Saying goodbye to James and Woody

I recently saw two Disney (or Disney-distributed) animated movies successively: Wreck It Ralph II: Ralph Breaks the Internet (2018) and Toy Story 4 (2019). The two eye-popping flicks worked well in tandem, for both are at points strikingly similar and markedly different. Toy Story is a careful and soft-spoken entry to the beloved Toy Story franchise, produced by the constantly-lauded Pixar machine of quality films; Ralph is a irreverent and energetic sequel to 2012’s fun fever dream of a film Wreck It Ralph made by the simultaneously well-established and still up-and-coming Walt Disney Animation Studios. Toy Story 4 builds on over twenty years of a detailed franchise universe; Ralph Breaks the Internet throws the Disney Princesses, a Grand Theft Auto clone, the web company eBay, and PacMan into the same cinematic world. Ralph and Vanellope say goodbye.

Nevertheless, both films resound in certain aspects. Each film is a master-class in near-flawless 3D animation—look for anamorphic bokeh and picture-perfect light effects in Toy Story 4 and marvel at Disney’s wonderful control of motion and emotion in Ralph’s animated performances. Likewise, neither film sacrifices form over function: both have complex emotional centers. Throughout the course of each film, the status-quo is upended—Woody is no longer a beloved toy, and Ralph’s best friend Vanellope is drawn towards a life that will leave Ralph behind. Toy Story 4 and Ralph, over-simplified, are about moving on, and the movies climax with two heart-wrenching good-byes. The message of either film, then, could be distilled to a line: life changes, sometimes you’ll have to say goodbye, and that’s okay.

That’s an excellent message that’s especially relevant to the entertainment scene in 2019. Several established properties have come under fire from their fans over the past several years for changing the formula. HBO’s Game of Thrones spawned a grassroots campaign to annul the last season when the showrunners showed a different side of fan-favorite Daenerys, and Disney’s own Star Wars: The Last Jedi sparked an onslaught of outrage when fan expectations were not met. Of course, both works were radical in their own right and unarguably split from previous conventions. The Last Jedi’s writer/director Rian Johnson’s decision to destroy Kylo Ren’s helmet seems especially emblematic of this: this film will not play by the time-honored Star Wars rule that the big bad guy wears a mask. While some fans bemoan the disrespect shown by so-called errant directors, others rally behind the filmmakers, asserting that upset fanboys and girls need to learn when to let their beloved franchise change a bit—when to say goodbye, so to say.

One way or the other, franchise-spawning studios like Disney are now at a difficult crossroads in managing their cinematic universes. Should future films play it safe and stick to conventions (after all, JJ Abram’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens broke very few hearts and made loads of money)? Or should new directors be allowed to exercise full freedom and break rules when handling established properties? Toy Story 4 and Ralph Breaks the Internet suggest an answer: change happens, and that’s okay. After all, saying good-bye to something well-established—whether a friendship between toys or video game characters or a convention of a franchise—can be hard, but, sometimes, saying goodbye is necessary.

Ironically, by making Toy Story 4 and Ralph Breaks the Internet, the Walt Disney Company reveals its own difficulties in saying goodbye—in this case, it’s their inability to let an old franchise go without making a sequel. It’s a common problem: many have pointed out the sharp rise in wide releases that are sequels, prequels, or spin-offs over the past decade. In fact, eight of the ten highest grossing films of all time are spin-offs from an established property (and each was released within the past ten years). It’s safe to say that Hollywood is sequel-obsessed, and it makes sense: why take a risk on an unknown project when you own the rights to a surefire blockbuster like another Star Wars or Toy Story?

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this sort of filmmaking, and no sequel is inherently bad. However, as big studios have certainly discovered over the past several years, not every entry to a franchise is universally beloved. Of course, it’s in a studio’s best interest to make a movie that’s loved and not hated—a harder and harder thing to do with the big-name franchises in this day and age. As studios push ahead in sequel production, their filmmakers are faced with an additional challenge: should franchise conventions be adhered to? or should conventions be broken? While Toy Story 4 and Ralph Breaks the Internet will likely be remembered with fondness rather than hate, the films ironically suggest a third option: sometimes, it’s okay to say goodbye. Maybe it’s not the conventions of a franchise that should be left behind—maybe it’s the franchise itself.

Hap Burke is unemployed. You may reach him on Twitter at @happyburkeday.