No longer bogged down in a squabble with former Disney exec Michael Eisner, Pixar finally gets moving on the long-awaited new chapter in the series
Credit: Everett Collection

The script’s still in process, and vocal stars Tom Hanks and Tim Allen haven’t recorded any dialogue yet. But after Disney and Pixar announced last week that Pixar is positively, absolutely making Toy Story 3, with a storyline shepherded by Little Miss Sunshine screenwriter Michael Arndt, the news ripped through media channels like Buzz Lightyear soaring on plastic wings.

”I wish I could give you [plot] details, but I can’t,” says director Lee Unkrich, who edited the earlier Toy films, and co-directed Toy Story 2 as well as Monsters, Inc. and Finding Nemo. (The Toy series’ main point man, John Lasseter, won’t be back as director, since he’s busy running animation at Pixar and Disney, but he’ll still exec produce.) Oh, c’mon, Lee — can you spill anything? ”I can say that among third installments, nobody wants another Bad News Bears Go To Japan.”

So what held things up so long? A feud. Back in the early 2000s, after Toy Story 2 grossed a quarter of a billion dollars in domestic theaters alone, ex-Disney chief Michael Eisner told Pixar he’d love to see a third installment. But it wouldn’t count toward Pixar’s multi-film contract with Disney, because it was a sequel. Pixar balked at those terms, so Eisner basically said, Fine. We own the underlying rights to Pixar’s characters, so we’ll make sequels without you.

”That was a bitter pill for us to swallow,” says Lee Unkrich. ”These characters are so close to our hearts. We created them, and we wanted to do [our own] Toy Story 3.”

Instead, Eisner commissioned an in-house computer animation wing called Circle 7 to work on a non-Pixar version of Toy Story 3. The proposed storyline, which was spun into a full working script by Meet the Parents scribe Jim Herzfeld, went like this: After a defective Buzz gets recalled to the Taiwanese factory that made him, the rest of the gang ship themselves to China via FedEx to rescue Buzz. They also help save a leggy, Linda Hamilton-esque tough gal named Jade, scheduled for destruction. (Click here for more of the backstory.)

But Jade never made it out of the script-and-storyboard phase. In fall 2005, Eisner left Disney. A few months later, Disney bought Pixar outright, and the CG studio quickly nixed the Disney version of Toy Story 3. ”The first order of business when Disney bought us was to get Toy Story 3 back in our hands,” says Unkrich. Did they roll over any of the Circle 7 personnel or ideas into their own team? ”We didn’t read their script,” says Unkrich. ”Not out of spite, but we wanted to start fresh, and not be influenced by what they’d done. We didn’t look at any of the work they’d done. We really didn’t want to know anything about it.”

For the past nine months, Unkrich has been working with Little Miss Sunshine screenwriter Arndt, along with Pixar’s ace in-house story-development artists. Coincidentally, the Sunshine scribe had been working with Pixar well before the movie — his first produced screenplay — broke out at the Sundance Film Festival last year.

Contrary to initial reports, Toy Story 3‘s tentative target release date, always subject to change, is not 2009 but 2010. Unkrich knows that’s a long wait, but hey, CG animation is time-intensive. Not that he hasn’t contemplated cheating. ”If we could just convince Tom Hanks and Tim Allen to don costumes and shoot this in live action,” he says, ”we could probably get it out a little earlier.”