Pixar’s ‘Toy Story 4’ Proves Once Again It’s Always About Character
What’s always made Pixar’s Toy Story films so special, their true superpower, has been their characters. And their characters’ character. Sometimes funny. Sometimes sad. But always uniquely and poignantly human. Audiences have been introduced to some of animation’s most endearing, entertaining and memorable characters – most notably Woody and Buzz Lightyear – courtesy of this venerable film franchise that, back in 1995, launched an industry with the world’s first CG animated feature film. In fact, Pixar is at it’s very best when delivering what seems like a never-ending stream of richly developed and expertly crafted characters that audiences instantly relate to and connect with emotionally. We see a little bit of ourselves in Pixar film characters, even though, in the case of the studio’s latest film, Toy Story 4, for the fourth time, they’re… well… toys. Once again, the studio has produced an animated gem that lets us view the world from a toy’s perspective. Which, dare I say, these days, is quite welcome.
Without giving away too much of the film – please consider there may be spoilers ahead – Toy Story 4, which opens tomorrow in theatres, reunites Woody with Bo Peep, who, absent from the last film, is back with attitude, quickly proving that the attraction between the two still burns bright, eventually forcing our “lonesome Cowboy” to face his own doubts about what his role in life really is. But, alongside the welcome return of Bo and the emotion of her reunion with Woody, Toy Story 4 introduces several great new characters that play pivotal roles in the film: Duke Caboom, Gabby Gabby and Ducky & Bunny.
But, before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s first talk about a character that didn’t make it into the final film… but almost did. In fact, he’ll eventually be seen in deleted scenes on the DVD release. That would be Santa Claus. According to the film’s director, Josh Cooley, “There was one character that I loved so much, that actually was more of a gag than a real character, but it’s the one that I was like, ‘Oh god, that’s a baby I wish we didn’t have to destroy…’ and that was Santa Claus.”
As Cooley tells the story, he and his producers, Jonas Rivera and Mark Nielsen, visited a large number of antique stores while doing research for the film, and it seemed that every shop had a motion sensor-enabled dancing Santa Claus. The herky-jerky motion kind. So, they put one in the film. For a while. “When Woody and Bo come back to the antique shop, they’re talking about how creepy everything is,” the director reveals. “Woody had a line, something like, ‘Man all the toys in here must be desperate.’ And then you hear, ‘Tis the season for desperation.’ And as Woody turns around, there in the darkness is Santa Claus, holding a little Christmas candle that’s up-lighting on him! Bo says, ‘Santa, what’s going on here?’ Santa starts telling them how horrible the store is now. Woody says, ‘Look, I just need to get my friend Forky’ and all of a sudden, Santa involuntarily starts dancing and blaring, ‘Jingle bells, jingle bells!’ And he’s all upset, yelling at them, ‘You set off my motion detector!’ Then he says, something like, ‘Oh, where was I? Oh yes… get out!’ Then you hear, ‘Jingle bells, jingle bells… get out!’
Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, the Santa scene didn’t make the final film. But as Rivera explains, that type of ruthless story editing happens often, and with characters and scenes everyone loves, but knows need cutting. “I think we tried really hard to make it work, but it was interrupting the main story too much,” he says. “And that’s terrible, because you do have these things you fall in love with. There are so many fun ideas that come and go. But, you try to keep the best ones and make sure they’re not stepping on the story. So, when you strip it down, Santa was getting in the way of their mission. It’s always about finding the balance between what’s important and what’s not, and unfortunately, great stuff like that falls off.”
As far as new characters that did make the film, we have immediately bonded with our new favorite Canadian Pixar film character, Duke Caboom, voiced by Keanu Reeves. 2019 has been a big year so far for Reeves: He’s embraced his inner assassin for the third time with John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum; he’s spoofed himself, adorned thoughtfully with lens-less glasses, in Always Be My Maybe; and, most importantly, to audiences around the world (well, as of June 21), he’s now a legendary animated daredevil action figure.
After being approached for the role, Reeves first met with the filmmakers to discuss Duke Caboom before agreeing to take the part. To understand how funny the filmmakers’ recollection of their work with the actor is, you have to “hear” Reeves’ voice as he discusses his animated role. “Keanu actually created the character of Duke Caboom,” Cooley shares. “We had the idea of Duke… we had more of a bravado kind of character, a little guy, but very in your face. The first time we reached out to Keanu, he didn’t say ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘I’d like to come up to Pixar and meet you guys.’ So, he came up Emeryville. By himself. We’re sitting in the atrium, having lunch together, and we pitched the character to him. He asks us, ‘What do you think Duke is like? What does he do?’ We told him, ‘Well, he’s like an Evil Knievel toy that would actually pose on his motorcycle.’”
“So, Keanu suddenly starts hitting various poses, grunting, ‘Ho… Huh,’” Nielsen adds. “That all came from him. It got to the point where he got so excited, he jumped up on the table, in the middle of the Pixar cafeteria, posing and shouting, ‘Hoo! Hah!’ People were staring, asking, ‘Is that Keanu Reeves on that table?’ ‘Yes, it is. He’s posing.’ So, all of that was his idea.”
According to Cooley, when they cast film roles, they don’t want to see faces. They want to hear voices. “Our casting department will bring in a bunch of recordings,” he explains. “We ask them to turn the headshots over. We don’t want to see who this person. We just want to hear the voice. We don’t even know who we’re listening to. So, we’ll listen to a bunch of voices. Who is that? But right away, we grabbed onto one of Keanu’s movies we were listening to. We all went, ‘Whoa… Who is that?’ And they said it was Keanu Reeves. I’m like, ‘That’s perfect!’ We were just so grateful that he agreed to do the film.”
Reeves was also responsible for helping determine just how Canadian the character would be. “Keanu wanted to riff on accents too,” Cooley notes. “He asked us, ‘Well, what part of Canada is Duke from? I need to make sure I get that right.’ He’s a proud Canadian, and he handled the role with care.”
“Every single shot of Duke was animated by a Canadian Pixar animator,” Rivera chimes in. “The Maple Leaf Crew. To make sure Duke’s accurate. They all volunteered… they wanted to do it. When we were shot briefing one scene, we even hung the Canadian flag.” Josh joins in, adding, “I was not prepared for how funny Keanu is in the movie, as well as in real life. He’s exactly what you’d want him to be, I promise you. He’s just the coolest guy!”
Another new key character is the sometimes creepy, sometimes touching but ultimately misunderstood Gabby Gabby, a 1950s talking pull-string doll voiced by Christina Hendricks. Gabby Gabby has been stuck, with a defective voice box, all but forgotten for over 60 years on a shelf in the antique store. Her only companions are four, voiceless, completely sinister looking ventriloquist dummies. Rivera recalls that they pitched the part to Hendricks to be played a bit like Nora Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. “We were showing her stuff with the dummies and she said, ‘I thought you guys had done some weird background research on me, because I actually have a ventriloquist dummy in my house that my husband gave me. I’d wanted one my entire life.’ Every year, she would ask her parents for a Charlie McCarthy ventriloquist doll and they’d say to her, ‘You’re weird. We’re giving you a Barbie.’ It was so funny.” Nielsen concurs. “I think we were pitching it saying stuff like, ‘Of course, these dummies are awful and no one would want one.’ And Christina said, ‘No. I have one.’”
Rivera quickly adds, “When someone asked Christina if she had dolls like Gabby Gabby as a kid, didn’t she say something like, ‘Well I had doll heads.’ I heard that and said to myself, ‘Oh my god, you are absolutely perfect for this role.’” Cooley agrees. “Christina has the ability to sound inviting and friendly, then subtly become cold and terrifying in just a few words. It still gives me chills when I see Gabby’s introduction in the film.”
Last, but not least, we turn to our two brightly colored stuffed animals, Ducky & Bunny, voiced respectively by Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele. They’re carnival toys, which we all know, are always eager to be won, but unfortunately, are doomed to a life spent bolted to the prize board, taunting players with dreams of winning that never, ever come true. The duo brought their prolific and finely-honed improvisational comedy skills to the production.
“I remember Ducky & Bunny existed in Andrew’s [Stanton] very first draft,” Cooley recalls. “They were two stuffed toys crammed inside a kid’s dresser. But then we came up with the carnival, and I just loved the idea of carnival toys. We’ve never seen that before.” “Being a carnival toy is the worst existence a toy could ever have,” Rivera notes. “You’re just hanging there as bait. Kids want you, they spend money playing this game they’re never going to win, and you’re just going to hang there on the board. It’s awful.”
“We always knew we were going to have these two characters… they were in every version of the story,” Cooley continues. “We had a version where they were already friends with Bo, part of her lost toy gang. In another version, they were the ones that found Woody. But, we cast Key and Peele very, very early.”
Though some years had passed since they’d finished their acclaimed TV run on Key & Peele, for the actors, once they hit the recording booth, it was like old times. “Those recording sessions, your stomach would just hurt,” Cooley reveals. “We always recorded the two of them together, which is very rare. And it’s also rare in animation to get true improv… it’s the myth of spontaneity. So, it was really amazing in that we’d write the lines, and they would take them…” Rivera interrupts and says, “Every time you’d give them a line, they would give you back something different. Always funny. Always different. And always true to the story. Not going off on tangents. But just going for it. And giving us all sorts of stuff we could use.”
“They’ve worked together for something like 15 years,” Nielsen explains. “You’d watch them and it was like they could read each other’s mind. In the movie, whenever Ducky & Bunny are singing, Key and Peele came up with that. We didn’t write any of that. They improv’d all the singing.” The filmmakers encouraged the pair to improvise and riff on the material, often catching lighting in a bottle with their hilarious back and forth. Cooley shares, “We might write a line, something like, ‘Hey buddy, you know, give me a hand. I can’t reach him.’ And the two of them would start volleying [imitating Key], ‘You’re gonna make me say it? You really gonna make me say it? With these tiny legs?’ They would take everything 10 times farther than you could ever imagine. They gave us so much amazing stuff, we couldn’t fit it all in the movie.”
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-at-Large of Animation World Network.