Adam: Griffin, I wasn't fully aware of your "Toy Story" obsession until I came across an A.V. Club feature a couple months ago. Eleven questions – pretty simple concept. They ask interesting people eleven interesting questions. One of those questions was, "What possession can you not get rid of?" And your answer to that question, Griffin, was...?
Griffin Newman: It was a Making-Of coffee table book, released at the time of the first "Toy Story."
Adam: A very large, unwieldy book that you apparently referenced all the time.
Griffin: Yeah! I still have it. I guess the first "Toy Story" came out when I was 6 and I demanded my parents got this for me. I think they just thought it was an oversized picture book, but it was a very dense production-pipeline-of-a-computer-animated-film-book that I would read obsessively to myself every night before I went to sleep.
Adam: Now, quite profoundly, you said in the piece, "It symbolizes this moment where I started going so deep on how things got made and it crystallized in my mind that I, like, wanted to do that. I wanted to be the person who made stuff in some way or at least contributed to the process of making stuff." That's a powerful attachment to a book, and the interviewer astutely noted the connection between that attachment and the "Toy Story" franchise as a whole, preoccupied as it is with how tough it is to part with things from our past that were so important to us. That dialogue naturally prompted some follow up questions about "Toy Story 4" – again, this is a couple of months ago – which finds Woody and Buzz and friends going on a road trip with Bonnie and Forky, a funky looking spork Bonnie created at kindergarten orientation. "Kid is God," in the "Toy Story" universe is a basic theory I subscribe to that will likely come up again over the course of this show, and boy, does it support said theory that Bonnie can slap on a couple of googly eyes, add some tongue depressor feet and pipe cleaner arms, and all of a sudden, an eating utensil is sentient.
Now, you were initially resistant to the idea of a fourth installment. In your words; "They went through multiple directors including John Lasseter, who has now become the disgraced expat of Pixar, and they went through so many writers that it just seemed like the movie was a disaster in the making." But the trailer, which showed us Forky, who sees himself as trash, not a toy, and the return of Woody's sweetheart Bo Peep, who was abandoned but found a way to embrace her freedom, gave you reason to be hopeful. In fact, you devised and shared a theory of your own around what "Toy Story 4" could be. And I love your predicted existential analogy. You said that it's essentially a movie about people who are obsessed with their career and can't be alone with their own thoughts, and learning how to enjoy retirement. They're empty nesters who can't center their life around their family and their children and have to figure out who they are. "So if that's what the movie is, I'm going to love it," you said, "and if it's just a retread then, I'm going to be the angriest person in the world." Now having seen the movie just last night, my guess is you're the happiest person in the world.
Griffin: I am incredibly happy.
Adam: And because every movie is so good, it's genuinely fun and enlightening to hear how people rank the films of the series. Where does "Toy Story 4" a place on your list?
Griffin: My ranking right now – and I've only seen for once. I saw it last week so I've had a little more time to process it, but it's at a disadvantage against all the other films that I have seen tens-and-tens of times. Right now, my ranking I think would be 2, 1, 4, 3.
Adam: Hmm. Wow!
Griffin: But pretty tight.
Adam: Yeah we're going to come to blows over this considering where I have 3 ranked.
Adam: But we'll get to that. I want to hear more about why you rate 4 ahead of it.
Griffin: Ahead of 3?
Griffin: I think because this is what I was hoping for. You know, as you said there was all this sort of chaos behind the scenes, making this fourth installment. And the mere announcement of it seemed sacrilegious to most people because everyone kind of agreed that three ended so well. But they kept on saying, sort of in very vague terms, like, "We have a kernel of an idea that we think is so good that we have to do something with it." And then they would never really talk about what that idea was. The only thing they'd say was that Bo Peep was back. The movie kept on getting pushed back and going through the writers directors and all, as you said, and I was just 100 percent prepared for a movie that didn't have a reason to exist other than the fact that merchandise was already in production. But the Forky thing opened up the box of, "Oh are they actually going to make a movie that digs into some of the more existential questions about this franchise?" Because I think the "Toy Story" movies have always been very existential in that they are about these characters trying to come to terms with their place in the world. It's always about their status, their relationship to someone else, their ranking, their geographical location – any of these things. But the sort of messiness of, "Wait, so what are the rules of their sentience? How do they live? How do they come alive?" All this sort of stuff was always kind of the third rail. If you start to tackle this stuff, is it going to strangle the magic out of it? If you start to over explain it are you going to get a midi-chlorians situation on your hands?
Griffin: But Forky, from the moment he was revealed, seemed to me like a really good avenue to pursue these questions of what their entire raison d'être really is as toys, and especially because Woody has always been so methodical about this idea of... "Your in service of a kid." You know, the idea of the kid as a god. If they're not a merciless god, they're at least a kind of an indifferent god, you know? [Laughs].
Griffin: It's this weird relationship between the kids and the toys, where the kids love the toys so much, but have no awareness of the fact that the toys have these inner lives. So it is kind of a one-way relationship in a lot of ways.
Adam: For sure.
Griffin: Woody will wax poetic about what it means and how good you feel for helping a kid and all of that. But there is something kind of selfless about how much you're giving of yourself to some sort of greater power. And then the second thing that clicked into place for me was when they revealed the first images of Bo Peep, and she looks radically different in this movie. The thing that they always said was, "Oh it's gonna be Woody relocates Bo Peep who he hasn't seen forever and she's been in an antique shop." And that sounded like an incredibly boring movie to me. But the second it became clear? She has been living on her own. She is someone who has created a new pipeline for how to be a toy that is completely unbeholden to any owner and is just about living for herself and helping others without needing that sort of validation. Those two pieces seemed really exciting to me, and I feel like they did with those pieces of what I wanted out of this film.
And I think 3 is, obviously, working really hard to give you a real sense of emotional catharsis and finality. I cannot make it through the last 20 minutes of 3 without crying. I've tried many times. It's my equivalent to like a saltine challenge where I'll put it on and see if I can get through without tearing up. And I cannot. And this movie is less... I don't know, violently emotional, but I think it's quietly more profound, and I think the ending it gives Woody, if you're really viewing Woody as the protagonist of these films, is a much more satisfying conclusion. "[Toy Story] 3" is a really good ending to the narrative of Andy and these toys as a group, but if you pull back and look at 4 in relation to the first three, it's kind of everything they've set up for Woody in the first three movies coming to roost, in a way that I found really, really affecting.