Voicing Mr. Potato Head throughout the franchise, which kicked off in 1995, the legendary actor and stand-up comedian did initially sign on to Toy Story 4—excited to reprise his role. “Hearing stories over the years, I think it’s obvious that being the voice of Mr. Potato Head was something he just loved. When we heard that he passed…you know, he’s part of the family, so it was a hard thing,” Cooley told Deadline, while on the press circuit for the film. “There was never any talk of replacing him with another actor. But we were kind of like, ‘Well, what can we do?’”
Looking to keep Rickles present in the fourth Toy Story film, Cooley was ultimately able to do so, thanks to decades’ worth of material the actor had recorded for the part. “We had 25 years of Don speaking, doing lines from all the films, all the shorts, all the video games, all the theme park stuff, all the Ice Capades—everything that he’s done as Mr. Potato Head,” the director explained. “So, we reached out to the family and said, ‘This is something we could do, if you’re okay with it.’ And they said, ‘This is something he would have wanted.’”
“God bless my editorial team that dug through a lot of that stuff. A lot of it was on old tapes and stuff like that, but they were able to bring it forward, and we had a lot to choose from—a lot of lines that were recorded for other things that they just never used,” Cooley added. “So, we were able to go through the film and just keep him funny, and there with everybody else.”
While keeping Mr. Potato Head in the mix with Toy Story 4, and taking franchise favorite characters Woody and Buzz Lightyear into new territory, Cooley also embraced the opportunity to push creative boundaries, through the addition of new characters. A plastic spork that unexpectedly springs to life and is met with an existential crisis, Tony Hale’s Forky was just one example—a character that playfully called into question the rules of the Toy Story universe, as we’d come to know it. “Forky was definitely going, ‘Oh, we can still surprise Buzz and Woody,’” the director reflected. “There’s still parts of the world they don’t know about yet, about toys coming to life.”
Two other memorable additions to the ensemble were Ducky and Bunny, carnival toys voiced by Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele. Conceptualizing the pair as toys who live the worst kind of life—sitting on a rack, waiting to be won as prizes—Cooley leaned in here to the idea of edgier characters, who have “a bit more of a skewed point of view on how to get things done.”
The best example of the energy these characters brought to the film was a moment when they sprang to life in front of the carnival workers keeping them hostage, and joyfully attacked them. Played straight at first, this moment is ultimately revealed to be a mere revenge fantasy, on the part of these two toys. “The idea of throwing the audience off—the audience thinking that was real, and then all of a sudden realizing it’s a fantasy—that’s something we’ve never done in a Toy Story film. We’ve done nightmares and dreams, but nothing that felt so shocking, I guess,” Cooley remarked. “It just felt like an opportunity—like, ‘We have to do that. We have to take advantage of anything that’s new and feels fresh, and really charges it.’”
When Deadline caught up with Cooley a few months ago, he was lending a hand on Pete Docter’s Soul, a fantasy-comedy starring Jamie Foxx and Tina Fey, which is set for release this June. As the director explained then, being able to place his stamp on the Toy Story franchise was an experience he won’t soon forget. “When I came to this project, I had worked on some of the Toy Story shorts, like Small Fry, but I had never worked on any of the features. I saw Toy Story when I was in high school, so I remember seeing it as an audience member—that feeling of wonder and excitement. So, being put in charge of Toy Story 4, it means everything,” he said. “You work with these characters every day, and they’re almost like children. You really are shepherding them through life, so it’s a real honor, actually, to have done it.”
Scripted by Andrew Stanton and Stephany Folsom, Toy Story 4 picks up with rag doll cowboy Woody and the group of toys that makes up his family, as they set out on a road trip. Bringing Woody’s arc in the series to a close, the film was nominated for six Annie Awards and two Academy Awards, including Best Animated Feature Film and Best Original Song.