In 1997, Warner Brothers released Batman & Robin, a mere two years after Joel Schumacher’s reasonably well-received and commercially successful Batman Forever. The rushed production schedule, unfortunate casting (“CHIIIIIILLL!”), and third-grader-who-eats-his-crayons-level screenplay stopped the juggernaut in its tracks; it opened well but fell quickly once word got out that it was not just terrible, not just one of the worst superhero movies, but one of the worst movies of the modern era.
In 2010, three years after the success of Shrek the Third, DreamWorks released Shrek Forever After, their fourth film in nine years chronicling the adventures of a Scottish ogre and his wacky donkey. The title indicated that it was the conclusion of the story, and perhaps not a moment too soon; reviews proclaimed the series’ formula of poopy jokes and pop culture references exhausted, and it would earn less than any previous film in the franchise, primarily because it was terrible.
Nearly two decades after Indiana Jones and his father rode off into the sunset at the end of The Last Crusade, the long-discussed fourth film in the Jones series finally hobbled its way into theaters. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was the highest-grossing entry in the franchise — unless you adjust for inflation, in which case it comes in dead last. And while some reviews were kind, it quickly became a whipping boy for fans, since it was kind of terrible.
After the surprise success of their theme-park-ride-turned-zany-Johnny-Depp-vehicle Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, Disney shot its second and third installments back-to-back and released them successively in 2006 and 2007. The third seemed to bring the series to a conclusion, but alas, the sequels made even more money than the first film, so four years later, they brought Johnny Depp back for Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. Reviews were miserable, but it made a shitload of money — most of it overseas — in spite of it being generally terrible.
The first three Scream films tumbled out in fairly rapid succession between 1996 and 2000, with Scream 3 bringing the trilogy to a reasonably definitive conclusion. But by 2011, BuzzFeed-fueled ‘90s nostalgia was in full swing, so they reassembled the cast for one more strained go-round. Alas, no one was interested — critics shrugged, and it topped out at $38 million domestic, less than half the box office of Scream 3, because it was terrible.
That same year, the same studio tried to revive another long-dormant franchise, with pretty much the same result. Spy Kids was a surprise hit in 2001, and director Robert Rodriguez cheerfully cranked out second and third installments over the next two years, though with greatly diminishing results. The third seemed to put a cap on the series — its subtitle was “Game Over” — but eight years later, he tried to reanimate the corpse with Spy Kids: All the Time in the World. Its domestic gross was exactly the same as Scream 4’s ($38 million), and was, again, less than half of the series’ previous lowest grosser.
Now, let’s be clear: none of these series matched the critical and commercial success of the Toy Story franchise thus far. And there are plenty of examples of films that kept going strong at movie number four and beyond (Bond, Marvel, and the Harry Potter movies leap to mind) — but most of those series are based on books or other media that plotted out continuing stories. Toy Story, like Indiana Jones, Scream, Pirates, and Spy Kids in particular, is a series where the loop seemed to close after the third movie, and should have. And yet their makers couldn’t resist going back to the well, in spite of the fact that so few series have managed to sustain this many outings.
And why is that? Because by that point in a series’ run, it’s difficult for a movie to convince an audience that it actually needs to exist. Franchise fatigue is real, and audiences are cynical; without an urgent sense of forward momentum, the complimentary sounds of paychecks being cashed and dead horses being beaten can be deafening. It’s why smart moviemakers stop rolling the dice after a second or third outing; it’s also why so many series (Spider-Man, The Bourne Identity, Evil Dead, Transformers) reboot at movie four rather than risking it.
All of which is a long way of getting around to saying that the Toy Story series, as it stands, is kind of a perfect, delicate thing, and the general negativity of the reaction to the fourth go-round is rooted in an acknowledgment of the likelihood that it will screw the whole thing up. And look, maybe it won’t; insert whatever lightning-striking clichés you’d prefer about Toy Story 2 and Toy Story 3 working as well as they did. If anyone has a magic formula for keeping a series fresh and vital long past its presumed expiration date, it’s the Toy Story people, and perhaps they’ll pull it off again. But they’re certainly working against the odds.