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Playing with fire: Pixar pushing limits with 'Toy Story 4'

Leaving the cinema in 2010, my 12-year-old self was content with seeing the curtain fall on “Toy Story,” one of my favorite film franchises. Sure, “Toy Story 3” had a tearjerker of an ending, but the culmination of the series was more sweet than bitter — or so I thought. 

Nine years later, “Toy Story 4” is right around the corner, untying the knot that many presumed was firmly wrapped around what would’ve been a masterful trilogy. Now, the first trailer for “Toy Story 4” isn’t bad. In fact the film looks quite interesting. The re-emergence of Bo Peep, along with an independent nation of toys, seems like a promising premise for (at the very least) a decent movie. Still, the question remains: Who is this for?

My memory of middle school is a little fuzzy, but I don’t remember anyone saying that the franchise needed another installment once we watched Andy drive away at the end of “Toy Story 3.” Nearly a decade later, there’s a new film on the way that presents an interesting challenge for Disney and Pixar. “Toy Story 4” needs to grant the cathartic end that everyone from ages 3 to 33 is hoping for, and craft a finale that justifies another film in the first place. 

We know that it’ll do well at the box office, but if it leaves viewers confused as to why a fourth film needed to happen, then it could very well come across as a shameless cash grab. With all these “live-action” remakes that have been popping up, we know that Disney is not averse to shameless cash grabs, so the question is worth asking. All skepticism aside, the “Toy Story” team also has the distinct challenge of catering to a few generations of viewers.

Yes, there are the kids who will want to get the chance to see Buzz and Woody on the big screen for the first time, but millennials and Gen Z members are also going to be in theaters with them. Filmmakers of, shall we say, “family friendly” movies have been including content to keep the older viewers mildly interested for as long as they’ve been in business. But now, the subtle mature themes are hitting a little too close to home. 

In a VICE article entitled “Good God, the Trailer for ‘Toy Story 4’ Is Just Unbelievably Depressing,” critic Nicole Clark mentioned the newest addition to the “Toy Story” cast of characters: Forky. 

“‘Toy Story 4’ is about Forky, a doll some kid made out of a spork and thereby blessed with the gift of life. Unfortunately, Forky is very, very sad right out of the gate, afflicted by a devastating combination of existential dread and crippling self-doubt,” Clark said. 

If that doesn’t describe the mood of college students, I don’t know what does. Along with a mildly nihilistic utensil, there’s the heartrending predicament that Woody has found himself in. The trailer shows him torn between the life he knows as a toy and a new future as an autonomous individual living life on his own terms. I mean, pairing deep anxiety about existing with deep uncertainty about the future is basically the equation used to craft the average Rutgers student.

Pixar has a knack for handling pretty sorrowful themes with a smile, with movies like “Inside Out” and “Coco” being recent examples of how it makes the best out of a bad situation. In fact, Pixar has been on a hot streak, churning out hit after hit. My biggest fear about “Toy Story 4” is that this could be the film where Pixar finally overplays its hand. 

Ending a franchise in a satisfying manner can be a real challenge, so since Disney passed up that opportunity with “Toy Story 3,” the stakes are high to deliver. If it doesn't, the film will still be a financial success, but instead of Jessie or Rex, we’ll get played. 

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