'Toy Story': Looking back at the 'Black Friday Incident' that nearly killed the film and Pixar

Tom Butler
Senior Editor

Released 24 years ago, Pixar’s Toy Story remains an astonishing piece of work. The first full-length CG animated movie, starring Tom Hanks and Tim Allen as Woody and Buzz Lightyear, revolutionised the film industry, changing animation forever. Charming and incredibly rewatchable, the characters from the film are beloved the world over, have inspired countless spin-offs, theme park attractions, and three more sequels including the box office-busting Toy Story 4, in cinemas now.

However, the first film was almost a total disaster that nearly killed the hit-making animation studio before it had even begun.

On 19 November, 1993 - a date that Pixar insiders colloquially refer to as “Black Friday” - a creative team from Pixar Animation Studios (including director John Lasseter and producers Ralph Guggenheim and Bonnie Arnold) showed a rough cut of the film, which had been in production since 1991, to a team of Disney execs and the reaction was dreadful.

Woody concept art by Bud Luckey. (Pixar)

The story was flat, the characters sarcastic and unlikeable, and crucially, the relationship between the two leads was just awkward. “Guys, no matter how much you try to fix it,” Disney animation chief Peter Schneider reportedly told the Pixar team, “it just isn’t working.”

Disney pulled the plug on the movie with immediate effect.

Read more: Hanks: ‘I’m more Woody than Tom now’

Talking to Yahoo Movies UK, Hanks admits the first iteration of Woody, who was more of the tyrannical boss of Andy’s toy than the loveable leader he ended up being, was not a likeable guy.

“I was coming in and doing everything they wanted,” Hanks explains.

John Lasseter posing with Woody and Buzz. (Photo by Eric Robert/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images)

“At first [they were saying] ‘we want you to improvise, we want you to get at each other, you could be sarcastic with one another’. And I think what happened was, that turned into a sort of cynicism that wasn’t really part of what the original sense of the DNA was.

“And we had done almost an entire version of the full film, which they had then gone off and done a lot of the animatics and storyboards to, and it didn’t work.”

With production halted, director John Lasseter appealed for a second chance with Disney film chief Jeffrey Katzenberg, who gave them two weeks to fix the film. Joss Whedon was one of the many writers drafted in to fix the film and with Pixar boss Steve Jobs personally financing development out of his own pocket, the team radically retooled the script in a desperate bid to save the film.

Joss Whedon poses for a portrait in Beverly Hills, Calif. (AP Photo/Matt Sayles, File)

With Jobs keeping Disney at bay, Pixar finally re-presented the film to the development team at Burbank, showcasing the new Toy Story. Out went the cynicism and in came a wise and caring Woody, and a more endearing, feckless Buzz Lightyear. Katzenberg liked what he saw, and gave the film the greenlight once again in February, 1994.

“They came back to us - John Lasseter and the other people - and they said ‘we’re going to take another run at this because it isn’t what... it’s not working,’” recalls Hanks.

“It wasn’t just that it wasn’t working, it wasn’t valuable somehow. And everybody said ‘well, alright, we’ll do whatever you want’.”

In March 1994, the actors including Hanks, Allen, and Annie Potts, returned to Pixar to record the new script.

Woody and Buzz. (Pixar)

“We started recording in 1991 for that very first version,” explains Hanks. “And I think that probably added a year and a half into the process.”

It was steam ahead then for Pixar, and from there the crew quickly grew from its original size of 24 to 110, including 27 animators, 22 technical directors, and 61 other artists and engineers.

A lukewarm test screening in July 1995, precipitated more minor tweaks, specifically to the film’s ending, with just five months left until release.

Read more: Sequels that were axed at the last minute

However, despite the last minute crunch, Toy Story opened on 2,281 screens in the United States on 22 November, 1995, and was an instant hit with critics and audiences who wouldn’t learn about the film’s behind-the-scenes drama until much later on.

The 2007 documentary The Pixar Story, which came bundled as part of the Ultimate Pixar Collection DVD box set in 2008, offers an unflinching look at the whole “Black Friday” debacle, and is well worth a watch for fans of the Disney studio, and the filmmaking process.

Toy Story 4 is in cinemas now.