Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 23 September 2019

To equality and beyond: 'Toy Story 4' gets a feminist makeover

With the triumphant return of Bo Peep and the casting of the series’ first female villain, ‘Toy Story 4’ proves it is ahead of the curve in a post #MeToo era

Bo Peep, once the romantic interest of Woody, has been transformed into a superhero who spearheads many of the film’s rescue missions. Courtesy Pixar
Bo Peep, once the romantic interest of Woody, has been transformed into a superhero who spearheads many of the film’s rescue missions. Courtesy Pixar

Everyone’s favourite animated sheriff returns to town as the fourth instalment of Toy Story hits the big screen across the UAE.

For those who might have forgotten how Toy Story 3 ended (it was nine years ago, after all), the new film starts with a helpful flashback, reminding us that Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks) was given to pre-schooler Bonnie by his previous owner Andy, who grew up and went off to college.

Toy Story 4 sees much of the old gang reunited, including Woody, Buzz Lightyear, Jessie and Slinky Dog, as well as Mr and Mrs Potato Head.

Bo Peep, meanwhile, who didn’t even make it into the third instalment because she had been given away, has made a triumphant return to the series as a lost toy surviving in a world where you could be crushed by a child’s shoe.

Introducing a new heroine

Once the romantic interest of Woody, Bo has been transformed into a superhero who spearheads the many rescue missions the film series has become famous for. Her costume has been given a makeover, too, with the shepherdess frock being reworked into a jumpsuit, her original skirt draped round her neck as a cape and her crook as a tool to fight off any hostile toys.

LONDON, ENGLAND - JUNE 16: (L-R) Woody, Mark Nielsen, Bo Peep, Josh Cooley, Tom Hanks, Jonas Rivera and Buzz Lightyear attend the European premiere of Disney and Pixar's "Toy Story 4" at the Odeon Luxe Leicester Square on June 16, 2019 in London, England. (Photo by Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images for Disney and Pixar)
From left to right, Mark Nielsen, Josh Cooley, Tom Hanks, Jonas Rivera at the European premiere of Disney and Pixar's 'Toy Story 4' in London. Getty

It was Bo’s revival that inspired director Josh Cooley and producers Jonas Rivera and Mark Nielsen to take a big risk in making a fourth film when the previous three had been huge successes critically. “Having Bo come back was the genesis of this film,” Cooley revealed to the press, including The National, after the London premiere. “We even called the movie Peep, which was our code name.”

Bo, who was originally Andy’s sister Molly’s toy along with her flock, has been apart from Woody for nine years and, by a twist of fate, the pair are reunited.

For Cooley, reinventing the character – who was only given around six minutes of airtime in the first two films – into someone his daughter would aspire to be like, was one of the most important factors in making the new movie.

“My daughter is 10 years old right now. She has posters of Wonder Woman and Rey from Star Wars on her wall, but that’s it. I was in her room cleaning it one day and I was thinking, she has three Wonder Woman posters and two Rey posters, but what else is there?” he says. “My goal was that I wanted the character to be so cool and strong that my daughter says: ‘I want a poster of Bo Peep on my wall.’”

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Cooley was rewarded when he came home one night to see his daughter had fallen asleep clutching a Bo Peep figurine, and he snapped a photograph to send to Annie Potts, the actor who has voiced Bo throughout the series. Potts, who jumped at the chance of reviving her character, was said to be very emotional upon receiving the picture.

Other welcomed additions

Pixar and Disney Animation began making the film five years ago, overseen by the series’s original director John Lasseter, who won an Academy Award for Toy Story in 1996. Lasseter stepped down from his role in 2017 following allegations of sexual misconduct, but still has a story credit on Toy Story 4.

While the director and producers were keen to make it clear that they were ahead of the curve when it came to Hollywood’s post-#MeToo era changes, which has resulted in filmmakers making a concerted effort to give female characters more screen time, inevitably questions have been raised as to whether the feminist revival of the series was connected with Lasseter’s departure. But Rivera, who also produced Pixar animation hits Up and Inside Out, says the changes came naturally from within the studios, which he says have pursued great diversity in their hiring process over the years. “The story rooms have naturally evolved to be more gender balanced, so it’s not like we had to draft in a team of women,” he says.

A still image of 'Toy Story 4'. Pixar
A still image of 'Toy Story 4'. Pixar

Another welcome addition to the Toy Story 4 cast is Gabby Gabby, voiced by Mad Men star Christina Hendricks, the first female villain the series has had. The 1950s-style doll has been trapped in an antiques store for years with an army of ventriloquist dolls as her henchmen. Arrested Development actor Tony Hale also joins the cast as Forky, a newly made toy who has been created out of the contents of a rubbish bin and ends up being held hostage by Gabby Gabbycue another rescue mission by Woody and Bo Peep. They are assisted in their task by Duke Caboom, voiced by Keanu Reeves, who won the part in a blind voice audition.

Updating the story for today's audiences

Since Toy Story 3’s release in 2010, there has been another huge change in the way children play with toys because of widespread use of technology. In many ways Forky, a homemade creation crafted out of a spork and modelling clay, with pipe cleaner arms and googly eyes, is the antithesis of an iPad.

Producer Nielsen says his experience as a father, witnessing his children line up toys to film on their phones, had showed him that the toys and technology could coexist. “These films are still relevant for kids even if they are from a different generation,” he says.

Although children’s reactions to the film are extremely important, for the creators, the target audience is and always has been much wider. Luckily, for anyone itching to go and see the new Toy Story, the film has been created for children big and small.

“We are not setting out to make these as kids’ films,” says Nielsen. “We are setting out to make the films that we love and we hope they play for anyone, no matter what generation, or what age they are.”

Toy Story 4 opens in cinemas across the UAE on June 20

Updated: June 19, 2019 07:24 PM

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