The “Toy Story” universe has always been very male, ever since John Lasseter’s first “Pixar” release in 1995 introduced old-school Western sheriff pull-toy Woody (Tom Hanks) and snazzy electronic flyer Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen). The dynamic duo have stayed front and center through sequels “Toy Story 2” and “3.”
Pixar itself has been going through a sea change. Of the 21 films Pixar has released since 1995, just four (“Brave,” “Inside Out,” “Finding Dory,” and “Incredibles 2”) have focused on a female lead. Over the years, Pixar has gradually increased the participation of women throughout the Bay Area company, from animators and designers to story artists.
The first woman to enter the Brain Trust was Pixar Senior Development Executive Mary Coleman. Later, Rita Hsaio shared screenplay credit on “Toy Story 2,” Meg LeFauve landed screenplay credits for “Inside Out” and “The Good Dinosaur,” and Victoria Strouse co-wrote “Finding Dory” with director Andrew Stanton.
When Brenda Chapman arrived at Pixar in 2003, there were no women at all in the studio’s story department. She famously ran up against Lasseter with “Brave,” starting out as the writer-director and winding up sharing directing credit with Mark Andrews on a screenplay written with several others, including frequent Disney contributor Irene Mecchi. Still, Chapman became the first woman to win an Oscar for directing Best Animated Feature.
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“This was a story that I created, which came from a very personal place, as a woman and a mother,” she wrote in the New York Times. “To have it taken away and given to someone else, and a man at that, was truly distressing on so many levels. But in the end, my vision came through in the film.”
On the 2018 sequel “Incredibles 2,” auteur Brad Bird leaned into Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), giving her the central superhero role, while Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) took charge of their baby at home. And on “Toy Story 4,” Valerie LaPointe rose from story artist to story supervisor.
Pixar has also been changing in the wake of Lasseter’s November 2017 exit from Disney/Pixar, after admitting he had behaved inappropriately toward many women while on the job. Around the same time, the “Toy Story 4” screenwriting team of Rashida Jones and Will McCormack left Pixar, although they denied that Lasseter’s reported “unwanted advance” on Jones ever took place.
“We parted ways because of creative and, more importantly, philosophical differences,” they told The New York Times. “There is so much talent at Pixar, and we remain enormous fans of their films. However, it is also a culture where women and people of color do not have an equal creative voice.”
After they left, Pixar brought in Stephany Folsom, who had written for Disney live-action at Marvel and Lucasfilm (including the TV series “Star Wars Resistance”). After meeting “Toy Story 4” director Josh Cooley, producer Jonas Rivera and writer Andrew Stanton, “I packed my things and moved to Northern California,” she told IndieWire recently.
She started off fresh in January 2018 with a ten-page treatment by Stanton — never speaking to the prior writers — and wound up sharing the screenplay credit with him. “He didn’t believe that ‘Toy Story 3’ ended Woody’s journey,” she said, “that Woody had to give up everything so the other toys could have a happy ending with Bonnie. He wrote a treatment with Woody reuniting with Bo Peep.”
Michael Arndt’s tour-de-force Oscar-nominated “Toy Story 3” screenplay was a hard act to follow. “It was a constant source of anxiety,” said Folsom. “I grew up on ‘Toy Story.’ I have such love and appreciation for it, and Michael Arndt was brilliant. But I wouldn’t have signed on to do the job if I was not confident that there was an important story left to tell.”
On Folsom’s first day, she went straight to the big Pixar conference room to throw around ideas with the Brain Trust: Lasseter, Stanton, Cooley, Rivera, LaPointe, Coleman, Pete Docter, and producer Mark Nielsen. “This wasn’t overwhelming at all,” she said with a laugh. (Lasseter didn’t permanently leave Pixar until June 2018, when Docter took on leadership of the company.)
While Folsom was charged with writing the script, it helped to know that she had the Brain Trust behind her. “I felt cushioned,” she said. “I could bring my ideas and insight to it, but it was necessary to get input from the guys who founded the company and came up with the characters and sat with them for decades. They were key to the characters’ psychology and lifeblood and everything else. It would be impossible to do ‘Toy Story’ without them.”
But the return of china doll Bo Peep marks a huge departure for the “Toy Story” franchise, as she moves into the center of the action. “Toy Story 4” added a prologue to reveal the past romantic bond between Woody (Tom Hanks) and Bo (Annie Potts), and how they become separated from Andy’s toys. In a wrenching moment, Bo wonders if Woody could join her, but he still feels responsible to Andy.
When they meet again, Bo is even smarter and more capable, a sadder, tougher woman fending for herself and her three sheep in a harsh amusement park environment. As a childless toy, she has amassed an arsenal of survival skills — from self-mending to using her skirt-cape and crook in ingenious ways — which will be needed to rescue Woody from the clutches of Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), a scary doll who runs the dusty Second Chance antique store.
“Bo Peep is a delicate figurine,” said Folsom. “What makes Bo Peep work as a strong badass female character is she has a lot of feminine vulnerability. She’s a porcelain doll: she can break, she is fragile. Annie Potts was able to bring dry wit and sarcasm to Bo Peep, which was not fully exploited in the other movies and is fun to play off Woody. She gets him flustered, throws him out of his comfort zone.”
She continued, “We were interested in pushing that further. Bo Peep isn’t a toy, she’s a lamp. But she was hanging out with the toys, and she had a bit of an outsider vibe. I always thought Bo Peep ran Molly’s room, and Woody ran Andy’s room. They were on an equal level, they could see each other in a way that Buzz couldn’t relate to. That opens it up a lot. Bo could understand the responsibility of being in charge.”
Folsom loved the group effort at Pixar. “While of course the director has final say,” she said, “everyone is allowed to contribute and ideas are taken seriously and valued. Josh Cooley would run ideas by me and the story team, who are helping him to craft characters like Gabby Gabby. The key to her is a misguided sweetness. She doesn’t have the same worldview as Woody because she’s never had the experiences Woody has had. She contextualizes everything in different ways. Christina Hendricks was able to pull off that sinister angle and be genuinely honest and kind.”
Writing an animated Pixar movie is about screening rough animated scenes for the Brain Trust and seeing how they play, then revising and repeating this process until a sequence is deemed ready to go to animation. “It’s like, ‘hey, here’s the scene,'” said Folsom. “We put it up, we have a discussion about what worked and what didn’t and things we might want to try, I rewrite it, throw it to the story artist, we go back and forth, we put it up again. I was continually writing off the reels, visual animatics of the movie, instead of notes in a draft.”
Two sequences kept Folsom up at night: in order for the movie to work, they had to nail Woody and Bo’s remeeting on the playground, as well as the finale. “Those were the two hardest moments,” she said, “the emotional pillars that set up the spine of the movie.”
Instead of crafting a Woody retirement story from the point of view of a 50-year-old male, Coleman, Folsom, and LaPointe added a strong female slant to “Toy Story 4.”
“It got an infusion of psychology and life,” said Folsom. “We took that story and showed that at any stage in life, you have to redefine your use and find meaning. We were taking a very personal story and extending that, digging into the universal meanings to skin the ultimate questions: who defines your purpose, is it yours, or is it what people tell you, and where do you belong? It became an existential critique, blowing up Woody’s personal story to a larger global issue everyone can key into.”
Next up: Folsom is adapting “This Is Jane” for Kimberly Peirce, with Michelle Williams attached to star, she said: “I owe a draft.”