The Whiteness of 'Toy Story 4'

Toy Story 4 - Publicity Still - H 2019
Disney/Pixar

It's not just near-absence of people of color in the Pixar film that’s bothersome, it’s the absence of anything approximating life in America as most know it.

Was there any movie this past year as exuberantly entertaining, as creatively conceived as Toy Story 4? Ever since the franchise was launched in 1995, it’s been a cornucopia of riches, from its indelible characters to its unparalleled animation.

There are sequences of dazzling dexterity, from Woody’s (Tom Hanks) rescue of a miniature car before it’s swept away as rains flood a street; to the darkest and most inventive part of the film, when a ventriloquist’s dummy is joined by a veritable spawn of such creatures, threatening our heroes with the same sinister force that the Magic Brooms brought to the sorcerer’s apprentice.

The picture — which seems a lock for best animated feature at this Sunday’s Golden Globes, and probably the Oscars, too — left me in awe. So why did a slightly bitter taste linger, a sense that something was naggingly wrong?

Because in many ways TS4's worldview seems like an Eisenhower-era fantasy, a vision of America that might have come from the most die-hard reactionary: lovely if you’re wealthy and white, but alarming if you’re black or brown or gay or a member of any other minority — in other words, more than half the U.S. population.

True, there are a few characters of color (including two supporting players voiced by Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele); but each of the leads is Caucasian, and not just the franchise regulars but a host of new ones including a very white fork (Tony Hale) that’s among the more memorable — and merchandisable — creations of this fourth iteration in the series.

As Matthew Cherry, the African American director of animated short Hair Love, recently told The Hollywood Reporter: “When you don’t see yourself represented and you don’t see people with your same type of hair seen as the hero and seen as loving and desired, it really does a number on your self-confidence.”

Nor is it just the near-absence of people of color that’s bothersome. It’s the absence of anything approximating life in America as most of us know it.

TS4’s main family lives in a big, brightly lit house in an ivory utopia; its daughter sleeps in a plush room packed with a U.S. Treasury’s worth of gizmos; they drive around in a gas-guzzling RV, stopping for carnivals and carnies that would be right at home in the 1940s or 1950s. Problems of prejudice, money and unemployment never seem to cross anyone’s mind.

This is a vision of suburbia right out of George Clooney’s Suburbicon (based on the real Levittown, where a black family’s arrival in 1957 led to waves of violence) and it’s set here and now. Not only is it unconnected to reality; it conveys the idea this is what reality should be.

I’d have expected no less in the days when John Lasseter was running Pixar, with his rearguard view of an idealized past that was only ideal if you weren’t black or Hispanic or poor. (He took a leave of absence November 2017 and officially left Disney-Pixar at the end of 2018, but shares story credit on the finished film.) Still, did nobody in the post-Lasseter era — either at Pixar or its parent company, the Walt Disney Co. — pipe up and say, “Hey! This has gotta change”?

Pixar has often repeated outmoded tropes with no visible awareness of doing so, and only occasionally has it gone the other way, as with 2017’s Coco. Take 2006’s Cars: its humor was based on all sorts of foreign stereotypes, inadvertently encouraging the anti-immigrant prejudice that’s now running rampant through the country.

Nor did previous Toy Story films do much to advance the times. The original 1995 release was dominated by a white, male cast, with Annie Potts and Laurie Metcalf as the only lead women; Toy Story 2 (1999) increased its female quotient but still had all-white leads. And Whoopi Goldberg (as the octopus Stretch) was the only notable person of color in 2010’s Toy Story 3.

Pixar isn’t the sole culprit, of course. Animation has long been a white, male preserve that has only slowly welcomed change and begun to recruit talent that doesn’t fit its established norms. Now a new generation of animators is showing what can happen when they get a shot, as we all discovered with 2018’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and some of the better recent contenders for Oscar’s animated short.

This is part of a broader industry problem, too, as a Jan. 2 report from the USC Annenberg Inclusion made clear when it noted that the participation of “underrepresented” directors in feature films had dropped from 21.4 percent in 2018 to 16.8 percent in 2019.

At least Pixar knows it needs to change. That’s why in 2018 it launched the SparkShorts program, designed to foster diverse talent and stories — which has borne fruit with this year’s Oscar-shortlisted Kitbull. Pixar’s next big release, Soul, centers on an African American musician, with Jamie Foxx, Phylicia Rashad, Questlove and Daveed Diggs; and then there’s the upcoming Onward, which stars Tom Holland and Chris Pratt but also features Lena Waithe and Octavia Spencer.

If you’re white and middle-class, as I am, if you drive a nice car and have a safe job, all this may seem moot. But not if you’re the five-year-old, African American girl a friend of mine recently adopted. I was about to give her Toy Story 4 but I’ve changed my mind. Because it sends the worst sort of message for a child like her: you’re an outsider, kept at a distance from everything fuzzy and fun in American life.

Perhaps by the time she sees Toy Story 5, whenever that is, we’ll have moved on — we’ll have reached the end of this make-believe homogeneity, this racism-by-exclusion that’s no less pernicious than the real thing.