You’ve Got a Friend, Again

With Part Five apparently looming, a look back at 28 years of Toy Story

Published November 28, 2023

The rumors of the greenlighting of Toy Story 5 have reached fever pitch, and there’s no nice way to say it: Pixar’s in a bit of a protracted artistic drought. 

Between 2001 and 2009, the studio had a nearly unassailable string of inventive standalone films that won five Oscars for Best Animated Feature (and one nomination for Best Picture). There’s practically no one on Earth who doesn’t know Monsters Inc., Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Cars, Ratatouille, Wall-E, and Up; Dreamworks would give Shrek’s left antenna/ear thing for a run like that.

By comparison, Elemental, Turning Red, Luca, Onward, and Soul have left much to be desired, and we’re not the only ones left wondering how Pixar lost its golden touch (of course, the Disney takeover can’t have helped). And that brings us to the sequels: Since 2010, they’ve been not just financially, but artistically on par with the new IPs coming out of the test kitchen. Faint praise? Perhaps.

In any case, we’re not here to extol the modest virtues of Finding Dory and Monsters University. For a studio that’s lost its way, a new Toy Story movie always feels like a beacon of hope,  so we’re here to recap the franchise that started it all… while, you know, we get over our surprise at the fact that Tim Allen is still alive.

Toy Story (1995)

Inflation-adjusted box office: $790 million. Metacritic score: 96%.

Not content to merely make the world’s first full-length computer-animated film, Pixar launched an instant classic by imbuing it with a unique concept, compelling characters, intelligent writing, and an all-too-memorable soundtrack. (Twenty-eight years later, Disney couldn’t even find one of those things for Wish.) Toy Story beat out Batman Forever, Apollo 13, Pocahontas, and a rare good James Bond movie to be the highest-grossing film of 1995… not bad for a film that only cost $60 million in 2023 dollars.

Toy Story 2 (1999) 

Inflation-adjusted box office: $934.7 million. Metacritic score: 88%.

Lest you think that Pixar’s sequelitis is a new phenomenon, consider that this was only their third movie overall (Remember A Bug’s Life? Probably not.) Toy Story 2 brought in a new antagonist in Stinky Pete the Prospector, a new deuteragonist in Girl Woody Jessie, and an underlying message of “‘tis better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all.” You know, for kids! Regardless, Pixar again paired emotional connections with stunning-for-the-time visuals, and were rewarded handsomely.

Toy Story 3 (2010)

Inflation-adjusted box office: $1.51 billion. Metacritic score: 92%

Pixar delivered yet again, in a story that took our loveable toys on a journey to their brink of literal death by garbage incinerator – and then sent human-boy Andy off to college and into the sunset. We laughed, we cried, we cursed Lotso even while sympathizing with him – and we kept Pixar on its well-deserved pedestal. (for another year, at least, until the execrable Cars 2.) With such a neat bow on the series, they wouldn’t dare try a fourth movie, right?

Toy Story 4 (2019)

Inflation-adjusted box office: $1.29 billion. Metacritic score: 84%.

Wrong. I mean, the things print money. This installment had the same ragtag group of toys going on a road trip with their new owner, Bonnie, who is also the maker of their deformed and neurotic compatriot Forky. They all search for the meaning of life, or something. It’s honestly a little confusing, and critics reacted with the closest thing they can give to a drubbing in this franchise, deeming it 16% shy of perfect.

Lightyear (2022)

Inflation-adjusted box office: $226.3 million. Metacritic score: 60.

Well, I guess worse drubbings are possible. But as a different-universe spinoff, Lightyear barely even counts – or at any rate it sure didn’t count at the box office, barely making back its $200 million production budget. “We asked too much of the audience,” Pixar’s CCO Pete Docter explained. “When they hear Buzz, they’re like, ‘Great, where’s Mr. Potato Head and Woody and Rex?’ And then we drop them into this science fiction film that they’re like, ‘What?'”

Whenever it may land, Toy Story 5 is very likely to make some mistakes… but probably not that one.