titles like “Cinderella,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Jungle Book” have been successful at the box office, Bailey said, is because “we are never simply retelling.”
“We protect what people love and remember about them,” he said. “How do we take these timeless stories and expand and update them to reflect our current world?”
Jon Favreau’s take on 1994’s “The Lion King” seems most likely to entice ticketgoers, as footage of cub Simba surveying the African landscape with his father, Mufasa, looked so photorealistic it could have been shot on actual plainlands.
“Aladdin,” however, is another story. Early footage of Guy Ritchie’s film has been lambasted on social media and elsewhere, with even John Oliver mocking the look of Will Smith’s blue CGI Genie. The scene that was shown at the annual conference of movie theater owners on Wednesday will likely do little to silence the Twitter critics.
Though Bailey said the studio had “hit the jackpot with Will Smith as the Genie,” his character still seemed out of step in a scene where he performed the classic “Friend Like Me.” With the music updated a bit for 2019 — think “Aladdin” meets the “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” intro — the Genie meets the titular character for the first time in a cave where he has popped out of a magical lamp. He throws Aladdin’s sidekick, Abu, onto a drum set and launches into his song, morphing from a larger-than-life presence with impressive abs to a tiny figure standing on Aladdin’s shoulder. The Genie controls Aladdin via puppet strings, and the two dance together in front of a psychedelic neon background.
After “Dumbo” flew below expectations this past weekend, Disney may need to use one of the Genie’s wishes to make this magic carpet take flight next month.
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