That would be a fitting capper: exceeding expectations while breaking the franchise box office record. Pixar surprised everyone with Woody’s (Tom Hanks) final, existential journey about change and growth, with Bo Peep (Annie Potts) and Forky (Tony Hale) as the catalysts. Pixar upped its animation (from the porcelain shepherdess to the complex antique shop), and delivered a bittersweet climax. This was a sequel that justified its existence.
Yet first-time director Josh Cooley was worried that he was going to be fired when he first pitched the idea of Woody saying goodbye to Buzz and the gang, since it was such a radical break from convention. The original ending had Woody, Bo, and Forky merely reuniting with Bonnie. But that made it just another adventure — it needed a story arc for Woody to be really special and to justify its existence. Then they toyed around with a “Casablanca”-inspired ending in which Bo stays behind. They were on the right track, but it wasn’t good enough.
“When I pitched the idea of them separating to my wife, and Buzz says, ‘To Infinity,’ and Woody says, ‘And Beyond,’ I was so [overcome with emotion],” Cooley said. “That was the reason to make the movie, absolutely.”
But Cooley still had to convince the Pixar Braintrust of Pete Docter (now chief creative officer), Andrew Stanton (who shares screenplay credit with Stephany Folsom), and John Lasseter (the Pixar co-founder, who turned the directing reigns over to Cooley before eventually exiting the studio in a cloud of controversy surrounding sexual harassment allegations). “I went right into it and there was a long silence,” said Cooley. “They took it in. At first, they thought, ‘you can’t split them up.’ But it evolved and they saw that it could work.”
Stanton wrote the script off those boards and lent the gravitas it needed. “That was a huge moment,” added Cooley. “Andrew’s been involved in the franchise since the very beginning.”
Telling Hanks was another anxious moment. “I got to the end and they say, ‘To Infinity and Beyond,’ and he went, ‘Whoa.’ And he looked around and went, ‘OK, OK,'” said Cooley. Then the hard part began with executing the scene. After first trying it out with a lot of exposition from Woody, Cooley removed most of the dialogue and made it work with non-verbal acting. But that put more pressure on the animators.
“I love the idea of having letting the animators convey the emotion and we discussed it early on,” added Cooley. “It’s their job to be actors, and Tom and Annie were great together. But I wanted to see the full sequence play out no matter what stage the animators were at. I wanted to make sure it didn’t have a double beat or somebody’s expression was off.”
In retrospect, though, the key to pulling it all off began with Forky, the hand-made toy and surrogate child that helps Woody on his journey of self-discovery. “Forky was the key to unlocking this film,” Cooley said. “Anything that was new or felt different was worth going in that direction because it was the fourth film and it was starting to feel like doors were closing. Once we realized that he could be a platform for Woody to get his point of view across for what being a toy means, then it starting opening things up.”
Stanton wrote the pivotal road trip scene between Woody and Forky based on his own empty nester experience with his kids leaving the house. “He managed to get it all down in one paragraph and that became so important,” Cooley said. “We highlighted that as the point of the movie and we animated it a couple of times, and made sure that Woody was coming up and then down because there was a lot of fantastic acting in that. And then the embrace became important because that’s when Forky understands why he should be a toy for Bonnie. Forky is the wild card full of surprises.”
In the end, Woody leaves the nest, too, by becoming a Lost Toy with Bo. “I [couldn’t] see this happening any other way, and we set it up three movies ago,” Cooley said.